Paul Mugambi is the CEO of Kytabu a platform for micro-leasing of digital books and education content powered by digital payments.

With about 20 years’ experience in telecommunications engineering, product development and innovation, Paul worked as a senior consultant in product development for Econet wireless, Zimbabwe where he hlped roll out solutions in health and as a Senior Manager in charge of digital inclusion at Safaricom in Kenya where he helped roll out award winning products in education, health, green energy, agriculture. Prior to that Paul led the content docket at the value added services department at Safaricom with solutions like Skiza being some of the products.

Paul is an active member of the innovation space in Kenya and he was instrumental in the creation and the launch of Safaricom Academy a partnership with Strathmore University in offering Master’s degree in telecommunication and application development.


Q: Could you please briefly describe your organisation?

Kytabu is a start up in education, focused on content creation, content aggregation and distribution.

Content aggregation means digitalising books from publishers and uploading them to our platform Kytabu. On the platform, you can find digital books, audio books, educative games, third party applications that develop learning, tests and exams. The exams are mostly past exams which we make interactive, in particular for primary schools, where most tests are multiple choice.

In terms of content distribution, Kytabu has a pay-as-you-go system which is designed for low income families in Kenya. You can also lease a book for a day or a year. Even if you lease the whole book in digital form for a year, it is still cheaper than buying a physical printed book.

Kytabu has been online for a few months now since march 2016.

Though we are focused on education at the moment, we are growing in other sectors. We are currently developing a mobile application for our electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, following a call to tender we initiated.

Our philosophy is not learning for the sake of learning and that there is not one uniform way of learning. Tonee Ngundu, the company’s founder and CIO, is dyslexic and learned in a different way than most. We want there to be different ways, different speed, different focuses of learning to adapt to the child and not the child to the system.


Q: In most countries, textbooks are marginally changed on a yearly basis to guarantee a steady revenue stream for the publisher. If I were a publisher, why would I agree to put it onto Kytabu?

Publishers actually make more money because they access a whole new market which would have never bought their books in the first place. Because the book is in digital format, the marginal cost of production is zero for the publisher so, this new market only generates benefits.

It is true that over time, the traditional market base which buys books physically will probably mainly change over to our system. But with the volumes generated by this new market, the publishers still win. It is similar to mobile operators in Kenya. The earning patterns of low income Kenyans – which is most people - are erratic so they will never buy anything that requires a lump sum initial payment. For their mobile phone, they pay as they go, same now for their books.

Furthermore, publishers are facing an issue collecting money from book vendors. In Kenya, books are bought at specific times of the year. Book vendors ask for their books on credit but many of these vendors do not pay the credit back to the publishers, which means publishers need to hire debt collectors. All these costs don’t exist with using our platform.


Q: You talk about the relevance of knowledge on your website. Today a lot of people in education are questioning the definition of what is relevant and true[1]. How do you decide on what is relevant?

We’ve been struggling too. Our philosophy is that children today need out of the box thinking. Most if not all industries have changed over the last 100 years, even the last 20. One area that hasn’t changed is education. How do you change education? How do you make education fun?

We use the same curriculum as the government but we make it more engaging and much more fun. For instance, we create animation around books instead of just reading. We introduce augmented reality. In our office, we have an animation and video studio where we don’t film teachers but children of the age of the student the video is addressed to explaining the content, because that makes it more relevant

We then add supplementary content which is out of the curriculum so that we can help foster curiosity so that students don’t just learn the curriculum by heart to pass exams, but realise that there is more, that education is modular and depends on your own investment. When I worked in telecommunication at Safaricom and wanted to hire an engineer. I found that few could think outside the box but those were the ones I hired. I want more children and more adults to have that ability.

To define the content, we add, we work with teachers, and in our team we do a lot of research ourselves to understand what knowledge is trending and seems relevant. Every holiday, we hold bootcamps for kids and train them on coding (using scratch) then we give them an assignment, build a game at the end of the week.


Q: What does a 21st century Kenyan need to learn? Is it different than 20 years ago or when you were a child (or when your father taught because I believe he was a teacher himself)?

A child needs to be able to answer the question: “What can you do?” instead of being able to answer the question “What do you know?”. They need to discover where their strengths are and what they can do. We live in a world of too many theorists but we need more practical creators, and problem solvers.

I studied engineering and I remember my electro-magnetism class. The way the subject was taught is too dry. It was taught purely theoretically and It was have greatly helped to know simply why we were learning this. Later, I learnt that in Kenya, conmen use M-Pesa from prison to gain access to people’s accounts and defraud them from prison. Electromagnetic shields can be used to make cell phones useless in the prison and fight “confidence fraud”.

The way I learned was all about theory and then we got tested on knowing the theory. Today, we need to know the theory in a way to be able to apply it and actually apply it during your schooling so that by the end, you know what you can and cannot do.


Q: Automation is predicted to perhaps destroy up to 80% of jobs worldwide in the next few decades. If these predictions are accurate, as an employer in the IT sector – which is particularly prone to automation – what are your thoughts on this topic?

I believe people will figure it out and that we will develop other jobs, other sectors of industry and economy.


Q: Do you believe is living through a societal change? If so, how do you define it?

Yes, I believe so. There is definitely a faster pace of technology adoption. We are bombarded by cutting age technology but they are finished plug and play products.

This is changing our lifestyle very quickly. In rural areas, people live together, the land is communally owned. With the advent of technology and education, kids move to urban areas. Parents no longer have their children to help them with the farming when they grow old. Our traditional social structure is being dismantled. I feel it has gotten to a point where it has become difficult to trace what was and is the African culture. We had values, an identity and a cultural heritage.

I feel I have become a clone of just another guy from the First World. I’m just like you. In this process, I maybe have lost my values, the values my grandparents stood for. We had so many traditions: the bath of child, naming a child, we had so many functions and small celebrations. During harvest season, we would celebrate in a particular way, including that having sex, which would have an impact on the country’s birth rate. We had more solidarity. I have family members in town who live 30 minutes away from my home but haven’t talked to for 5 years. We just send “Happy Birthday” on Whatsapp groups. One of my sisters live in London, a cousin in Canada.

When we meet as a group, there is this feeling of recognition of who we really are. I believe we are losing something of value. The world is becoming uniform and that is not interesting. As a foreigner, you are here in this café with me and the menu is similar to most of what you would find anywhere in the world. You’re not able to try Kenyan food.

A lot of our problems are solved through technology but there is a high-priced trade-off. And I am also creating this change because recently I proposed that my mother move to the city with me so she can live an easier life that the one she is leading in the country.

What we are living today are results of decisions made 20 years ago. We ourselves are now responsible for future effects but have real difficulties understanding what those will be. Therefore, it is difficult to know what to do today. We understand and are living with the effects of these past decisions but do not know always the causes and our decisions today - the causes of tomorrow - will have unplanned effects. So, the better we understand ourselves and the more we explicit our thinking, the better decisions we make and the clearer things will be to live with the consequences down the line.


[1] As discussed with John Hunter in my interview with him for example.