Exclusive interview with Christina Watson, CEO of Via Afrika

1)    Let’s start with an overview of the history of Via Afrika and its products.
Via Afrika is a leading publisher of quality educational content in print and digital format. With over 65 years of experience in South Africa and other Southern African countries, our products meet the needs of learners from early childhood development to Grade 12, TVET (vocational) Levels 2 to 4, as well as for Adult Education and Training.

Our educational materials are used by thousands of learners and teachers country-wide. We are a truly South African company with a level 2 B-BBEE status and pride ourselves on the fact that we do all our production and printing locally.

In 2014, we embarked on the Via Afrika Digital Education Centres (VADEC) initiative. We have refurbished shipping containers and equipped them as digital training centres, supplying each with 15 first-tier Android tablet devices. These tablets are packed with the latest educational programs, apps, electronic textbooks and tools developed by Via Afrika. The pilot project has seen delivery of VADECs to a school in the Free State, one in Limpopo, and one in Mpumalanga.

Additionally, unlike so many similar initiatives which merely hand over the technology and walk away, Via Afrika entered into long-term agreements with the schools. These agreements ensure that educators receive on-going training in order to maximize the educational returns of these tablets for learners.

2)    Tell us about your new app, Via Afrika CareerCompass….
Via Afrika CareerCompass is a career guidance app that lets learners explore career opportunities based on the subjects they are taking or want to take, or based on the results of interest and aptitude tests built into the app. The tests were developed by experts in the field and give learners a very good indication of where their strengths lie. Over 300 careers are discussed in detail, with appropriate school subjects listed for each.

3)    Tell us about your Let’sRead app that is available in all 11 languages. – how important are the other languages when doing business in South Africa?
The Let’s Read app, available in all eleven of South Africa’s languages, showcases literature in a variety of genres. The app makes literature available to all cell phone users – even feature phone users. Thus, the app allows readers to access quality books in their mother tongues and contributes to the growth of available literature in all languages. .

We are very excited to take a leading role in providing accessible mother tongue literature to the whole of South Africa.

Via Afrika believes that producing content in the languages that our learners are most proficient in is of extreme importance. If we are serious about advancing education, we all need to support teaching in mother tongue languages.

4)    Last year you were named among Foreign Policy Magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2014 – congratulations, that is a huge honour…..
It was a great honour. But more importantly, I believe that the work that led to that honour highlights that digital education is a viable path for advancing education in South Africa. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not only a viable path, but a necessary one. This is why projects like The Gauteng Department of Basic Education’s paperless classrooms initiative are heartening to witness.

5)    What opportunities to do you see in the rest of Africa?
As Africa becomes more and more connected, we’re finding new ways to reach young audiences and develop burgeoning minds. Similar to the work we’re doing here in South Africa, we’re always looking for ways in which to develop educational content which is specific to particular countries’ curricula, but which also connects learners to the evermore globalised world.

6)    What is your vision for this industry?
There are many things that people can complain about in education. But I find working on the ground with teachers and learners is an energy drink. The will to improve, to grow and to embrace change is very strong out there. I want all in South Africa, not just those in the education sector, to see that they have an integral role to play in the process of building a better future for all.

At Via Afrika, following the success of the three Via Afrika Digital Education Centres we launched last year, we have decided to widen the programme. Many corporates are eager to put their CSI spend into assisting education, but a lack of reporting and accountability make it difficult to be sure that their investments are doing any good. Via Afrika is stepping into this gap to launch a venture that replicates the Via Afrika Digital Centres initiative through corporate sponsorship.
Our Digital Education Centres programme, which we do in partnership with the Department of Basic Education, offers a direct and clear system of monitoring in a way that very few other CSI initiatives can, because it is integrated with the school’s curriculum and assessment. We provide quarterly progress reports when terms’ results are made available. In addition, the Annual National Assessment (ANA) tests will provide independent assessment of the progress learners make after a Digital Education Centre is established at the school.

7)    What surprises you about the education sector?
Like I said; the will to improve against all odds. More than surprising me, it’s what inspires me most about the education sector.

8)    Why did you decide to partner with SABC Education African EduWeek?
We see this event as being an ideal opportunity to share our developments in elearning, and to learn about how education and technology can come together successfully to transform education. The broad range of visitors and exhibitors will provide a wealth of interaction possibilities that will lead to positive growth in education in Africa.

9)    What will be your message at the event?
Key to Via Afrika’s content development is that material – be it print or digital – must meet the needs of the user while changing the way they learn. Our elearning material aims at moving beyond only augmenting what happens in the classroom, to transforming the way education is practised.

Click here to check out many more exciting videos about Via Afrika’s projects and activities.


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