RLabs is a community-orientated initiative that aims to reconstruct communities and change society through technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. Since everybody operates within some type of community, we have to make sure that existing inequalities do not expand as tech evolves. RLabs’ main focus is to ensure that all people – even in the most marginalised communities – have the opportunity to engage in these technological advances.
In his talk, Marlon Parker talks about their goals, how they work towards them, and the wider impact that this focus has had on expanding the SA tech ecosystem.
[00:10] Good morning! I was expecting a big response back. Good morning everyone! That’s much better. You’ll have to excuse me – I come from the Cape Flats, so there we shout all the time. Even if you don’t want to, someone is screaming on the other side. My name is Marlon Parker and I’m with an organisation called RLabs, and I’m just going to share with you a little story really about how technology can be quite a great equaliser. We find ourselves at a very interesting time on the continent where, by 2035, we will have the world’s largest workforce, right? Because we’ve got more young people than anywhere else on the planet at the moment. At this point in time, we have an opportunity to actually create a workforce that can change not just South Africa or the continent, but that I believe can change the world.
[01:02] Now, my personal story started about 10 years ago – I’m a recovering academic by the way. I was in technology, and I was visiting my mom.At that moment while I was there visiting, I saw a little kid during the middle of the day – eight years old and not in school – and I was quite shocked at the fact that this kid is supposed to be in school, why is he walking in and roaming the streets? When I stopped him and I said, “Listen, why are you not at school?” he told me no, he’s looking for a job. An eight-year old child! When I asked him, “Why are you looking for a job?” because I thought maybe he just wants money to buy some sweets, he said, no, he wants to get money because he wants to buy himself shoes so he can go to school, and he wants to buy bread for his five-year old sister that’s hungry at home, because his mom is high on drugs and his father is currently in prison.
[02:01] The same community where I grew up in, and it really kind of shook me to my core. I thought, “Here I am, I am now emerged in using technology to some form and yet, someone from exactly the same place where I come from has lost hope.” And I must be honest, at that moment in time, I was thinking about my introduction to technology, which wasn’t a very easy introduction either. You must understand when I was done with school, I’d never seen a computer in my life. The only job I could find at the time to help the family was to push trolleys, so I was a trolley boy, and I’m very good at pushing a trolley, people. Sure, you must see me in a ShopRite or Pick ‘N’ Pay. It doesn’t matter if the crowd is in front of me, you find me on the other side. Especially that time, there was no Ruby on Rails when I was doing that because I’m very good at that, I was at the wheels. But anyway, that’s another story for another day.
[02:53] But while I was pushing the trolley, my ultimate dream was that I wanted a job where I can wear a shirt and a tie. Unfortunately, pushing a trolley wasn’t the appropriate job to wear a shirt and a tie – you push trolley, tie get stuck, you go down, it doesn’t end well. So, at that time I then had an opportunity when someone said, “Listen, they’re looking for someone to work in an office.” And because I’ve never engaged with technology for me, ‘office’ had nothing to do with Microsoft, but ‘office’ was actually doing some paper filing in an actual office. When I heard that, what do you think I was thinking about? Shirt and a tie, you’re right. And I thought, “Hey, here’s a job.”
[03:36] I knew the person doing the interviews, I went for the interview, I did apparently well, and they shortlisted me and I was so confident – you know when you’re very confident that when you write the piece of code, everything is going to work, I had that level of confidence. Doesn’t matter what people tell you, you know it was going to work. And I knew I was going to get this job, so I went to buy myself a shirt and a tie, like the bright red tie and a white shirt. The tie was so red that even in the dark you would see me. It had to be very, very bright. And while I’m now going to find out if I got the job, because I mean the person doing the interviews was a family friend – I mean, I knew this lady very well and anybody that drinks tea at Marlon’s house, had to be desperate because my granny used to make eight cups of tea with one tea bag, so they really had to love being there, right? – and here this person tells me, “Sorry Marlon, we’re choosing the other person.”
[04:32] And I was shocked. I was so confident that I was going to get this job. As I was leaving, I made a promise to myself: If I don’t get this job, I’m going to resign, and then I’m going to go and study something. I didn’t quite know what I was going to study. And I don’t know if any of you know what a Cape Flats mother is like? Sjoe. I’m telling you, they got these shoes that you can’t just – when they throw you with that shoe, doesn’t matter if you’re standing behind a pillar, it will still hit you. And yoh it’s trouble when she takes her teeth out, right? So there I was thinking, “What am I going to tell my mother when I go home?”
