Forbes Exclusive: Abwaab Cofounders Hamdi Tabbaa, Sabri Hakim, And Hussein AlSarabi On Tackling The Education Accessibility Issue For 160M Students In MENAP

Abwaab edtech platform, cofounders Hamdi Tabbaa, Sabri Hakim, and Hussein AlSarabi.
Abwaab edtech platform, cofounders Hamdi Tabbaa, Sabri Hakim, and Hussein AlSarabi.

In September 2019, just six months before the pandemic hit the Middle East, entrepreneurs Sabri Hakim, Hussein AlSarabi, and Hamdi Tabbaa launched edtech Abwaab in their home market of Jordan, aiming to disrupt after-school tutoring by providing a platform where school students could learn, ask and solve questions, compete with each other, and track their progress and performance. It was a timely bet. Back then, no one could have predicted the challenges that the pandemic would pose for the 160 million school students across the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan (MENAP), creating an urgent need for innovative solutions to support remote learning and distance education.

The company closed its first external funding round in March 2020—a $2.4 million pre-seed round with investment from Adam Tech Ventures, Endure Capital, Equitrust, and the World Bank-backed Innovative Startups SMEs Fund, along with several former and current executives from Uber and Netflix. In 2021, Abwaab bagged another $5.1 million seed, followed by a $20 million Series A, bringing its total funding to $27.8 million.

As well as enticing investors, it’s also a favorite among students. Abwaab was the number one rated app on the Play Store across all categories in Jordan in October 2022, rating higher than Snapchat and TikTok for a week. In Egypt, Abwaab was ranked the number one app in education for four consecutive weeks, according to the founders.

Students are a key focus for Abwaab. The pandemic highlighted how many children in rural areas are without access to computers or high-speed internet, putting them at more risk of falling behind than those with digital access, according to the World Bank. With this in mind, Abwaab launched its Equal Access to Learning (EquAL) social impact initiative in May 2022, which aims to provide a million vulnerable children in MENAP with high-quality education by 2025. Through strategic partnerships, including with the Children of War Foundation, donors, and the private sector, Abwaab is facilitating access to its online platform by providing tablets and data packages. The cofounders say that students are already showing a 35% improvement in their academic performance.

The three entrepreneurs behind the scenes were seasoned in startups well before launching their own. Hakim is a former general manager at Careem for the Levant region. AlSarabi was previously the director of technology and product development at online Arabic content publisher Mawdoo3. And Tabbaa is a former general manager of Uber for the GCC and Levant. Hakim and Tabbaa remember competing “head-to-head” for almost five years, from 2015 to the end of 2019. “We knew of each other before, but we got closer as a product of this fierce competition,” explains Tabbaa, Cofounder and CEO of Abwaab.

In 2018, Tabbaa had set up the “Jordan Entrepreneurship & Innovation Association”, along with a group of Jordanian entrepreneurs to create an official hub that connects and supports Jordanian talent. Tabbaa was first introduced to AlSarabi, Cofounder and CTO of Abwaab, through the founder of Mawdoo3, during one of the meetings of that organization. “He was like, you’ve been running Uber for about four to five years, you’ve done great things, what’s the next big thing for you?” recalls Tabbaa. “I told him I’d been thinking deeply about venturing into education, given the potential impact it can create, but I wouldn’t start something before finding the right cofounder since I didn’t have any technical background. He told me he had the perfect guy for me.”

Besides working with Mawdoo3, AlSarabi, with 10 years of experience under his belt, had already incubated a startup called Instructit in the edtech space, which was seed funded by Adam Tech, the VC arm of Mawdoo3. “I have always been invested in education. I have personal experience in training, teaching and producing cohorts of learners in a multitude of topics and fields,” he explains. “Right before Abwaab, I worked on my own EdTech startup—a white-label Software as a Service product, providing trainers and educators with the ability to create their own branded online websites and courses.”

When introduced to Tabbaa, AlSarabi felt he was at a crossroads in his career and had been thinking about his next move in the edtech space, so he decided to take a leap. The pair established Abwaab in September 2019. Hakim, Cofounder and COO of Abwaab, who had become gradually closer to Tabbaa as they crossed paths in the region’s ride-hailing market, was still at Careem at the time but worked closely with the team as an advisor until he joined full-time in the summer of 2020.

The cofounders looked at the regional edtech space, with thousands of platforms already up and running across so many different verticals, and decided to focus on the $20 billion after-school tutoring market. Realizing that the region was lagging in terms of user-generated content, they wanted to ensure that their academic concept was properly delivered. “We realized that if we wanted to build an edtech startup that stands out, we needed to build something credible and reliable that the students can rely on,” says Tabbaa. They used what they had learned from their previous startups to create the foundations of Abwaab—their first-ever product was based on the codebase and technology that AlSarabi built in his first startup.

