What’s on the slab at RLabs?

By Adele Shevel and Marc Low

All sorts of things, including new mobile platforms, up-skilling, counselling and support for all things techie and entrepreneurial. Oh yes, and also renewed hope for reformed gangsters and drug addicts. Lots of it.

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A few years ago Marlon Parker was pushing trolleys at the airport in Cape Town. He did not know what he wanted to do with his life, but his dream was to have an office job where he could wear a shirt and tie.

Today, Parker uses social and digital media to transform lives by transferring skills, offering counselling and teaching entrepreneurship. This is done either online or at his offices in Athlone, Cape Town. The RLabs (Reconstructed Living Lab) model has been so successful it is being used in 18 other countries.

While working at the airport he applied for a job as a filing clerk, but promised himself that if he did not get it he would leave and study. He did not get the job. On the way out of work that day he bumped into someone who mentioned IT.

Parker had saved up R1 000 – enough to register for a course in IT at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

“When I started nothing turned me on about it. I’m all about people and this computer thing completely separated me from people. I only became aware later when I saw how technology could be used for good.”

His first “aha” moment about how technology could be used for good was when some students introduced him to MXit.

“I saw there were some students that never had access to a computer but were now able to engage around certain topics using a mobile phone and it improved their grades. I started thinking… what if we could use the same thing for support? Technology is only the enabler. Seeing that enablement was unique.”

Parker started a company, RLabs, which used social media to allow people to share stories and give advice. People from his community were talking to each other about their problems. The technology could not cope with the traffic and he built a contact centre using MXit so people could continue to engage with each other. MXit subsequently became an RLabs partner.

RLabs launched officially in 2009. It uses digital and social media to link people to help solve problems, transfer skills and teach entrepreneurship. It also provides counselling and has provided jobs in social media.

The people Parker sought to help started getting involved in running the project, redirecting their energies from crime to social media.

Parker was intent on bringing hope and help to the community using technology. He had been suicidal at a point in his life. And seeing the surge in drugs such as tik in the community he grew up in was painful. “It’s one thing to build a career for myself; there’s no way I can be happy in my career if people in my community still hurt.”

Parker and some of his project leaders started doing talks in schools and this has become a major part of his work. His concept sparked interest in Portugal in 2009, with Europe in recession. He developed a franchise and RLabs now operates in 18 countries including Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Kenya.

In Sierra Leone, one employee was once involved in organised crime, while another, who went there to help set up the business, was a crystal meth dealer in the community in the Cape Flats.

Funders include the Indigo Trust, USAID, Vodacom Foundation, DG Murray Trust, the Finnish foreign ministry and the UK Department for International Development. Another partner, Bertha Foundation, collaborated with RLabs to launch the Kukua Fund which invests in social entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lisa Kropman of Bertha Philanthropies South Africa said that what interests the organisation most about Parker’s work with RLabs is the fact that he is working with people who are finding solutions to their own challenges.

Mixing up Jamiix

One of the R Labs members was talking about drug counseling, while another was simultaneously talking about MXit. Just like that, Jamiix was born.

  • It’s the first piece of technology innovation to be created and now operated by RLabs.
  • Leveraging the MXit platform, Jamiix enables organisations to engage with users on various instant messaging and mobile chat platforms.
  • It is currently mostly used by non-profits and development agencies who use Jamiix to provide low-cost mobile support counselling for a variety of issues, though the focus remains on drug counselling.
  • By combining technological innovation with “boots on the ground” knowledge about community needs, RLabs was able to create a hugely valuable service which has attracted a broad, international audience.

the number of times Jamiix has been accessed to date. A number that is growing every month.

Inside | RLabs

It’s grown into so much more than a software development IT training hub. This is the RLabs portfolio:

1 Products and Services. Leverages the skills taught at RLabs to provide consulting-style services to businesses interested in social media. This work is often done pro-bono, though significant consulting revenue is generated from the programme.

2 Community Work. Encourages RLabs members to contribute to the community, such as through the counselling work done on the Jamiix platform.

3 RLabs Research Institute, includes scholastic collaboration for peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as research and technical reports on social media platforms and IT products.

4 RLabs Academy. The syllabus includes courses on social media, blogging, entrepreneurship, online safety and project management. Plus students are encouraged to return as volunteers and facilitators, which adds to the sense of family and community which RLabs creates.

5 InnovIA (the Innovation Incubator). Gives RLabs members the tools, mentorship and business development advice to successfully conceptualise, scope, develop and launch software projects, without previous experience.

6 RLabs Social Franchise Division. The first such partnership was established in Portugal, and RLabs is currently present in 18 countries around the world, including Namibia, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Brazil and China.

Up to 70% of RLabs’ revenue
comes from their consulting work. Major corporate clients include the World Bank.

The RLabs Recipe

RLabs is a hybrid organisation of sorts, whereby business and non-profit motives exist side-by-side. The organisation remains focused on working to empower and uplift the community, but sometimes uses commercial means to achieve these ends. Here’s how…

  • By creating a significant level of self-sufficiency – RLabs has to-date raised nearly R12 million (approximately US$1,440,000) through various business income, accounting for almost 70% of total funding requirements.
  • RLabs has a tremendous degree of flexibility in terms of the projects and direction it chooses for itself. Were it constrained by traditional NGO-type funding, this would almost certainly not be the case.
  • This flexibility to take risks and therefore create innovation is a key component of the RLabs recipe.

* An excerpt from Using social media to give people hope, by Adele Shevel published in the Sunday Times: Business Times, January 27, 2013. All additional reporting from RLabs Growth and the Secret Sauce of Innovation, by Marc Low, December 2012 (Supervisor: Dr François Bonnici). Marc Low is a GSB scholar who completed a case study analysis on R Labs as part of an MBA degree in 2012.

Inside | Adele Shevel and Marc Low


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