[05:07] Because the family at that time were living off my grandmother’s pension, which was a couple of hundred rand, and the tips that I would normally make on a monthly basis would contribute to the household income. And as I was walking, because I’m now going to tell my mother I’m going to go and study – no one in my family’s ever completed school and yet I’m going to have to convince a Cape Flats mother, not just any mother that her son wants to go and study, and I had no clue what I was going to do – someone stopped me and said, “Marlon, where are you going?” I said, “No, I need to go and study. And she said, “You know what?” If you want to go and do anything and you want to go and study, you must go and study ‘it’. “Yeah, no, no, no, I’m going to do it. I’m going to study.”
[05:46] She’s working as a waitress. And I said, “No, I’m going to study.” She said, “No, no, no, no. Do ‘it’.” And I’m like, “Yeah, no, I’m going to do it.” She says, ‘No, you don’t understand. Study ‘it’!“ I’m like, "What is this ‘it’?” She says, “Information Technology.” And I looked at her because I’ve got no clue what she’s talking about. And I ask her, “What is this?” She says she don’t know, but the table she was serving was talking about IT all the time – IT this and IT that – so it must be important. And she was so excited. Have you ever seen someone so excited about something that you get excited – you don’t know why you are excited. So, that is the position that I was in, and I went home and I told my mother, “I’m going to study.“ And she asks, "What are you going to study?” I said, “I’m going to do ‘it’.”
[06:32] “What is this ‘it’?” “Information Technology.” “What is this Information Technology?” I never got that far. So I said, “It’s about technology and information.” So, that was my introduction into the world of technology. When I got there, and I’m telling you this background story very quickly, when I got to the university, I applied, I had to do an aptitude test – apparently they thought I have logic (I think they made a big mistake) – and when I got in they tell me I had to choose a major. And then I looked, because I still didn’t know what it was, and when I saw the major – there was one major that I was very good at, which is this major called programming because I used to do a lot of youth programs during the holidays, volunteer in the community – I thought, “Oh my word. I’ve been doing programming for years. Finally one thing that I’m so good at.”
[07:24] So they said, “Marlon, you have to choose a major.” And I said, “You know what? I’m going to do programming, that’s my calling. That’s what I’m going to do.” So, I chose programming and then they said, “Well, that’s very good, but how many languages?” I had to do two languages at school, so I thought it’ll be great if I can do three languages, so I said, "I would love to do three languages, please.” So, there I went, majoring in a highly technical stream. And the three languages I was doing – and this is going to give away my age – was Cobol, Assembler, and C. Now, for any of you that know those languages, if you’ve never touched or seen a computer in your life – and I come from the Cape Flats – that to me was a rude awakening, right? I’ve seen some stuff. But hey, that was another level. Now, the reason I’m telling you this is because my introduction into the world of technology was simply by someone that was eavesdropping.
[08:14] But technology for me became a great equaliser. So, when I saw this child with lost hope, I knew that I could have been me, it could have been me. And that then got me thinking that I had to do something. I didn’t quite know what I was going to do, but the one thing that I did have, was I had an old 386 computer that was donated to me running on dial-up connection. Some of you talk about 5G, try loading an image on that beast, right? And all I knew, and of course this organisation that gave it to me was very generous and I thought, “I have this computer, I’ve got a little room, maybe I should teach one young person how he could use technology – the internet – to share a story of hope.”
[09:01] I thought maybe this young boy’s parents or people like that would be inspired not to make bad choices. That was it. I just wanted to share a story of hope. So, I introduced him at the time to different kinds of social media. We did some blogging and the problem was this guy that I trained, he was an ex-gang member and ex-drug dealer. He was under the impression that he was getting free computer classes. So he went to tell his friends. Now, who do you think are the friends of an ex-gang member and ex-drug dealer? These people have terrible CVs but impressive criminal records. We literally started around this one old computer teaching them how to use technology to share a story of hope. That is how the journey of our RLab started – very humble beginnings.
[09:51] We’ve been from that to now, 10 years later, this is where we are at. From a simple action of wanting to help the community, we’ve now expanded into 23 countries and I’m going to tell you a little bit more about how we’ve done this. Being able to build technologies from the ground up that have impacted over 13 million people’s lives, and have managed to graduate over a hundred thousand people, of which 90,000 people we’ve managed to move into the economy. All because of wanting to do something good for one person, that’s how it started 10 years ago. So, based on the last 10 years, I want to share with you five lessons that I believe are going to be helpful for you as someone that is a techie, a developer, or in the industry, that I really feel could actually make a big difference as you go forward in this industry.
