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Enko Education Investments Matches Money With Passion

Eric Pignot and Cyrille Nkontchou from Enko Education Investments is finding investment opportunities in unexpected places.

Monique Verduyn

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Eric Pignot

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South Africa’s education system is often described as being in crisis, so it’s encouraging to know that a start-up led by founders with impressive business credentials has committed to making a difference.

Enko Education Investments (EEI) – founded by Cameroonian Cyrille Nkontchou, a seasoned entrepreneur who holds an MBA from Harvard, and French-born Eric Pignot, a former management consultant with an MBA from MIT Sloan – has set out to build a large network of private schools that serve the emerging middle class. Given the gap in the market, it’s also a great business opportunity.

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Drawn by Possibility

Pignot, COO of the company, left a successful career in the European telecoms industry to build a business model that invests in existing private schools and helps them achieve their full potential.

“There is zero to 1% growth in Europe at the moment,” he says. “I had enough of helping companies to downsize and cut costs. I wanted to do something that enabled meaningful business growth. There is nowhere better than Africa to do that right now, and South Africa is the perfect springboard for the rest of the continent.”

It was as part of MIT Sloan’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab), which links students with entrepreneurs in emerging markets, that Pignot met Nkontchou. They had in common a wish to use technology to help improve access to high-quality education in Africa.

Together, they devised a plan to provide investors with opportunities to invest in private education, which was launched in 2013. EEI has since formed its first partnership with Amazing Grace Private School in Randburg, which has 260 learners.

When Pignot and his team approached the founder, they discovered that the school had financial difficulties. As a result of the partnership, the school has benefited from better management and financial controls. It has also moved to more affordable premises.

Innovation at Work

“We apply business-minded thinking to the education environment,” says Pignot.

“There are many private schools targeted at the previously disadvantaged, so there is no need to create more schools. What is lacking is professionalism, which is where Enko comes in. Teachers and school founders are generally not entrepreneurially minded. By giving them access to more affordable finance, as well as the management skills needed to run a business, we can help them to scale and become more profitable.”

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The profitability of partner schools is critical to the EEI business model. Pignot aims to build a network of 50 schools, comprising 20 000 learners across the continent. It’s this network that will provide EEI investors with a healthy return on investment. Doing good is great, but investors want to see returns too.

Overcoming Early Challenges

For EEI to achieve its goal, school founders have to be willing to accept that the growth and long-term sustainability of a business requires the owner to relinquish total control, and apply more of an entrepreneurial approach to attracting investment.

To gain parents’ trust, which is not easy for a new organisation, Pignot spends a lot of time communicating the benefits of the partnership, as well as the legitimacy of EEI. One of the main advantages for leaners is the curriculum on offer, which is the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme.

This equips them with an international diploma that is recognised by top universities on the continent and around the world.

Pignot and his team are proving that a creative, socially responsible business can offer investors a solid return, while doing something positive for the future of the country.

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“The private sector can offer the education system improved quality, systems and innovation,” he says.

“There are many sectors where this type of thinking can be applied. It’s a question of discovering the opportunities the continent has to offer, and then making the most of them.”

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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