Audio: Interview with Marlon Parker, RLabs: Tech Solutions Built by a Community, for a Community

Interview with Marlon Parker, RLabs: Tech Solutions Built by a Community, for a Community

By Jomiro Eming

Many social issues within South African underserved and marginalised communities are complex and nuanced. This makes it hard for external forces to provide tech solutions with real social impact. Marlon Parker, founder of Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs), sees tech as an enabler and an equaliser: By providing tech skills training to young people in these communities, RLabs works to generate value from within the community, and empower those who ‘live’ the problems every day to build tech solutions that drive sustainable impact for their community.

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RLabs is a non-profit that was founded on the Cape Flats in 2008 and offers free skills training in subjects like basic computing, digital analytics and coding in underserved and marginalised communities. They also support, incubate and accelerate tech initiatives from people within the community. “Once we see there’s commercial opportunities in these things, we begin to help them to commercialise their ideas, their technologies, or innovations, and convert them into an enterprise,” he explains.

“The truth of the matter is, the growth markets are your marginalised and underserved communities, low income communities,” Marlon says. Because the socio-economic complexities of these areas can make it incredibly hard for someone with an external perspective to get to the root causes of the community’s challenges, RLabs banks on equipping the people that are living with those challenges to come up with tech solutions. Of 80-100 initiatives that Marlon and his team support every year, 10% turn into market-ready apps and products that are adopted across the African continent, and even by global organisations like the BBC.

Marlon believes that this proximity to the challenges helps people build impactful products because they:

  1. Generate and keep value in the community, which has many knock-on effects, and
  2. Tackle the ‘nuances’ of a problem.

Here’s what that can look like in practice:

Generating and keeping value in the community

The RLabs spaces sit directly in the underserved communities because:

  • The running of spaces in the community itself creates more value in the community: “For example, people would say the ride sharing apps are creating jobs, but it’s coming from off the continent, so a lot of the capital money leaves the continent,” Marlon explains.
  • It removes financial and mobility blockers to access: Being able to afford transport isn’t a requisite to upskill and uplift oneself.
  • Marlon believes it’s important for makers to stay close to the problems they’re trying to solve: The tech solutions are developed and run by the community members themselves, from within the communities they’re trying to help.

For Marlon, technology is a powerful vehicle to solve complex challenges in South Africa, because it’s an equaliser and an enabler: “It allows me to access information that someone living in a fairly upmarket community can also access,” he says. This access gives underserved young people with coding skills the advantage they need to drive change, as opposed to wait for it to happen: “There’s so many examples,” Marlon explains, “where one developer decided, ‘You know what, I’m going to create something to solve this real need that’s out there.’”

“I think that’s why the developers are in such a good position, because many of them are in a place where they can create things that can make a huge difference.”

The young developers at RLabs have the ‘added bonus’ of having real skin in the game. These solutions are not being built by someone in Silicon Valley; they are being built by people who are personally affected by a project’s impact or the lack thereof.

“We want to make sure people see and feel that they can create something from their community. That state that the community is in doesn’t have to be the end state,” Marlon says.

“The more we can allow the value that’s created to be circulated in the local community, the more that value increases.”

The knock-on effect of keeping tech solutions in the community

The knock-on effects, Marlon says, can be seen in things like role-modelling and transferable knowledge: Tech training develops “side-effect” skills like problem-solving, which has seen young people’s grades improve across the board. RLabs also hires their internally trained developers to become facilitators of RLabs courses and help build out further projects. This means more people see ‘people like them’ driving impactful change:

“If a young girl from Khayelitsha sees another young girl from the community that’s a coder, and seeing what that young woman is achieving, it’s such a powerful message. They begin to realise, ‘Well, if that person can do it, then I can too,” Marlon says. According to him, enabling young people to build solutions for problems they themselves face in their communities, results in a very authentic approach to software:

“It’s been an incredible journey of how a simple idea to help a local young person has directly brought value to over 1.5 million people. And it’s a technology that was built and ideated from the Cape Flats.”

Being close to the problem means someone already understands ‘nuances’

Marlon and his team believe that experiencing a problem first-hand allows people to build better products: Take the social startup Zlto, an application that was developed in 2014 through RLabs. The initiative was developed by a group of young people from the Cape Flats that noticed many in their community default to crime because they don’t have access to job opportunities. The common lack of credentials or work experience in underserved communities often leads to a lack of social cohesion and poverty.

Understanding the wider problem of crime for its socio-economic root causes, the Zlto team built a product that incentivises young people to volunteer in their community by granting professional credits and digital currency on the blockchain, an idea that ended up winning the 2018 Google Impact Challenge:

“A lot of these young people are thinking about the problems they face personally, on a daily basis in their communities. It’s out of that tension that they begin to create and build, because it’s important to them.”

Users upload a photo before and after doing something good for the community to the app, and the work experience is recorded in a blockchain ledger so that it’s transparent and easy to verify. People also earn Zlto’s digital currency for their good deeds, which they can spend at Mr Price on clothes, or Shoprite on things like groceries and airtime.

This way, Zlto addresses both the lack of economic opportunity and the social cohesion problem: By incentivising social good, individuals are encouraged to ‘heal’ their communities, and are simultaneously able to build a credible ‘impact CV’ and support themselves financially. This way, Zlto has thus far offered employment opportunities to over 35 000 registered users and impacted around 1,5 million local beneficiaries through the employment gained.


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