[10:43] And the first lesson, and I’m going to share about RLabs through these lessons, is we made a conscious decision to be community-driven. I love what Phillip said earlier – the fact that we need community at all times. At RLabs, we decided to have our RLabs hubs in the townships. So, we are on the Cape Flats and next year we should be opening in Soweto and LX as well. We wanted to be where the people are and co-create with the community – that for us was really important. And we do that and it’s interesting because what we do is we started off by teaching one skill to now we have over 40 different courses that we offer from basic computing right up to more advanced coding. We do things around Python, a little bit of our stuff is around machine learning, and our approach to learning is simple – these are people that normally would not have completed school at times.
[11:42] And it doesn’t matter if they haven’t completed school because we try and see the opportunity or the potential in the person. And all we do is give them a challenge that they are passionate about in their community, and then we tell them, “Okay, now you need to go and teach yourself,” and it’s facilitated in a very collaborative and playful way, I must be honest, “and go and solve the challenge for your community.” It’s fascinating that when you have skin in the game, it changes your behavior. So, it was not you’re coming to a class – you’re coming to a place where there’s a mission to solve a problem that is deeply rooted to where you are.
[12:14] And that is why it’s so important to be community-driven in the work that you do, as well as co-creating with the people you are building the technology for. I know as coders, it’s very easy to – we just want people to kind of leave us alone, we want to do what we need to do – but I don’t want us to forget the opportunity that is there within the community. You will be surprised by the ideas that people can come up with. So, that’s the first lesson, be community-driven.
[12:41] The second lesson that we’ve learned is that once the person has been equipped with the skill, all of a sudden people have ideas. How many of you’ve ever had a good idea? Can you raise your hand? You don’t have to be modest, see this is MERGE conference, you don’t have to be modest about it. Sjoe, now I’m a bit worried, no good ideas, yoh. Okay, how many of you ever had a good idea and you did nothing with that idea, can you raise your hand?
[13:06] Okay, I see there’s some people that want to raise both their hands. Now, it’s very difficult if you have an idea – where do you go with a good idea? And what we then did was created an environment where people can come and actually turn those ideas into reality. So, I remember the first group of young men and women that we had – remember I told you that we had ex-gang members and ex-drug dealers? It was one of the big problems at the time that we faced in our communities, and it’s still there – the problem of drug addiction and crystal meth and all of those kinds of things. And these young men and women said – there was a technology at the time – some of you might still remember it – Mxit. You still remember Mxit?
[13:48] I can see there’s angel eyes, right? Part of what happened was they said, “Marlon, a lot of young people are using Mxit. Why don’t we actually provide counseling services through the Mxit platform?” And at that time, there was no open platform – it was literally just a messenger. And we said, "Okay, let’s do this.” And it’s interesting for me because here these young men and women were given hope, but now they were thinking about what can they do with that little bit of hope that they have to help someone else. And everybody in this room, you do have hope. The question is what are you doing with the hope that you have? And what we then did was we quickly did a little experiment where we went to a local school and we asked the principal, give us your 10 worst kids. The kids that’s got problems with drug addiction.
[14:37] The principal wanted to give us all of the school. We said, “No, no, no, no. We only need 10 because it’s an experiment.” And what we did, we literally just used Mxit in its current form and we were just chatting. One person was chatting to young people, so we just told the 10 kids if you want to chat to someone, you can speak to the experts because these people that we have had very, very impressive records. A week later we had 20 kids talking to us. A month later, there were 300 kids. But it was difficult to speak to 300 people via one – I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried chatting to 300 people at the same time. Then we realised that Mxit worked on the Java protocol, which meant that you could use Google Chat at the time. So, we then decided, Hey, why don’t we build, then at least people can do it on a computer.
[15:22] At that time, we upgraded from a 386 to a 486 – we’re going places. So, we immediately were then able to support more young people until there was a breakfast show called, I don’t know if it’s still running, Morning Live. Do you know Morning Live? I’d never watched it until I had to appear on it and they said they wanted to come and broadcast because it was a media’s baby. You had people – ex-addicts and drug dealers – providing counseling using Mxit. I mean, this was a very beautiful media story, and what they then did was they immediately came and broadcasted and I went live on air and I demoed how it works and I didn’t expect people – there were only two camera people there or three like we see now today – I didn’t expect there’s anybody on the other side. And I just told people that if you want to chat to us this counseling service via Mxit runs from a Monday to a Thursday.
