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Brothers for All: the inspiring school teaching underprivileged people how to code

This week, Brothers For All is starting its first pilot project in two of South Africa’s Western Cape prisons, equipping underprivileged people with valuable coding and entrepreneurial skills.

A first of its kind on the African continent, Brothers for All is a spin-off of the non-profit Mothers for All, a local organisation that supports women in Botswana and South Africa, and the award-winning prisoner initiative, Group of Hope.

Just 25 weeks after setting up in October last year, Brothers for All has over 170 students from underprivileged backgrounds, who are all learning essential coding languages like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The startup is equipping inmates as well as former inmates, high school dropouts, unemployed youth and vulnerable children. People whose stories Tshabalala can relate to very well.

From gangster to role-model

Sihle Tshabalala co-founder of the initiative, explains that before Apartheid ended, there were role-models in the townships. “We had political activists, doctors, lawyers and teachers. But after 1994, most of them left and now live in the suburbs,” he says. “Who are the role models now? Gangsters, drug smugglers and armed robbers. We need those positive role-models.”

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Upon finishing matric at the age of 16, he had no aspirations to go to university. “I started doing business robberies to cash and target heists,” he tells Ventureburn at the organisation’s headquarters in Langa. “By the time I was 18, I already owned two cars and was renting an apartment out of the township in the city, wearing very expensive designer clothes and living a very high life.” At the age of 19 he got arrested.

In South Africa, it costs government more than an estimated R900 000 to incarcerate a prisoner for 10 years. On top of that, after 10 years in prison, more than 80% of prisoners reoffend. That’s a huge loss. Tshabalala explains that although the current rehabilitation system is broken, he still managed to discover a passion for learning.

Without any formal training, he ended up teaching English and Maths in prison. “This one student asked me what he can study now that would still be relevant when he gets released from prison. I couldn’t give him an answer.”

Tshabalala found that IT and finance were the only two skills that are high in demand all over the world that would still be relevant in 10 years to come. “I couldn’t go to a university to obtain a degree, so I got hold of a computer, plugged it into a free WiFi zone and then started to learn myself programming.”

Eleven years later, Tshabalala was released. Inspired by the non-profit, Group of Hope — which he was involved with for seven years — Tshabalala sought to use same methodology that was used inside and implement it on the outside.

Together with Linda McCourt Scott who co-founded Mothers for All, London serial entrepreneur Robyn Scott and ex-offender Mzi Duda, Brothers for All was born upon Tshabalala release.

Apart from a long list of donors from Naspers to Microsoft BizSpark, Hivos and the Mac Aids Fund, the startup has an income generating skills project where fellow inmates and students are trained to become crafters.

“We use it as a means of exchange with the students,” explains Lauren Rautenbach who’s heading operations and media at the centre. “So when they come in they get the free WiFi, the hardware the software and training. But in return they need to make beads that we sell to help cover our costs as well as the orphanage.”

The co-founder notes that they are still experimenting with their business model.

“We are looking a creating a sustainable model in terms of we want to move from being a non-profit to a hybrid non-profit, and set up different businesses.” One of these businesses will be an app factory which develops locally relevant tech solutions like a crime reporting platform.

With support from one of its donors, it’s also in the process of setting up a call centre in Langa in order to help the local community.

So far, Brothers for All has been responsible for sourcing Cape Town coding initiative Project CodeX with six of its students who’ve all received scholarships worth up to R75 000 each. Brothers for All has also partnered with a couple of tech companies in the Mother City, one of which is Nona Creative where two of its interns are currently working at.

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Apart from just having launched its pilot initiative in two prisons, the centre is also looking for new, bigger space to house more students. And although the centre was recently robbed of its computers and other equipment, Tshabalala says that he’ll never leave Langa.

A wave of tech in informal settlements

There’s a new wave of tech initiatives happening in informal settlements across South Africa’s Western Cape.

Silulo Ulutho Technologies is one of these forces. Co-founded by Luvuyo Rani and based in Khayelitsha, it helps people with the opportunity to scratch up on their IT skills to be better prepared for their professional careers. Then there’s entrepreneurial initiatives like HubSpace, eKasi and, more recently, opened up the Barn Khayelitsha.

Tshabalala explains that people are realising the significance of these skills as well as the market’s potential. “More people are moving away from owning just feature phones and are starting to buy smartphones. There is a market for tech in black communities,” he says. “People are now starting to become more interested in tech. I think our community and Cape Town as a whole can better position itself in becoming a digital space.”

Today, with online coding schools like Kahn Academy, Codecademy, Udacity anyone from anywhere around the globe can learn valuable skills to hopefully help build a career. All it takes is a computer, an internet connection and dedication. To be a role-model takes something more.

Author Bio

Jacques Coetzee
Jacques grew up in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Keen to take over the world, one word at a time, he has always been interested in both politics and development and studied International Relations (BA) at Stellenbosch University. With an interest in innovation and social change, he seeks to tell the... More