Built in Africa: RLabs is using tech to restore our faith in humanity


Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that hail from the continent and empower its citizens.

Social entrepreneurship is becoming a key point of development for African entrepreneurs. In this, our sixth instalment of our “Built in Africa” series, we feature Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs), a South African-based social entrepreneurship project aimed at bringing hope through technology education.

RLabs is a global community-based movement and registered social enterprise that provides innovative solutions to address various societal problems in troubled communities facing issues such as drugs and gang violence. RLabs essentially hopes to train people within such communities to find better ways of spending their time and be a force of good for their communities.

The organisation runs various free courses in leadership, entrepreneurship, social media and coding; some which of are accredited.

The RLabs journey began with Marlon Parker in 2008, who started out with the aim of helping just one person in his community. In the process of helping that person, Parker built an organisation that now exists in some form or other in more than 20 countries around the world. The organisation has been lucky enough to have received funding from various organisations such as USAID and the Omidiyar network, but 60% of RLabs’ income is generated from projects within the labs.

“We are in the business of hope,” Parker tells me. “We want to give people hope, through technology.”

The organisation works in troubled communities that are torn apart by gang violence and drug abuse — communities where there is very little hope.

There are two key rules to being part of the RLabs training programmes: have a sunny disposition (always smile) and pay it forward (give back what you have learnt)

“That is all we ask,” says Parker. “Anyone and everyone is welcome.”

Earning currency by doing good

In an effort to really engage with the youth in these communities, RLabs has launched the first of its Youth Cafes. The idea is to provide a space where young members of the community can come together and learn by doing good.

Parker explains that most of the kids that come to the cafe have found themselves through technology; they found something useful for their time and they are learning skills and applying those skills quite quickly.

“Most of the people that come through to the cafes are school dropouts and don’t really know what to do with themselves or their time. They are very bright but there aren’t any opportunities for them,” he says.

He reckons that the kids are beginning to view themselves as role models, and because of that they have taken the initiative to be responsible and accountable.

“In a partnership with the Department of Social Development, it is a space run by young people for young people,” he says.

“There are no professional social workers or psychologists there, but when some needs such help we can connect them and that is where the relationship with government comes in handy.”

Situated between rival gang turf, the space is neutral ground.

RLabs has also created a digital currency for the cafe, where the kids earn currency by doing good within the community.

“We don’t accept any cash at the cafe – the only way to buy something there is to do good and earn currency.”

The currency can be used for various things, Parker explains — from coffee to workshops run at the cafe on a daily basis.

“We have always know what the potential of this could be, but we didn’t know that young people would take up to is so easily and quickly, where they want to do good in the community so they can earn currency and spend it in the cafe with their friends.”

The hope economy: lessons in the people as currency

RLabs couch

For Parker, the key to this social revolution he has started is people.

“The greatest currency in the world is people. We’ve realised at RLabs that our people are more valuable than anything we can ever create or develop. This also includes the people we serve, because it is when people realise their value that hope begins to rise,” Parker wrote earlier this year on his blog.

In order make sure that people realise their value, Parker states that he and the RLabs team have applied some very basic strategies that helps them achieve this.

“People feel so good about themselves when they feel valued,” says Parker. So RLabs has created an environment where the people who come to them can feel important and valued.

“We innovate, create and develop new platforms, programmes, services and everything else to make sure those we serve can access the best services.”

“We equip and empower so that other can do what we do and even better,” Parker wrote. “We always support, mentor and active cheerleaders instead of complaining.”

RLabs’ mission is to invest in people and help them grow. Currently the organisation employs more than 80 people and the startups that have come through its incubation programme have employed more than a 1 000 people.

“All this,” Parker reminiscences, “began with trying to help one person through tech.”

The power of the internet and technology

At RLabs, the power of the internet and technology to affect society and bring about change is recognised.

“We don’t teach people how to use a computer,” Parker tells me. “Though most of the people who come to us have never used a computer in their lives.”

“What we teach them is the power of the internet and we give them an appetite for learning.”

What the programme wants to achieve is to get people in troubled communities learning and understanding the power of technology and how they themselves can be tools of change within that community.

“It is so surprising what happens when you give people access to the internet,” Parker says. The amount of the knowledge they get exposed to and what they do with that knowledge”

According to Parker, the impact that this has had on the community and the people within the community is remarkable. The appetite for knowledge encourages the community to be a better version of itself.

Startup incubation lessons from the pregnancy model

RLabs runs a nine-month incubation programme that hopes to get the students who come through its programmes to build their own businesses.

Parker reckons that everyone that comes through its entrepreneurship programme can build something amazing.

“Our role with this incubation programme is to help them turn their ideas into businesses and then exit it to someone who will help them make it better,” he says.

Though RLabs takes a small stake in these startups, the point of the incubation is the journey; getting the individuals to have to confidence to build something and see it through from start to finish.

“It is more about the journey than actually making money,” he says.

The incubation programme is for people who are innovative, highly motivated and are willing to take risks. All the startups have to meet three criteria before they are accepted into the programme:

  • The idea should make a social impact and it should leverage mobile and internet technologies;
  • The idea should have some insight into how to sustain the social impact and business; and
  • The idea should be scalable and replicable.

Breaking the bad in communities

To champion the notion of doing good in the community as well the entrepreneurial spirit, RLabs introduced the concept of “breaking the bad in your community” at its Youth Cafe.

“We asked: How do we go into the community to break the bad?” Parker says.

It was left up to the kids to decide how the bad could be broken in their communities, and according to Parker the response was “mind-blowing”.

“To break the bad, they decided to turn the bad things into the community into products,” he says. “They are taking litter and turning them into products like bags; now schools are approaching them to work on breaking the bad in the schools.”

The revenue that is being generated via these breaking bad projects has been divided by the project leaders.

“Some goes back into their businesses but they have also developed a feeding scheme for the community.”

Soon RLabs will launch its second Youth Cafe and hopes to open more in many troubled communities. It also hopes to open more centres around the world, spreading the message of hope through technology.

“It has been a great journey just to see how much good is being done in the community,” says Parker.



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