Mandela Washington Fellow Zakheni Ngubo describes how his business is increasing access to education in South Africa and beyond

Access to education should not be limited by where you come from or how much money you have. That’s according to Zakheni Ngubo and the driving force behind Syafunda, a social enterprise started by the Mandela Washington Fellow that is revolutionizing education in South Africa through mobile technology.

This week, the Mandela Washington Fellowship officially concluded after a weeklong summit in Washington, DC. Ngubo and the other twenty-four entrepreneurs who came to The University of Texas at Austin for a six-week institute are heading home.

But however brief their time at UT Austin, the impact of the program endures. While the Fellows depart with a life-changing experience and equipped to make huge advances in their businesses and thereby their communities, they play a huge part in championing our tagline, “what starts here changes the world.”

That’s especially true for Ngubo whose business has already caught the attention of famous entrepreneurs and influencers like Richard Branson and Simon Sinek. Originally from a township in Durban, South Africa, Ngubo and his team of nine employees are on track to change the delivery and quality of education across the world.

In this Q&A, we learn more about Zakheni Ngubo, the genesis of Syafunda, and the impact of the Mandela Washington Fellowship at UT Austin.

Tell us about your business, Syafunda.

We have basically found a sustainable and profitable way to make education accessible in the most remote areas in Africa. It’s a personal quest of mine. Education, technology and entrepreneurship – those things are really at the core. They give people the power to create, and that’s one way we can empower people in a sustainable way, because when they can understand those two things and they have access to those two things, they can realize their potential and their goals.

How did your passion for education and technology develop?

I went to a school that cost twenty-five dollars a year. It was a rural school without many resources. I never owned a textbook throughout my high school career. Our teachers would write notes on the board and we’d copy them. That’s how I studied. And when I completed high school, I got four distinctions but I didn’t do very well in math, which meant I couldn’t get into the university I wanted and pursue the degree I wanted. So I decided to spend an extra year studying math and volunteering as a teacher of subjects in which I had done well. The following year after that I passed math and was accepted in the University of Cape Town.

Ten years later, I was working for Virgin Mobile as a brand manager and my little brother was also struggling with math. He was actually in the same school that I had attended. They just had former students coming in and teaching, without any training. So the math in that school was still really bad. I decided to search around for some extra classes with better teachers and got him into those classes. He went from failing to passing with distinction, and that allowed him to get a scholarship and go on to study at the university where I studied.

I think if you solve education, you solve a lot of other problems.

How did that evolve into a business?

I realized that we can’t really put a great teacher in every school and we can’t buy textbooks for everyone, but maybe there is a way to take the resources that are available and make them more accessible. And that’s when video became the key element. We started developing localized video tutorials in math and science, creating localized content in local languages. But we realized that a lot of students are using smart phones and some are using basic mobile phones, so we also created audio tutorials in mp3 formats for students using cheaper phones so it’s easier for them to access them. Currently, we have twelve courses in math and science in video and audio format with worksheets.

The second component was to find a way to distribute the content in an efficient way without people having to pay a lot for data. Cell phones are accessible now, but accessing Internet is still a big problem. So we came up with a system using Wi-Fi to basically create a local server with an SD card. Our content is pre-loaded in the SD card and once you put it in the phone it creates a Wi-Fi hotspot for anyone within two hundred meters, so in a place without Internet, anyone can download content directly from the server.

Describe the impact your business has had so far.

We started doing that last year with schools, and because all of our content is localized, students are engaging much more and have access to the best teachers. We have improved the schools we work with. In the first year, we had an 87 percent pass rate and helped students achieve 130 distinctions, so that was amazing for me. We had actually achieved what we set out to do. Eighty-percent of our students go on to university and now, we are constantly trying to push the envelope and see what else we can do.

Some of our students who didn’t go on to university, even though they did well in school, was because of funding. A lot of them didn’t know about scholarships. They didn’t know how to apply and some of them didn’t have the money to apply. It’s 200 South African Rand to get an application. So now the third component of the business we are working on is how to conduct data analytics on student performance from the first year of high school up until the very end. How do we use that data to track how they’re performing? What are their strengths and what careers would they be interested in and qualified for? And then how can we then take the data to help pair the students with companies that offer scholarships and start introducing them early to institutions so they can start getting their careers on track?

So it just evolved from what my brother and I went through. I realized that, if such a dramatic change can happen with him, why hasn’t anyone done this? It’s so simple: videos. Kids are on cellphones watching YouTube videos. As much as we wanted to distribute free education, it had to be sustainable, so we had to come up with a model that was sustainable. And that’s where the data comes in. We’re able to sell our distribution platform to other organizations like educational institutions or other content providers who want to access our students. They use the platform to distribute their content to our students and we charge them, so the educational content is always free for the students.

Why is education and tech an important field for South Africa and the continent, in general?

I think if you solve education, you solve a lot of other problems. But it is very important to understand that education is not just limited to the classroom. It’s all forms of education. It’s about giving people valuable content about the world. So, beyond academics, giving people the right information about careers, giving people the right information about entrepreneurship, and making that information accessible to them. For example, in South Africa we have the one of highest unemployment rates. A lot of those who are unemployed are university graduates. People with skills, people with talent, but because the mentality has always been get a job, a lot of them are not really thinking about exploring an opportunity in entrepreneurship, or exploring other ways of creating something. And so, for us, I think if we can step into that at an early stage, it is one way to get our economy going by taking this pool of talent and these young people and creating a different story about Africa.

