The African Social Entrepreneur Who Has Impacted Over 9m People

When Fred mentioned we were due to interview RLabs, I immediately pictured an AI lab - fit with the cool goggles and other AI toys - and was keen-as-ever to go and play in the lab like a kid, like we had done before in Harrington street at Sea Monster - you know, where you paint pictures in the air and such? That's a very elementary definition of AI, I know.

Boy, was I far removed from what RLabs is truly about. When you google RLabs (my daily work as an interviewer), you know they are up to something very good (many awards and such) but it’s hard to figure out exactly what is going on - for me anyway - as I am not too au fait with all the entrepreneur jargon, just yet. 

What I initially figured was they engaged in 2 areas: 1) Training and Development (right, got that), and 2) an Entrepreneur Accelerator (got that - visited a few of them by now in this job). But, what I missed then was what I now deem to be the most interesting aspect of their offering: the RLabs Innovation Lab.

RLabs began as a humble side project of Mr Marlon Parker, a Computer Science lecturer at CPUT at the time. His father-in-law, a preacher in Langa, called him in to teach computer lessons to reformed gangsters, on a Saturday. 

What were computer lessons offered to a few, became known in the community as free computer lessons to anyone who wanted to attend. And they began to come - more and more people each week. 

And they also began to ask for more courses. 

Following the organic success of Marlon’s computer courses, his father-in-law wanted to roll out counselling sessions at mass - i.e. scale his time and subsequent impact - and so Marlon suggested the use of Mxit groups (when Mxit was still cool). His suggestion took off - so much so, that in a short amount of time, he was approached by the Department of Health and Western Cape Gov. to roll out big community projects for them - using Marlon’s underlying Mxit Group strategy for exchanging knowledge. 

From the success of his Mxit community, Marlon got the money and the positive push he needed to leave his full-time job at CPUT and start RLabs as a full-time gig - alongside his wife. 

Now, 8 years on, RLabs operates in 23 countries across the globe and has had a direct impact on 9 Million lives (this is the story of a humble company born in Langa, just outside Cape Town). This is goosebumps stuff folks. 

Now, RLabs roll out their own training and dev. programmes as well as work with major International organisations, like the UN and World Health Organisation to roll out programmes in collaboration with them. Of course, using Marlon’s methodologies (we have begun to see a trend here friends). 

But RLabs also realized - and this is my favourite part - that community members are best equipped to develop solutions to their own problems. You know “Design Thinking” methodology - where you start with a real problem and work towards a real solution for this real problem (something Africa understands very well, out of necessity). It’s always baffled me why we place such fancy terms on seemingly obvious solutions (more LOL’s on this point in the video with Marlon though). 

But perhaps that is just because I am very African myself. 

Anyway, RLabs started bringing these big guys in to Langa to solve community problems with real community members in the room - and this part of their offering, they call their Innovation Lab. I love it. The day we visited RLabs they were in a workshop with the UN, looking at how to mitigate gender violence on campuses. I’m sad we didn’t get to attend that workshop - but we shall certainly be back.

For a large dose of inspiration, coupled with humility and heart. This folk is the RLabs story - and they’re just beginning their journey. 

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