USF grad student works to improve education in Nigeria

(Left to right) Brent Caramanica, Ulixes Hawili, Phil Michaels, Samantha Taranto, Eric Biel and Sercan Topcu at the final award ceremony for the Hult Prize.  SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

A parent is the most important teacher for a child. Tembo Education Group, is a social enterprise. As described by Biel, “A social enterprise that has the heart of a non-profit, but is sustainable by being for-profit.”

Eric Biel, part-time graduate student at USF’s Muma College of Business, worked with five students from the University of Tampa (UT) to create Tembo, which means elephant in Swahili. Tembo distributes materials to participating parents through text messages and trained local advisers.

Tembo sends home educators to a participant’s home once a week, where they role-play with the parent the activities for that week. Then each day, the parent receives a text message with a reminder of that day’s activity. Later that day, they receive a quiz to review the material and make sure they are teaching the child correctly.

“For example, (on) Tuesdays a parent will have a home educator come to their house, and they’ll role-play for about an hour with five different activities covering the four domains of learning,” Biel said. “It’ll be age appropriate, so if you have a 2-year-old child then you’d be receiving activities for your 2 year old.”

Activities include learning about shapes and colors, reading and telling stories, solving simple logic problems and generally preparing children for school. According to testimonies on, the program improves children’s speech and reading, along with improving their interest in learning. 

Tembo was started as part of the Hult Prize Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to solving social issues. As a partnership between Hult International Business School and the Clinton Global Initiative, the Hult Prize presents a yearly social challenge as selected by former President Bill Clinton and offers $1 million to the winning start-up. According to, the “President’s Challenge” is intended to be solved through the creation of student start-ups for social good.

This year’s prompt was to find a way to expand early childhood education in urban slums around the world. Tembo was the youngest and only U.S. team to reach the finals, making it’s way through a competition held at UT in November and the San Francisco Regionals in March. They beat 20,000 teams, including eight Ivy League schools, to win first place at regional finals.

After they placed in regionals, parts of the Tembo team went to Nigeria to set up the program in 19 different areas in Lagos, Nigeria.

While they did not win at finals in New York on Sept. 26, the team plans to continue their work on the company, hoping to spread Tembo throughout Sub-Saharan Africa which includes Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Liberia according to the Tampa Tribune. According to Tembo’s website, they currently reach 5,520 children.

Biel said Tembo’s goal is to educate 10 million children in the next five years. While the program started in Nigeria with 45 children, Tembo hopes to spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Biel said they picked the region for two reasons: Nigeria is the fastest growing mobile phone industry in the world and there’s a birth rate of 5.5 children per mother, which is the fourth highest in the world. 

“It’s got incredible growth and incredible need so that’s why we targeted Nigeria, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa as our initial target market because we need to have continuation of growth, because how the program will work is the parents running the program have the opportunity to become home educators themselves,” Biel said. “So, it’s not just an educational impact, there’s an economic impact as well.”

Tembo drew inspiration from and formed a partnership with Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), a program based at USF where Biel has worked for the past nine years. HIPPY helps parents create positive learning environments for home-based learning in 14 countries around the world over the past 45 years.

According to Biel, the biggest difference between Tembo and HIPPY is the focused age group. While HIPPY works with children ages between 3 and 5, Tembo is a prenatal program that extends until the child reaches age 6.

“Tembo has a partnership with HIPPY and it just made me even more excited because of the magnitude of impact we’re going to be able to have,” Biel said. “I was very excited in order to take the efforts and multiply them tenfold.”

HIPPY and Tembo are working on an app that will make the process easier for both the parents and also the children involved with the program by providing more resources and making interactive activities. 

Though Biel works behind the scene rather than out in the field, he sees the impact projects like Tembo and HIPPY make on the underdeveloped areas of the world.

“Working with this program for so long, you get to see the impact it has on the families the parents, the children, the communities, and you start seeing how you’re actually making a change,” Biel said. “That’s something that I value.

“I get to see the success stories that come in and those success stories are what allows me to link myself as though I’m in the field. I get to read the successes that the program’s having which are just amazing stories that come in.”