RLabs, Reminding Young People: Remember, Create Value First, You Can Earn Some Money Through That
One of RLabs most successful innovations are two Youth Cafes that look like “a hybrid of an Apple store and a Starbucks, with a little bit of ‘Googlifying’ of our space,” said RLabs founder Marlon Parker. "We have writing on the walls, artificial turf in the middle of our space, some shapes—some crazy, outrageous stuff." This appearance is no accident, he notes.
The cafes are designed to serve young people, many of whom lack jobs and have dropped out of school. “These young people love standing on street corners in South Africa, especially in Cape Town,” Parker said. “I don’t know why, they just kind of do nothing.”
“When you are coming into our space, it should reflect what we are standing for. We say that we are in the business of hope, so when someone walks in there, the place must reflect hope. Even though outside it’s broken—you may live in a shack or an informal settlement—when you come in, you see fine art on the wall, you get someone who serves you coffee or tea—it’s the environment.
“At the heart of it, we found that we needed to have reimagined spaces where young people could go.” The government provides centers where young people “have to do the ‘job things,’ but those places are so boring," Parker said. “You stand in a long cue. You have to be there early in the morning. And people treat you as if, ‘OK, I am doing you a favor’.”
"So we started thinking, ‘what if we started reimagining what this space could look like?’ The team that actually did the reimagining was young people themselves.”
RLabs empowers individuals and it helps reconstruct communities by providing skills and training, community development programs, mobile and Internet solutions, social enterprise incubation, impact investing, and social franchising. It started from in Cape Town, South Africa and now reaches more than five million people in 22 countries.
We realized every young person can create value, in their communities. The way you earn the currency is to do good in your community—so you must be a changemaker in your community.
RLabs launched the two youth cafes in South Africa in January 2014 in a partnership with the government, which helped fund them. “The minister who inspired this said the cafes should be an expression of what RLabs is,” Parker said.
“The key thing, we told them, is there can’t be any government branding—that was a really a big deal for them, for sure—because we told them that there is going to be a stigma attached to it. The second thing we told them was that this place has to be run by young people—not government officials—young people. And they were willing to actually experiment!”
The cafes are designed with four zones where young people can socialize, as well as learn about business strategies and social entrepreneurship. They can enjoy refreshments and do homework in an “engine room,” use computers and laptops in a “techno park”, brainstorm on the artificial turf in the indoor “playground,” and attend classes in the “innovation factory.”
“When young people go into the space, they can order their cappuccinos, lattes, americanos—you name it—but at the same time, they can do some training, like in the Apple store," Parker said. "They have these ‘geniuses’ who are young people themselves, who are doing skills training in a very casual way, in a very open way.”
Remember, create value first, and once you’ve created value, then realize that the time you are spending can actually capture value for you—you can earn some money through that
Admission to the cafes is free. “What is really unique about the cafes are that they are cashless—you can’t use cash in the cafe,” Parker said. “You have to use a digital currency that we created because we felt that money shouldn’t prevent young people from spending in the cafe—that's immediately going to become a barrier. Instead, the way you earn the currency is to do good in your community—so you must be a changemaker in your community.
“By being a changemaker, you earn currency that you can spend in the cafe—but not only in the cafe. You can go and spend the currency to buy toiletries at a retailer, or go and have your hair cut. You can go to the hairdresser. You can even purchase educational programs. It’s a kind of closed marketplace that we have created.
This experience is intended to convey a deep lesson: rather than viewing themselves as unemployed or unemployable, young people should see themselves as the owners of value that they can bestow on their community, and on an employer who will pay them for it. “We realized every young person can create value, in their communities," Parker said.
"At RLabs, we teach them that they can sell that value in the community. In this instance, the value they were creating was really the product of their good deeds. The important thing for young people is to remember, ‘create value first, and once you’ve created value, then realize that the time you are spending can actually capture value for you—you can earn some money through that’.”
RLabs is helping young people "reframe" their role in society this way, so that they see that they already possess value that they can cultivate, and offer to employers. As businesses also see and experience this value in the young population, it will go a long way toward addressing the problem of youth unemployment.
Parker said the government has seen the results of the cafes, and “it’s part of their policy now. The youth cafes have become a key partnership with government. Now they are also bringing a lot private sector guys to the table, which the government is very happy about.”
Marlon Parker is an Ashoka Fellow who was elected as a part of the Future Forward: Innovations for Youth Employment partnership with the MasterCard Foundation. This initiative set out to identify 25 social entrepreneurs who are transforming the employment system in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, Ashoka is hosting the Future Forward: Youth Innovations challenge that is seeking solutions from the next generation of changemakers addressing employment in Africa.
Learn more about the Future Forward initiative in the community blog and join the online conversation about innovations for employment including the webinar "Shattering Myths and Talking Trends in Employment" on November 4, 8am ET.
If you are so inclined lend monetary support to this movement towards a virtual currency for social change.