Rapelang Rabana’s lists of credits are piling up. The founding CEO of Yeigo Communications, a software development organisation based in South Africa, recently snagged a mention courtesy of CNN as one of Africa’s Marrissa Mayers and also stood as Ambassador and Juror for the United Nations Youth Summit Awards.
Rapelang is also a fellow global shaper whom I met in Davos. Slightly reserved and unassuming at first meeting , it was difficult to know what to expect.
At a later reunion in Geneva, she explains to me that Davos was equally as overwhelming for her as anyone else as nothing ever prepares you for the experience. Her appearance as a panelist at the closing plenary was a performance that screamed of anything less than intimidation. Rabana’s passion, eloquence and understanding of the endless possibilities of the tech space kept us all spellbound. Rabana isn’t a woman who scored lucky. She is passionate about technology with a very deep understanding of the opportunities it possesses for development. She knows the challenges and its potential to change the scope of our world.
As a tech entrepreneur, you once stated in an interview that you are in awe of some of the possibilities that the internet can bring. In your view, what are some of those possibilities that we aren’t even exploring yet?
There are many ways to use the internet and mobile technology that we haven’t applied fully, specifically within the African context. It’s not so much about totally new solutions, but rather using the technologies out there and re-interpreting them for our environment to start solving the problems around us.
- We need to significantly increase intra-Africa trade and entrepreneurs on the continent can be sourcing services and products from each other if we had an easy to useAfricatrade platform for the web and mobile phones. Businesses can publish the services or goods they provide for others to see and the website can also provide all the customs/regulations for each respective country. Sharing information is the beginning of breaking down the barriers.
- The use of mobile learning applications by educational institutions is also very limited in Africa, yet this can significantly increase students ability to learn in their own time, at their own pace, as well as reduce the burden on teachers.
- Medical healthcare is also desperately inadequate and often requires patients to travel long distances. Providing basic health information and support can also be done via mobile devices yet we have only really seen limited trials. This can be expanded full tele-medicine services where diagnosis is done remotely without the patients having to travel great distances.
While there have been pockets of innovation across the continent, widespread implementation of use has not yet happened and more needs to be done to bring governmental bodies to the same table as technology and social entrepreneurs trying to scale these solutions.
The speed of technological advancement has grown even faster that education, this said, the discourse has been shifted and the new question is how do we use technology to move education forward?
Education is a very big area and I prefer to divide into at least 2 areas; the improvement of the teaching process and reducing the administrative burden on teachers, and secondly enabling students to self-manage their own learning process and easily monitor their own progress.
In the first area of improving teaching, there are actually more non-technology factors that affect African schools. Technology can still play a significant role, but this only happens at the point where the school already has the basics: is well managed, good sanitation, access to water and food, access to electricity etc. Most of the technological advancements assume these factors are fulfilled which is why the already good or top-end schools are benefiting the most. Assuming these conditions are met, the teaching process can be significantly enhanced by:
- Installing a mini-computer in the classroom that holds lots of educational material, from the Open Education material available from the top universities, to Khan videos and any local content following the national curriculum or material developed by the school/teacher
- Connect the computer to a low cost and long lasting projector, projecting onto a standard white wall or board – expensive special boards are no longer required.
- The projector can be installed with free open source interactive white board software that allows the teacher to write on the board with a special pen, be able to pick different colours, display instruments like a geometry protractor, use diagrams freely provided with the white board software such a diagram of human eye for a biology class
- In this setup, the lesson on the board can be recorded and overtime teachers will have a repository of prior classes to draw from and for students to consume again at later stage
Internet-based school administration systems are also becoming readily available making it possible for teachers to enter marks only once, and have them distributed to the headmasters and immediately available to generate reports at the end of the term. Freeing up teachers time using more efficient administration systems is critical to giving them more capacity to teach.
In the second category of enabling learners to mange their own learning, it is much easier to proceed with solutions even if the physical schooling environment is not all that conducive. Mobile phones have penetrated the continent further than electricity and water in homes and schools have. Mobile phones can be used to deliver digital content/books to learners. Furthermore, there are applications already that help with assessment and testing. A small group of teachers can produce a series of multiple-choice questions based on the local curriculum to test knowledge retention and the learners can access these on their mobile phones whenever they have moment like when travelling to school or home. The application is then accessible to anyone with a compatible mobile phone and you don’t have to rely on your own teacher to get it. The application can give immediate feedback to the learner and track the questions they get wrong so it asks them again along the test. The use of these systems can also enable teachers to see the progress of each individual learner and their levels of knowledge retention. These kinds of applications can enable learners to get more practice and exposure than just in the classroom, enable teachers to see problem areas through the questions most often failed, and ultimately prepare learners better for their final exams.
Technology is one thing, but for us to really start exploring and exploiting its full potential, connectivity is essential. A lot of developing countries are still dealing with slow bandwidth issues. How do we start to move beyond these problems?
As young people, we need to apply pressure on our governments and regulators to encourage the following:
- Adequate spectrum allocation: many African countries have yet to regulate the use of and allocate sufficient wireless spectrum for companies and various market players to license. The business case for provision of mobile data services have been proven in countries likeSouth Africa,Kenya,Rwandaand I believe private companies and mobile operators are keen to get into the markets once the regulator has laid a sufficient legal foundation that is transparent and fair.
