Despite a high degree of cultural and linguistic homogeneity, the economies and societies of the MENA region vary hugely in terms of wealth and government structure, running from Gulf monarchies such as Qatar, which has the highest GDP per capita and income per capita in the world, to republics such as Yemen, the poorest country in the region and one of the most undeveloped places on the earth. These differences extend to the degree of adoption of new teaching methodology and technology

Using interactive whiteboard penetration as a measure of adoption of new educational technology, one sees the trend of higher spending in Gulf Arab countries continued. The highest classroom penetration in the Middle East is found in the UAE, according to Futuresource, where 25 per cent of classrooms have interactive whiteboards. In Saudi Arabia, penetration is around 9 per cent, while the highest degree of usage in North Africa is found in Egypt, where just 1 per cent of classrooms use interactive whiteboards.

Spending on ICT technology in the public education sector is on the rise in the region, according to Futuresource. The total value of interactive whiteboards sold in the region is projected to rise to E37.3m in 2011 from E29.2m in 2010, with similar increases forecast for projectors and mobile computers.

Vendor experiences

Vendors polled for this paper say that to date, they have largely focused on sales into the Gulf Arab states and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. Barriers to entering other regions and countries include a combination of budget constraints and lower levels of private-sector participation in the education sector, the difficulty of doing business, and language barriers, particularly in Francophone North African states.

Even in the Gulf, vendors find that centralised public sector tender systems tend to exclude considerations of technological advancement of ICT offerings, the technical support offered by vendors and the ability to upgrade at a future date. A particular concern for vendors of interactive whiteboard and response technology provided by the market leaders Promethean and SMART is the emergence of East Asian firms which are capable of offering lower prices for high volume tenders.

Meanwhile, vendors tend to break educational institutions clients down into three broad categories: state sector schools, private international schools, immigrant-labour schools, and higher education institutions. The first three categories can be further divided into primary and secondary education, with uptake in secondary schools seen as significantly higher than in institutions dedicated to key stages 1-2, although as of the time of writing no reliable data existed to back up this assertion.

With each category comes a series of opportunities and pitfalls. Public school institutions offer the greatest potential to vendors, as procurement is generally conducted centrally by education ministries. However, the tender process can be lengthy, cumbersome and costly with no guarantee that a contract will be made. Some vendors have started to focus on building relationships with individual schools, however, as discretionary purchases are made during the school year to replace or add to existing equipment.

A further barrier to sales to state institutions tend to come down to differences in curriculum and language. Around 80 per cent of all classes in MENA state schools are taught in Arabic – or French in Francophone countries, and Farsi in Iran – and state curricula tend to be highly individualised. This means that content has to be translated into Arabic and software based on widely-used teaching programmes has to be adapted for individual states, increasing development costs for products which in many cases can only be sold into a single market.

To date, vendors have had the most success with international and private schools, which tend to make purchases at a local level, have higher budgets than other primary or secondary level institutions, and tend to follow international trends in education and widely used curricula most closely. However, the volume of purchases made by these schools tend to be far lower than for state-sector institutions, and relationships between schools and vendors require a far higher level of management.

The third category covers schools set up to educate the children of lower-income expatriates, and tend to be set up to cater to the curriculum of immigrants’ country of origin. In the Gulf in particular, there are a number of schools for the children of Indian and Pakistani immigrants. These schools present a significant potential market which has been little exploited to date, but come with the pitfalls of both public schools and international private schools – highly specific curricula, the requirement for translation, and relatively low sales volumes – along with highly constrained budgets.

Higher education establishments, meanwhile, have the biggest per-student budgets but have entirely different requirements to primary and secondary schools, with lecture halls and lab-based teaching reducing requirements for the primary technologies used in education. However, for vendors of advanced research and computer equipment the higher education market presents probably the most lucrative opportunity in the region, with many institutions willing and able to regularly replace equipment in order to remain at the cutting edge of the latest technology.

MENA region technology trends

While MENA region presents a significant opportunity for vendors of existing ICT education equipment and software, the infrastructure in some parts of the region is already in place to allow for the swift uptake of the next wave of technology, such as cloud computing and mobile phone technology.

Internet penetration in MENA is above the global average, with around 33.5 per cent of the population regularly accessing the internet as of 30 June 2011 according to Internet World Stats. The region has around 16.1 million Facebook users – around 7.4 per cent of the total population.

Penetration and use of social networking varies from country to country, with  Qatar (66.5 per cent internet)  showing the highest level of access to the internet compared to Iraq (2.8 per cent) displaying the lowest. The UAE, meanwhile, has the highest level of social media usage, with 45.5 per cent of Emiratis population regularly accessing Facebook compared to 1.4 per cent of Yemenis. 

The region also has a significantly high level of mobile phone users, with mobile phone penetration topping 193.5 per cent in the UAE and 165.5 per cent in Saudi Arabia. Around 45 per cent of those who own a mobile phone using it to access the internet, according to the polling service Effective Measure. Of those mobile internet users, 85% have downloaded apps for their smartphones and 57 per cent planned to buy a tablet computer.

These trends present a significant opportunity for technology firms working on smartphone and cloud computing applications for the education sector. US internet giant Google is particularly keen in attracting business in the region and offers apps for both cloud computing and mobile phone use free to customers, with all of its content translated into Arabic. The interest of firms like Google, and the use of social networking sites like Facebook are a potential danger for many firms established in the sector, as they have completely different revenue models to the traditional players in the educational technology market.

Future spending plans

Although no specific research has been conducted into planned increases in spending on technology in the education sector in the MENA region, it is broadly projected to increase in line with overall government spending on technology. The US’ IDC, a leading firm in ICT market research, forecasts that regional spending on ICT will grow by 10.7 per cent, although expansionary budgets in the Gulf region in particular could see this number reach 15 per cent.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2010 that it planned to revamp most state-run classrooms at a cost of $1bn-plus, although vendors say that they are yet to receive details of tenders for the ICT element of this programme.

Meanwhile, current fears over the global economy may see many private institutions cut back or delay plans to buy new or equipment in 2011 as they wait to see if the fiscal crisis in Europe and worrying signals of a new downturn in the US play out, given the impact that the crisis of 2008-2009 had on the sector.