Education and access to the Internet are still a big problem, only in South Africa but across Africa. But beyond that, it’s also a problem in places across the world like Brazil, Cambodia, even the British Virgin Islands. So finding a sustainable way to make education accessible and giving people the platform and empowering them to be able to create their own content that is relevant to them in their own context means that you have created a platform that develops the next generation of leaders.

Instead of somebody having to pay thousands and thousands to get the best education, now all they have to get is a cellphone.

What do you want people to know about South Africa?

It has so much potential. It’s a really exciting time right now in South Africa. One thing South Africa is really great at is developing and molding really good leaders. Entrepreneurship wise, it’s booming and young people have so much talent. With the technological advances that are happening now, people are finding really resourceful and creative ways to build organizations that are sustainable. They’re mostly finding solutions that work not only in South Africa but also across the world. So we are finally starting to see ourselves as a global partner, rather than in a local context. And with the world opening up in a lot of ways, I think there’s huge opportunities and potential. I think Africa in the next ten years is going to be completely different than what you see now and South Africa is one of those countries that are leap-frogging. People are really looking at problems and they’re finding opportunities within those problems and they’re very determined about it, so that’s the most exciting thing.

How does it feel to be given the title of a Young African Leader?

It’s humbling, and it also comes with a lot of responsibility. Because the title is Young African Leaders, not Young South African Leaders, it gets you thinking about what kind of influence you can really have in the whole continent. So it changes the mindset from being centered on your country to being centered more on the continent, and also I guess it bestows that sense of pride and validation in what you’re doing and what you stand for. Once you start a business, it’s just about you trying to save your business but then the more people come on board, the more people become a part of it. And so, it becomes an organization that is bigger than you. And so, being a part of this program, I guess, reemphasizes that this is bigger than me. This is bigger than South Africa and we now have access to opportunities to really create something that can change the lives of a lot of people and that’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the future. I know we have a lot of work ahead but the fact that we’ve come this far makes me realize that a lot more is possible.

When I started Syafunda, I was engaged and my fiancée was pregnant. So it was not the best time to leave a good job, but I knew it had to be done. I wanted to show my son that anything is possible, and if you have dreams, you have to pursue them. So, I saved up for about four months, took all of my savings, left my family and literally lived in a shack in South Africa for the first four months. I worked incredibly hard with no assurances, no securities, whatsoever. It was really tough, but now I know it was worth it. I think I was able to change the trajectory of my son’s life and kind of show him what’s possible.

Why do you think it’s important for programs like the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders to exist?

I left a very comfortable job in a corporate world, and after having spent a lot of time in adversity, you can imagine my parents’ and my family’s reaction to that. I was called irresponsible and a big dreamer. It’s a very lonely road. You’re always fighting against the current, you’re always pushing, and you have this weight because you have this vision that’s nobody else’s but yours. So, I think programs like this put you around people who think like you. People who are dreaming about things that don’t exist, just like you, and that reinforces your spirit and what you’re trying to accomplish. It becomes more of a journey of brotherhood and partnerships than just you riding through alone. But also, I think it’s a useful opportunity for collaboration, and I think that’s key for any business to succeed.

What was the highlight of the program at UT Austin for you?

I have loved the combination of both the academic aspect and the practical aspect of it. Being able to be in class and learn from each other through the discussions has been absolutely enriching. But also to be able to go to organizations like Dropbox and Google and engage with them has been key. And a lot of really great things have come out of it, a lot of great people who are interested in what we’re doing, starting those conversations.

But the highlight for me was our homestay. I met my host family, and as we were talking, we realized that their daughter is business partners with one of our investors. Small world! I realized that he actually used to work for Dell and IBM, which were the companies that I wanted to meet while I was here. So he gave me Michael Dell’s email address and said, “You know, when I retired from Dell, this was the email he was using. I’m not sure if it still works but give it a shot.” I sent an email to Michael telling him what we’re doing, titled it UT Mandela Washington Fellowship and explained to him that I would like to meet with him to show him what we’re doing. Three days later I got an email from the South African head of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation saying, “We want to work with you. Can you meet as soon as you come back?” It is really exciting.

What are your goals after you complete the fellowship?

Our goal for this year is to reach 1,200 schools by January. My team is working very hard at that. We want to get into as many schools as possible but also work on the software development side and use the cloud system to be able to track data in real time. Because that’s key. As much as we’re already in schools and we already have content, not being able to monitor and intervene in real time is a big problem, and I think that’s going to be a game changer. So that’s what I’ve been focusing on and I’m going to focus on moving forward. Figuring out how to connect the devices together in a sense that teachers and schools can create their own pages, upload their own content and resources, and communicate with their students, so students can access content not only from their schools but neighboring schools.

That’s what will make education accessible to everyone, regardless of what school they’re in. And it will give them a lot more options because they’ll have access to content in different languages, by different teachers. And for me, that’s always been the key driving force behind this: access to education should not be limited by where you come from and how much money your parents have. It’s something that everybody should have access to. It’s the one thing that really gives you a fighting chance at succeeding in this economy. And so, the key thing for us is, completely changing education by lowering barriers. Instead of somebody having to pay thousands and thousands to get the best education, now all they have to get is a cellphone. And, those who want the education, regardless of how much money they have, now have the means to access it and use it.

I’m just trying to make the most of this opportunity and really build lasting relationships and partnerships. In the next two or three years, we really want to take our organization to the next level. We are looking at a global opportunities and how we can change the world.

Interview by Fiona Mazurenko

Photographs by Sara Combs and courtesy of Zakheni Ngubo

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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