[16:22] That was a Friday morning that we were broadcasting and I said, “Just say hi if you add us as a contact.” Within two minutes, 10 000 people added us as a contact. Of course, our internet was not even that, I mean it was very slow. We were unable and we were struggling. So, I don’t know if you remember back then, you had to accept someone when they invited you to chat. So, all our people could do was accept and copy paste ‘Hi’, ‘Hi’, ‘Hi’. That’s all they could do, they couldn’t respond after that. So, that was the Friday, but for us we knew that we had to build something. I realised that we had to build a technology platform that can manage this influx of conversations. And this is now before Slack was a thing or WhatsApp was a thing. So, we then went, this is the Friday afternoon, I remember there was an open source project at UWC, and I remember they had a little chat mechanism in the e-Learning system that they weren’t really using and I thought that could potentially work for us.
[17:18] I contacted this friend of mine and said, “Listen, is it possible for us to possibly, we’ve been doing this community work, we want to build a technology platform to help community members.” He said, “Sure Marlon we can do that. What’s your budget?” Now, remember we’re going to go live on Monday. And I thought, what do I do? Do I now call Morning Live to tell them, “I’m sorry, can you please retract what I said”, which is going to be very embarrassing, or do we actually take the weekend to build something that can help people and accelerate hope? He says, “Marlon, so what do you have?” I said, “Well, there’s no budget.” He said, “Okay, what’s your timeline like?” I’m like, “Well, technically we need to train the people that’s going to use the platform on Sunday because we have to go live on Monday.” This is a Friday afternoon. So, he looked at me, he’s like, “That is not going to work.” I’m like, “Well, we can try, right? We can try.” And then we did it. We tried, and I must be honest, it’s the ugliest user interface I’ve ever seen in my life.
[18:21] I’ve never seen anything that ugly, seriously. But, when it got to the Monday, we were able to get it to work, and, for 30 minutes it was running beautifully until our servers were crashing. At that time there was no AWS or anything to that effect. We were running at local, right? We kept on reiterating every single time. Every day there was a new change until eventually that technology was used in 37 countries, even by the WHO, and impacted over four and a half million people. The crazy thing about this was the technology was built in the townships serving a real need in the community. But that is what happens when you decide that you want to accelerate hope: It allows you to innovate and to create things that you don’t think is possible. So, that’s the second lesson – hope acceleration.
[19:13] The third lesson is that there’s always, in everybody, this potential. You need to unlock the potential in people so that those people can lead. Especially for those of you that are in a position where you can support a younger developer, right? Don’t try and keep everything for yourself. Unlock the potential in that person and so allow them to lead their own journeys. Now for me, one of the crazy stories we had was there was a guy who was unemployed for eight years, and he came into RLabs and he says, “Marlon, I’ve been unemployed for eight years. It’s tough.” And when he said that, I’m like, “Yes man, that’s good.” And he looked at me, “How can it be good?” Now he’s from a place called Manenberg – you can go and Google Manenberg, right? And I said, “No, but that’s…” And he says, “But it’s difficult, I don’t know what to do.” And I said, “No, that’s good.”
[20:04] And then I asked him, “What is the biggest problem in your community?” And he said, “My biggest problem in my community is unemployment.” And when he said that, I’m like, “That’s amazing.” And I called someone in, I said, “Come and listen to this guy, man.” And I say, “Tell him what you just told me.” He said, “No, I’ve been unemployed for eight years.” I say, “That’s good! Tell him the other thing.” He said, “And the biggest problem in my community is unemployment.” And then I told him, I said, “You know what? In any other industry, if you have five years or more experience in something, you become a consultant. You’ve got eight years experience in being unemployed. The minute he realised that his complexity and his challenge is actually his expertise, the failures that he’s experienced is actually his expertise, immediately it shifted the way he thought.
[20:54] It meant that it unlocked in him something that was deep down inside of him and eventually, he went on to build what we used to call Uusi – it’s a Finnish word, any Finns here? No? It means ‘new’, right? It’s like a new beginning. We used to use a lot of Finnish names for products because the domains were always available. He literally created a poor man’s LinkedIn, he literally created a poor man’s LinkedIn that over half a million people used. And 10% of those people were able to find jobs through a platform at this young person built. It wasn’t the best of platforms and we weren’t worried about that it had to be the best. It just had to fulfill a purpose; it had to unlock value for someone. And that, immediately, was what we saw happening for this young man. So, the third lesson I want you to remember is unlock to lead.