- Multiple service providers: the outcome for consumers where there is a monopoly or very few market players is almost never good. To ensure the best service to the end customer requires there to be multiple service providers to force them to compete on quality of service and price. Without the competitive pressure, incumbent operators have shown time and time again that they will not deliver the best service.
Looking at the youth bulge, unemployment is souring at alarming rates. Using technology as both a tool to access business opportunities or as a source of creating opportunities via a global community are some of the solutions that have been touted to solve the youth unemployment saga. With trust still being a hindering factor especially amongst African countries, how do we realistically deal with the trust issue?
Building trust is definitely something that has always concerned me. Ultimately the root of the issue, is that we know and understand so little about each other, so the level of suspicion is high. This always happens among people when all one has is rumours and preconceived thoughts and no real relationships. Meeting so many other Africans through the World Economic Forum demonstrated to me how little I really knew before and what a big difference it makes when you actually know someone personally – its no longer that other country – you realize how much you still have in common and that is the beginning of trust.
We need to begin to interact more, starting with countries immediately around us and expanding further with time. It’s the only way we will begin to breakdown the mental barriers between us.
When you created your tech company with your partners, what was the initial dream, and what are you most proud of so far?
Quite simply, the thought of getting a job horrified us and we wanted to spend our time doing something we thought was cool, had great potential to influence how things worked and was worth waking up for. The actual idea could have ended up being many things, but that was the philosophy behind our intentions. My co-founders and I decided to apply ourselves to issue of the cost of communication, having been plagued with sending ‘plz-call-me’s’ for a large portion of our varsity careers. We were inspired by the reality that using the internet / IP could dramatically change communications of the future: not just in terms of cost but also just the sheer variety of the different forms of communication and interaction that become possible when you are online.
On the African continent, we are still being plagued by so many issues from bad governance, war, poverty, education, and the likes to think of placing technology on the list of priorities. As a tech entrepreneur and advocate, if you had the opportunity to realistically convince a panel of African leaders to consider the relevance of technology in both development and societal transformation, what would your argument be?
For the past few decades, African countries have begun to make progress in uplifting the changing the image of the continent. However, there is still an overwhelming amount to be done and the rate of progress leaves us all wanting. While we are doing our best, we need to change how we tackle challenges. Mobile technology and the internet has the potential to change the innate way the world has operated to date, where, outside of revolutions and social unrest, the power to bring significant change lay with a privileged minority and leadership who had access to information, tools and traditional networks of influence. This model of operation that assumes that a small proportion of good-intentioned and educated people can cater adequately for a passive majority is unsustainable.
The approach with which we choose to address our continent challenges must evolve. And by evolve I do not mean that we try to come up with smarter ideas more unique ideas. It requires a departure from the notion that good intentions can enable one to cater better for a group of people than those people can do for themselves if empowered to do so.
Our world needs a model that recognizes that sustainable progress and optimum results can only be obtained when everyone is in a position to play their part and be active contributors of their world.Mobile and internet technology presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to engage the previously excluded.
I believe in a future, where the majority are active contributors to solving the problems they find themselves in, applying the wisdom that is visible only from the experience of the problem and not observance of it. A future where the average person can upskill themselves using adaptive learning applications on their phone, and even improve their literacy levels. A future where business support, tools and information empower a budding entrepreneur on the fringe of society is available in the palm of her hand.
While we are doing our best as leaders, let us enable more people to play their part.
You are one of the jurors for the United Nations Youth Summit Awards. Young people have been criticised a lot especially here in Nigeria that we are ill equipped and do not possess the essentials for leadership. What’s your take on the current generation and their roles and abilities in both leadership and development?
I am most hopeful. There are young Africans trying to address the problems they find themselves in. We have unfortunately, never been as good as our Western counterparts at recognizing our worth, ability and achievements. We are building momentum and the more of us step up, the easier it gets for all young people to do their bit. Specifically in Nigeria, we had 2 winners of the UN World Summit Youth Awards this year – iWatch and BudgIT. Two other projects were runners up: Globally Educated and Online Webinars for African women & girls.
This generation needs to find entrepreneurial solutions to the challenges facing us. It is said necessity is the mother of innovation and no one needs change and progress more than the youth.
We are seeing more and more investment coming into Africa. I recently read an article, where investment in Africa was criticised as it just allowed for those with financial power gain even more traction allowing for the creation of a nouveau rich whilst others were left behind. On the raging debate of investment versus development in Africa, what is your take?
In my mind, investment is a sub-topic of development and the whole picture is required to move us forward. Inadequately considered investment can certainly lead to only a few benefiting and investments must be applied for broader benefits. The book the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid goes to great pains to demonstrate that there is a large viable market in servicing the ‘poor’ if a business is prepared to be innovative and re-package their solutions. Sound financial returns can be made while seeking a greater social impact and return – they are not mutually exclusive.
The mobile money success story in Kenya was an example of how leveraging on mobile technology could affect the lives of everyday people. On the issue global versus local, are we doing enough to integrate technology at local levels to influence and affect the lives of those who genuinely need to move beyond subsistence.
There is a lot to be done in integrating technology at local levels to those that need it most. This application of globally available at a local level is often done by entrepreneurs who can re-interpret solutions to suite their local context. This is why I believe that once the empowering infrastructural support is provided, for example internet access and payment systems like MPesa, entrepreneurs can apply themselves to solve local problems. This is exactly what has happened in Kenya and spurred a great deal of innovation. By providing the basic tools, more people were empowered to become active contributors in improving their life condition and tackling the challenges in their community.