In the first five months, the cofounders focused on designing their minimal viable product (MVP), working closely with students and parents to build the platform’s product and content. They started in Jordan, focusing on the national K-12 curriculums, providing lessons for math and science, and bringing in content creators, tutors, and teaching assistants kicking off with high-quality production lessons. Lessons are broken down into concept-based parts, each explained in six or eight-minute videos. Abwaab’s first product was launched in Jordan on February 2, 2020.

Then, as the pandemic hit the Middle East, everything changed. On March 13, 2020—the eve of AlSarabi’s wedding—Jordan announced that it was about to step into a full lockdown. The cofounders quickly realized that the online programs on offer did not represent the level of wide-scale technology deployment that the country would need. The next day, Tabbaa visited the Minister of Education to pitch Abwaab’s MVP. “He told us today is Saturday, and on Monday, we’re going to shut down schools. You guys need to come out with something live to compensate for the school shutdown,” remembers Tabbaa.

The lockdown was enforced two days later. Abwaab built a platform for the government in cooperation with other startups, including Edraak, Mawdoo3, and JoAcademy. They quickly scaled their content operations, hired a team, and executed their plans for the next three months. The entire team stayed together in hotel rooms next to the office for the whole period of the program.

Abwaab transitioned back to its original model in the summer of 2020—a direct-to-consumer, subscription-based B2C product, offering a hyper-localized experience for every country that matches what is offered through the national curriculum. “It’s a very simple model. We don’t want to burden students with a lot of choices. This is our philosophy,” says Tabbaa. “The long-term product vision for us to stay in the lead is to build a learning platform that leverages the power of machine learning and AI to curate a personalized learning experience for every student based on their own learning ability and learning pace.”

At the time, the region was still moving with slow yet steady steps toward digital adoption. “Our region has an incredibly bright future for edtech. You can easily say that digital transformation will shape the future of education, something that stakeholders in the global education ecosystem realize the importance of,” says Mohmmed El Sonbaty, Founder and CEO of Egyptian edtech platform Educatly. “However, the region is still not at the top frontier from a digitalization point of view, and that by itself presents enormous challenges for the entire sector. The good thing is there is a good level of awareness of the stagnation of the current educational ecosystem on a global level, and we see a lot of opportunities arise with the positive evolution of startups and entrepreneurship in the region.”

To facilitate the payment process across the underbanked region, Abwaab has partnerships with various local payment providers, including Fawry and Vodafone Cash in Egypt, JazzCash in Pakistan, Zain Cash in Iraq, and MadaPay in Saudi Arabia. However, they are facing some challenges. “Despite the number of Fintech startups out there and the number of attempts to open digital wallet payment systems, it’s not enough to empower and enable startups like us to aggressively push through online payments only,” explains Tabbaa. As such, Abwaab is also trying to collaborate with other channels to operate offline payments. “We’re basically trying to be as local as possible and to make it as seamless as possible for students to pay,” adds the cofounder.

There’s still a long way to go for the edtech sector to reach maturity in the region, according to Educatly’s El Sonbaty. “I absolutely think that we are still just scratching the surface of capitalization in the edtech market here. And with the wide-scale technology adoption we saw, particularly after COVID-19, we will definitely witness a radical change to the educational ecosystem globally in the near future,” he adds. To give a bit of benchmarking, El Sonbaty notes that on a global level, one of the closest markets in market value to the $5 trillion education market is the $6 trillion healthcare market. However, the capitalization of companies in healthcare is about $10 trillion but in education is only $200 billion globally.

Since being established in Jordan less than three years ago, Abwaab has expanded into Egypt, Iraq, and, most recently, into Saudi Arabia. It has also taken its first step into the wider Asian market by acquiring Ed-Matrix, a Pakistan-based social e-learning platform, in July 2021, for an undisclosed sum. According to the founders, Abwaab has also received a number of offers for collaborations in Southeast Asia, but they have their eyes focused on covering their home region first.

As for the future, they remain committed to providing learning experiences and after-school direct-to-consumer tutoring, as they believe it’s a lucrative market. However, they are open to venturing into more government educational programs if the chance presents itself. “We are always open to collaboration with certain governments if they are open enough and progressive enough to actually collaborate with an edtech startup,” says Tabbaa.

Despite the success Abwaab has witnessed so far, the founders claim they are yet to realize their vision. However, with every milestone they pass, they believe “the stars are aligning” for them—a phrase Hakim uses a lot. “You’re not going to change education, one of the oldest foundations of how our world works, overnight,” Hakim adds. “It will take decades to create the change we’ve set out to make.”

Source: Forbes Middle East, Rawan Hassan, found here


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