[21:46] The fourth lesson, and there’s only five lessons, don’t worry, is that all of you in this room are builders, right? You like creating things. But, I want you to kind of think about it. How do you go about building to create, in other words, how can you look at what you are building to create new industries, to create new opportunities? Because that is the kind of developer that I believe is in this room. That’s the type of people that I believe are sitting right here today. We had a young lady that always wanted to be on the radio. Anybody here ever been on the radio? Oh wow. Amazing. That was her dream. She came to speak to us and I told her, “You know what? If you want to be on the radio, you can either go and study broadcasting, which is absolutely fine, but it’s going to take three years and your family can’t afford it. Or, at RLabs, we can build a radio station for you and then next week you’re on radio.” She looked at me. I’m like, “Yes, we’re going to build you a radio station.” Which we did.
[22:47] We literally built a radio station in our reception, got some online radio licensing going, and a week later, she’s on the radio. But then she realised that, because this is an online radio station, a lot of people didn’t have data to listen to the stream. So, what we then did was – some of the people wanted to help her – and they decided they wanted to build a tool that will allow people to listen to and reduce the data cost of the stream. That’s what they built, and these are kids from the townships. So, they built it and eventually what happened was it was going very well and because they wanted to help, this girl fulfill her dream. Then, there was a small little media company that came to us and said, “Hey, we love what you’re doing. We see you doing community radio online.” And we’re like, “Yeah, of course we’re doing it.” Although it wasn’t really that. And then they asked us if could they actually use that technology for some of their broadcasting. And we said, “Of course you’re welcome to use it.” And I don’t think you know this media company, it’s a small one, it’s called the BBC.
[23:56] People in England know them, right? So, BBC, if you listen to BBC World Service on a third party website, the underlying technology was built on the Cape Flats – yeah, you can applaud those young people – because they wanted to ensure that they are building something that can create opportunities for others. And that is what I want to encourage you to do: Take your skill that you have and look at what you can build that can create opportunities for others. That is an important lesson to learn.
[24:28] The last lesson before my time runs out, is every single one of you have the opportunity to lift, to inspire. As I’m looking across this room, all of you can have the ability to inspire others, and it’s your duty to inspire. Don’t say, “Argh, but that’s not me.” It’s your duty to inspire. Even if it’s just to encourage a younger developer or if it’s just to open up a door for someone else – physical door as well.
[24:54] This young man is a young man called Allan, and he runs a platform called Zlato where we use blockchain technology – that’s my first buzzword, here you go – to incentivise positive behavior. We use smart contracts to do some evaluations and allow young people who are unemployed to do work in their communities. Then what happens is their work is validated, they earn digital rewards that gets stored in a mobile wallet and they can use it at over 3000 stores nationwide, right? He’s from a place called Mitchells Plain and two weeks ago, Allan was going to the airport, and, on that particular day, a couple of roads away from where Allan lived, there were four other young people whose lives were taken tragically, because of the gang violence in the community.
[25:53] And it made me realise that we live in a very fragile world and the opportunities that we have. At the same moment, four young people lost their futures just like that. At the same time, Alan was invited by Google to go to their big Chrome Dev Conference, and they highlighted Zlato. Here’s a kid from the same community, the same upbringing – he didn’t go to university, only completed school, and there he was, invited as a guest to go and showcase his technology and his platform in Silicon Valley. The opportunity that you have as a developer is to lift or to inspire. Every single one of you has the ability to inspire others, and that is my big challenge for you. I really want you to think about how you can inspire the next generation of developers.
[26:47] And of course this young man is doing incredible things, so hopefully I can talk to you later a little bit more about that project. So, those are the five lessons, you all remember the five lessons? You don’t, you’ve forgotten it again. What’s the first one? Let’s see. Be community-driven. Yes. The second one, hope acceleration is important. What was the third lesson? Unlock to lead. The fourth one? Build to create, and this is the last one, right? Lift to inspire. So, this is my challenge, and my ask for you – I’m being very bold to ask you something. My ask to every single one of you in this room today is the world needs you to be the superhero. You have a superpower. Every single one of you has the opportunity to break that endless loop of poverty, right? That way, we see that our communities, because you have the ability to create something that can make a difference.
[27:54] Within you there’s one line of code, one idea, one thought, that can actually make a difference but it does need a superhero. And today, I’m looking at a room full of superheroes that have different skills and different abilities. My one simple ask for you is: Let us use that superpower that you have to make a difference in the world. Thank you very much.
NOTE: The questions for this presentation were not transcribed.
The questions start at 28:33.