Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
The rate of unemployment (especially among youth) in impoverished communities and townships in developing countries is alarmingly high. In South Africa, unemployment in low income townships and squatter camps is currently over 50 percent (World Bank, 2011) as compared to the average rate of about 29 percent for the whole population. Most of the youth in these townships have not undergone formal education and have no hope of breaking the perpetual cycle of poverty and unemployment they are born in. The high rates of unemployment breed a lot of other social challenges turning the communities into hubs of crime, violence and substance abuse. Reports from South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC, 2012) indicate that more than 37 percent of youth in the townships in Cape Town between 15-25 years are involved in either alcohol or drug abuse, especially in the areas where gangsterism is high, like the Cape Flats. Even after being convicted and then released from prison for such crimes, the ex-convicts have no resources and capacity to start afresh and transform their lives. With no hope, the only option is to follow what everybody is doing and go back to the world of crime and drugs. Reports from the South Africa Government News Agency (Sanews, 2009) indicated that almost 90 percent of young people in South Africa’s prisons are repeat offenders, especially those belonging to crime gangs. These material problems stem from a history of forced displacement that particularly affected colored communities during the Apartheid regime. These displacement policies forced many of today’s townships in Cape Town and other South African cities. This led to a loss of inherited identity and consequentially, new generations started seeking alternative forms of belonging through gangs and organized crime. Broken families and the loss of parental role models further aggravate this situation.
Residents of these marginalized communities have less access to knowledge and opportunities that can help them overcome the challenges mentioned above. Many people have never had access to a computer or other information technology platforms and do not understand the opportunities that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can unlock, whether in terms of employment creation or in addressing various social challenges in society. Those that are exposed to ICT view it as a career path where one learns skills that increase employability and access to employment. Most people do not see that ICT can be a part of social innovation design. ICT is also viewed as exclusively the domain of the educated and many would never dream of creating software applications that can transform lives.
Although the government and other development organizations offer programs that create employment for young people from such communities, little has been done to unlock the potential of youth to pursue self-employment or to solve the social challenges they face through ICT. Most colleges and institutions offering ICT education to people in townships are either too expensive or have curriculuma that are too academic and theoretical to stimulate social innovation. The national Education Department has established Further Educational Training (FET) colleges in many townships that offer various vocational courses including basic ICT training at lower costs for low-income populations. However, they too offer courses that are very basic and aim at teaching young people to use computer packages and not necessarily to train them in software design and development. Furthermore, FET colleges do not have the capacity to absorb the demand and need for ICT literacy in local townships. On the other hand, innovation and entrepreneurial hubs that exist in the communities are mainly aimed at enterprise development and lack a technology design component, as well as a social drive, that would enable communities to create their own solutions while entering the world of work.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Poverty and unemployment fuel social ills such as organized crime, drug abuse and violence in the Cape Flats Township in Cape Town, South Africa. Most young residents have dropped out of school and belong to gangs, and have little hope of turning their lives around for the better. Marlon engages young people in the Cape Flats (and other similar communities within and outside South Africa) by teaching them to use technology to create innovative solutions to address social challenges in their communities. His goal is to re-introduce hope into communities where there is none. He believes that he can do this by teaching young people to use technology to transform their lives and the lives of others. Marlon began working on this idea in 2007 with the objective of empowering ex-convicts, gang members and former drug users to share their stories through social media. Since then, this idea has evolved to what RLabs is today: an information technology Through the years, the idea has evolved to what RLabs currently is: an information technology hub that fosters creativity and innovation in a community and enables young people to became leaders of change in their communities and create employment opportunities for themselves and others. Marlon’s idea is based on a chain of three interlinked programs that together provide the necessary skills, opportunities and exposure to stimulate creativity and change making in disadvantaged communities.
The RLabs Acandemy is the first program in the chain. This is the training and leadership development hub in which unemployed youth from disadvantaged communities can become technologically literate and learn the basics of computer use. The academy offers about fifteen different computer courses that are affiliated with and certified by the University of Cape Town. This basic training improves their skills but more importantly, expands their understanding of the power of technology to improve their lives. The courses share an underlying appreciation for critical thinking and encourage young people to design solutions for societal challenges and needs. The next program in this chain is the Living-Lab. This platform builds on the foundation of the RLabs Academy and stimulates the participants’ creativity and challenges them to use the skills and knowledge acquired from the academy to design solutions to existing social challenges in their communities. Marlon then helps the participants move their solutions from idea to program/product design to implementation. The Living-Lab provides the space for people to reconnect to their communities and discover a new world of possibilities through technology innovations. The last program in this chain is the Incubation platform. Living-Lab innovations that demonstrated potential for success are moved to Incubation in order to develop fully-fledged social ventures. RLabs incubates the ideas for a period of nine months, after which they are registered and launched as social enterprises. The idea is to create sustainable social ventures that offer employment opportunities to other people in their communities.
After rapidly scaling within South Africa, Marlon is now using this model to work with young people from disadvantaged communities in 21 countries within and beyond Africa, equipping 18,500 people with computer skills and incubating 22 companies under his program. Furthermore, the Living-Lab has fostered the design of technology applications that have benefitted more than 40,000 people have so far. Overall, RLabs has created over 20,000 employment opportunities directly through the academy and indirectly through the incubated companies. Marlon’s next challenge is to build a process to enable these hubs to thrive in different cultural contexts and to design a revenue-generating component of RLabs to increase the sustainability of the organization.