Cape Town - RLabs (Reconstructed Living Lab) started as an idea for a once-off project, part of a PhD thesis. That was six years ago. The thesis is still under way, but the project has since changed the lives of tens of thousands of people around the world.
Marlon Parker, 36, is the founder of RLabs. The company is described as a social enterprise, and is an example of how needs in the community can be addressed by using technology.
The Athlone-based centre focuses on skills and training, community development, mobile and internet solutions, social enterprise incubation, impact investing and social franchising.
Since inception, the RLabs model has been replicated in 21 countries, it has incubated 22 social enterprises, and employs 70 people – most of them in Cape Town. More than four million people have accessed support services through the company.
In the past three years, it has offered about 20 000 scholarships. Of those, between 1 500 to 2 000 a year have been awarded in Cape Town. More than R20 million has been invested in training and education, says Parker.
For many, this kind of success would mean moving the business to a trendy location. But Parker and his team are adamant that they need to stay in the community they serve to be most effective and relevant. They emphasise the importance of being visible in the community, so they are able to showcase the positive role models coming from the area.
“We are a movement for the people, by the people… We want to change perceptions about the Cape Flats. There are amazing things and people on the Flats. We’re celebrating those people,” says Parker.
The story starts in 2008 while Parker was an IT lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). He ran a project for a small group of former gangsters and drug users from Bridgetown, Athlone. Parker chose this area because he grew up in nearby Silvertown. They were trained by Parker in how to use social media for social change. The group created The Reconstructed blog, where they shared their stories with the world.
Parker, who came from a poor family and had been career oriented until then, came to a realisation that would change his path: “People don’t remember those who had great careers. They remember those who leave a legacy. While climbing the corporate ladder, you trample on people and leave them behind. For me the question was, how many people can I take with me.”
So he started with the “most unlikely group of misfits” from his home town.
“There was no big business plan. I simply wanted to help one person spread a message of hope. Then it escalated. Before we knew it, we were running a training academy.”
Clinton Liederman, 37, was part of the original group of misfits. He is now responsible for HR administration and social franchising. This means he travels abroad and sets up programmes in other countries, something he never would have imagined doing.
He had been involved in drugs, gangs and a lifestyle fuelled by crime for nine years. Liederman, along with the same group he used to do drugs with, decided to quit that lifestyle and went to rehab.They received counselling at the Bridgetown-based Impact Direct Centre. This is where he met Parker.
After doing the course with Parker, they also started doing counselling work at Impact Direct. He realised the huge demand for counselling in substance abuse, HIV, bereavement, and trauma.
“Parents would sit at the offices with their children from 8am to midnight, waiting to be helped. So many wanted help, but we could only do so much,” says Liederman.
Mobile counselling was the answer. It would be among the first of RLabs’ programmes.
Liederman, supported by RLabs, trained the same counsellors who helped them, in how to use technology. Rae Goedeman, then nearing her 60s, didn’t even know how to send an email. Her daughter lived in Ireland, and couldn’t understand why her mother never replied to her emails.
“I never told her I didn’t know how,” says Goedeman. During her training, she surprised her daughter with her first ever email. “I was so proud of myself. I connected with the outside world.”
Once the women were au fait with the technology, the mobile chat platforms were used for counselling. People can access counselling via Mxit, and the reach has expanded from Athlone all the way across Africa.
Parker’s wife Rene is the managing director at RLabs. She says most of the people attending the courses are women, and their ages range from 18 to 84. She has seen first-hand how lives have been transformed by the introduction of technology.
“People need hope. Technology is just a tool,” says Rene.
Rene says the elderly are often the ones left behind while others ride the wave of technology. This is why they started the Senior Mobile Sessions (SMS).
“Many older people use hand-me-down phones from their children. All they know is that the green button makes a call, and the red ends it. You’ll find a phone book in the bags of a number of seniors because they have no idea how to create contacts on their phones.”
The SMS programme, says Rene, is there to teach seniors the basics about using mobiles and how to access the internet – skills younger people take for granted.
While some widowed seniors enquired about finding dates online, Rene has found the majority use the internet to find recipes and do research on their medication. There have also been complaints from the seniors that their grandchildren won’t accept their friend requests on Facebook.
Parker says a value they all carry is hope, and the desire to change lives.
“Every single person has potential and dreams. Our surroundings don’t determine our destinies,” says Parker.
Cape Town leading the tech charge
CAPE Town has one of the highest increases in South Africa when it comes to hiring in the start-up and technology field.
According to research by job search engine Adzuna, Cape Town has had a 28 percent increase in recruitment in the past six months, with more than half of the jobs based in Cape Town.
Joburg recorded 34 percent, but Pretoria accounts for 5 percent and Durban for 3 percent.
Vuyisa Qabaka, marketing manager at Woodstock-based Bandwidth Barn, believes the results are accurate. The reason for the city’s success is that “we have a more mature ecosystem”, says Qabaka.
While there are gaps in areas such as access to capital, the city is tops in idea generation, idea validation as well as basic and general conceptualisation.
“That is why we stand head and shoulders above the rest,” Qabaka says.
The Bandwidth Barn provides space, resources, physical infrastructure, programmes and fund networks and in so doing, fosters innovation.The Barn will be opening facilities in Nyanga and Khayelitsha next year.
Finance, Economic Development and Tourism MEC Alan Winde says the Barn concept is making a real impact on the success of start-ups. Bandwidth Barn has assisted 89 businesses in the past year.
Winde, pictured, says the province is fast becoming a hub for information and communication technology entrepreneurs. This sector employs 30 000 people and contributes R3 billion to the provincial GDP.
Between 2006 and 2010, the Bandwidth Barn tenants and more than 50 successful graduates added more than R800 million a year to the region’s economy, and supported almost 2 500 direct and indirect jobs.
“Apart from addressing skills gaps and small business support, our focus is on creating a business-friendly environment where entrepreneurs can also live a good lifestyle.
“This includes ensuring that we have broadband speeds that are able to connect our entrepreneurs to the overseas market,” says Winde. - Cape Argus