MALI takes on the market [Archives:2004/756/Business & Economy]

July 19 2004

Everybody knows that to enter into the modern world of business or to grab the most coveted jobs in Yemen, learning English as a second language (ESL) is a must. With thousands of students following the trend, over a hundred ESL schools are now operating in Sana'a alone. Schools trying to break into the market also have to face the Yemen-America Language Institute (YALI), which is backed by the US Embassy and consistently holds on to the largest enrollment of ESL students in the country. Fighting for a place in a flooded market with YALI still the dominant player, many schools have found it difficult to survive.
But Mazen Luqman, founder and director of the Modern American Language Institute (MALI), has found a way to take on the challenge. Developing unique strategies, MALI has created its own niche that will boost growth and take a larger share of the market.
“With our experience and examining the market closer, we have shifted our strategy towards focusing on adding more education products,” said Luqman to Yemen Times. “We are creating more value-added products that can make an institute more than an average ESL school. It is more than just teaching English.”
In May, MALI, established in 1995 and the second largest English school in Yemen, became the first institute to be accredited by the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). MALI will teach, offer exams and give diplomas to students in ESL, business administration, office management, travel and tourism and information technology (IT) starting next September. By the end of the year, the language center is likely to offer more in business, including project management.
“We are delighted to announce that the Modern American Language Institute has become a registered center and look forward to a long and productive relationship which will be of great benefit to students throughout the region,” said Paul Lewis, CIE director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Students that reach a certain level in English will be given a chance to enter courses preparing for the exams. If they pass, students will carry with them qualifications that are recognized by institutions and corporations worldwide. As for MALI, it will be able to retain students and increase its customer base.
“Virtually every country in the world recognizes Cambridge exams,” said Luqman. “We will be the corridor, like a fast highway link to the University of Cambridge, so students don't have to go to England, Cairo or Dubai to take exams.”
Luqman's vision of adding business exams and diplomas came from seeing Yemen in need of skills training. Many companies operating in Yemen have found that employees, even if they have graduated in business at a local university, have not received proper training.
“If you look closely at the Yemeni job market, you will find that many companies complain that employees lack skills,” said Luqman. “For example, finding a good executive secretary, office manager or marketing people is difficult. Most companies that can afford it usually get them from abroad. What we want to do is bridge the gap by training potential Yemeni employees for job skills.”
Robert Hindle, country manager of the World Bank and based in Yemen, believes that MALI made the right move.
“Essentially, what MALI is doing is filling the gap in what can be broadly called vocational training,” said Hindle. “There is a gap in the market. If you look at what has gone on in terms of the government efforts for skills training, it has not focused on what MALI will offer or has not been enormously successful or cost effective.”
Yemenis wanting to enter the tourist industry are also in need of training.
“There is a bigger need for travel and tourism training for skilled employees to fill the jobs,” said Luqman. “There are not enough Yemenis that have filled the positions, and many employees are imported.”
MALI had already developed its IT department before being accredited by CIE. It put in place a computer lab with over 20 computers available to students and offered IT training back in 1997. This year, it hired more IT teachers and the number of students seeking IT training reached up to 70. MALI expects enrollment in the IT department to exceed 100 in the next few months.
The language center has also put more energy into developing its Arabic program. Even though MALI offered to teach the Arabic language since it started up in the mid-nineties, the department remained dormant while most attention was given to ESL. But since the attacks on US soil on September 11, 2001, more students in the West have shown an interest in Arabic.
To draw more students to its Arabic program, MALI recently sent representatives to universities abroad, restructured its marketing strategy and slashed its prices by 70%.
“Our Arabic language department is the most profitable department in the school,” said Luqman. “Clients are from a higher income sector, willing to pay much more than local students studying English. And after September 11, we've noticed an increased interest in learning Arabic, including diplomats, academics and people that have a general interest in the customs and people in the Middle East.”
A little over a year ago, less than 10 students enrolled in MALI's Arabic program. Now there are roughly 50 students studying Arabic, and the institute predicts that there will be over 100 by the end of the year.
Luqman is also looking beyond Sana'a to expand. MALI has been operating a language center in Aden since 2002. In the last two years, MALI has put more effort into attracting students at its Aden branch: Student enrollment jumped from 100 in 2002 to 400 this summer.
But MALI will not stop there. Luqman has plans to open a center in Taiz in six months, followed by Ibb and Mukalla by 2006. Cambridge exams will be implemented in Aden next year and will also be available for students at the schools in the other major cities.
Capturing the market in Dubai is also on MALI's agenda. With a vast number of Western expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates, MALI is aiming to pull them in to learn the Arabic language.
“When it comes to expansion, we need a regional presence,” said Luqman. “This will help the credibility of the Yemen Arabic program in the eyes of Westerners, universities, teachers and students coming from abroad because of Dubai's importance as an international business hub.”
Luqman's plan includes students learning basic grammar skills in Dubai, then becoming immersed in using Arabic in Yemen.
“Yemen will be the place to apply what the students have learned in Dubai,” said Luqman.
MALI also plans to stick to one strategy that has helped it stand out in the Yemeni market. Since it began, it has always had one of the highest number of native English speakers teaching ESL, something that has not been easy for students to find at other schools.
“It has never been easy recruiting native English teachers. There is a negative image of Yemen through the international media and there is fear among foreigners living here,” said Luqman. “But we often go abroad to recruit them, advertise aggressively and help them handle the stresses of living in Yemen by offering accommodations, travel arrangements and give them free Arabic lessons. We spice up the package.”
Over the last two years, MALI's revenue has increased 28% annually. But its unique plans to offer more products that fit the needs of the students and to expand across Yemen should show even better results in the near future.
“MALI is a groundbreaking institute looking at the market differently than its competitors,” said Luqman. “We're looking at training as a big picture rather than through the narrow vision of ESL only. Our goal is to make a bigger profit and reinvest it in expansion. Therefore, our products will reach a wider number of students, ending up with more students than any other ESL school.”