‘Always trust your instincts’The Durban-born social entrepreneur aims to solve South Africa’s education crisis through mobile technology
Zakheni Ngubo is a busy man. His answer to South Africa’s chronic shortage of decent maths and science teachers is to digitise the school curriculum and create a virtual classroom for the benefit of learners everywhere. Pursuing his dream of developing a mobile phone app that can deliver top-quality maths and science teaching has seen him attending conferences and being nominated for awards across the globe.
Ngubo recently returned from the Tech Open Air Conference in Berlin where he pitched his Syafunda project to tech venture capitalists; Syafunda is being considered for the Pearson Edupreneurs Programme award (worth R800 000 in seed funding), The Queen’s Young Leaders Award, and the University of Johannesburg’s Emerging Social Enterprise Award.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve overcome township educational problems. How has this shaped your career?
ZAKHENI NGUBO: I completed my matric in a high school with no maths teacher and as a result, despite my outstanding performance, I wasn’t accepted into university. So I enrolled in evening maths lessons and got into the University of Cape Town the following year. When my brother struggled with maths, I enrolled him in Saturday classes and he got a distinction, and a bursary to study at UCT. This led me to create Syafunda. Where I come from is at the heart of what we do: we put young people first and try to give them a chance of competing and contributing in a global economy.
What about the Syafunda app?
We are working on the content input side so that anyone can add and edit content, particularly teachers who are not necessarily well versed in technology. And to avoid the high cost of data or lack of connectivity in rural and township schools, we are testing a wireless network that allows students to download content free without using 3G or ADSL.
When will the app launch?
On the technology side, the hard part is over. It’s now more about the operational side: customising and testing. Our mobile solution will allow teachers to manage a virtual classroom, upload and share content, and engage with learners. We will launch in March 2015 with Grade 11 and 12 maths and science, then add content as we go, all the way to Grade 8.
Tell us about your networking.
The Tech Open Air Conference gave us some great international mentorship and exposure, and the Digital Edge conference in Joburg helped us to solve the question of access to smartphones and low-cost feature phones: we’ll deliver audio lessons with the video, worksheets and assessments.
Has your outlook changed since Red Bull Amaphiko Academy 2014?
Where there is passion and purpose, prosperity always follows. I have learned that business is an endurance game and that teams are worth more than gold.
How do you strike a work-life balance?
I go back home to Durban as often as possible to those who inspire me to be more than an entrepreneur – particularly my one-year-old son and my fiancé. My family keeps me grounded and focused on what life should and could be.
I had my birthday recently and I was still working at around two o’clock in the morning when five tipsy girls burst into my apartment and sang “Happy birthday!” really loud. A neighbour had got together some people from the building to surprise me. But when they got to the part where they were supposed to say my name, they paused because none of them knew it! I burst out laughing. It made me realise that I need to be more sociable with people in the building where I live.
When times are hard, how do you find encouragement?
I draw strength from those who know that tough times are inevitable, but push you towards a solution. I am part of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy WhatsApp group, which is a safe place to talk, and share experiences and encouragement with social entrepreneurs.
Any advice for South Africa’s young entrepreneurs?
It’s not about what, but about who, you become. Your dreams represent the essence of your soul, so do not give up on them. And always trust your instincts.