How Syafunda is boosting sustainable development Goals

By ITU News

Recently, cross-border scaling program for social and environmental good Accelerate 2030 gathered its finalists at the SDG Factory in Geneva, Switzerland.

The programme is partnered with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Swiss Re, Pfizer, and Impact Hub to help scale ventures that are making a difference in driving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Finalists were selected for their:

  • readiness to scale to new markets
  • proven solutions in achieving sustainable impact
  • focus on activities in developing and transitioning countries
  • and innovation in addressing local needs.

ITU News talked to some of the finalists to learn about how their ventures are making a difference in driving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


Syafunda, which translates to “we are learning”, is an educational platform that provides access to digital content through mobile technology. Inspired by personal experiences growing up in townships where there was a shortage of textbooks and math and science teachers, Zakheni Ngubo and his team at Syafunda have decided to solve these challenges by capitalizing on South Africa’s high mobile penetrationrate at 68% as of 2017.

In partnering with local content developers and publishers, Syafunda sets up digital libraries in places such as township and rural schools, where connectivity is limited or nonexistent. The digital libraries have 5 Terabytes of pre-loaded content that emits wifi hotspots of 2 km so anyone in the vicinity with a mobile device can access and download the material without having to pay for internet.

By incorporating open-source textbooks and direct negotiations with publishers, Syafunda provides access to digital content for high school and post-high school students, with a focus on STEM subjects and entrepreneurship, digital skills, and financial literacy to bring education to all.

Hablando Con Julis

Frustrated by the challenges and barriers experienced by her own sister, who was born with a disability that rendered her unable to speak, CEO of Hablando Con Julis Daniela Galindo created software that helps people who can’t talk, read, or write, to communicate.

“With this technology we are changing all those ‘nos’ into a big ‘yes’.” – Daniela Galindo, CEO of Hablando Con Julis

The proprietary pedagogical method and image-based software helps people with disabilities to communicate according to each person’s unique capabilities. Currently at over 8,000 users and based in Colombia, Hablando Con Julis is expanding within Latin America and will launch the English version next month.

HearX Group

Medical technology company HearX Groupspecializes in the development of clinically valid, time-efficient and low-cost aural screening was also in attendance. CEO Nic Klopper sat down with ITU News to explain more about its 8 products, and in particular its flagship product, Hearscreen.

A cost-effective, 60-second test which allows minimally trained individuals to conduct clinically valid hearing tests using mobile smartphone technology, Hearscreen enables community workers and nurses to conduct clinically valid hearing tests with only 20 minutes of training and an Android smartphone. The data is then transmitted via its referral system to the nearest specialist.

“In a majority of the third world and developing world, there’s less than one hearing healthcare specialist per million people, so you can imagine how a product like this can revolutionize access to hearing health care services.” – Nic Klopper, CEO of HearX Group

Based in South Africa, HearX has conducted screenings in 27 countries globally, primarily in underserved or low-to-middle-income countries, and hopes to further expand its vision of healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere.


Co-Founder of SafeMotos Barrett Nash spoke to ITU news about how SafeMotos uses mobile technology to make motorcycle taxis safer for people in Kigali, Rwanda. In many cities across Africa, motorcycle taxi is the most popular method of getting from place to place.

Motorcycle taxis are low in cost and allow the rider to bypass traffic jams. However, they are extraordinarily dangerous – road traffic crashes are the leading cause of fatality in the region and 80% of accidents in Kigali involve motorcycle taxis.

“We realized pretty early on that, while people like the concept of safety, safety isn’t strong enough value proposition to change towards our product and that people prioritize convenience and price.” – Barrett Nash, Co-Founder of SafeMotos

SafeMotos aims to make transportation safer by connecting customers with safe drivers. By utilizing sensor and GPS data pulled from the drivers’ smartphones, SafeMotos is able to utilize data such as brake speed, acceleration, and speed limit in algorithms defined by insurance agencies to connect customers with safe and reliable drivers.


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Africa’s best hope for quality education Impact Hub Geneva

Affordable and accessible education is still not realised everywhere in the world. Having personally experienced a shortage of teachers, Zakheni Ngubo developed Syafunda; an online platform for students providing access to localised digital content. With over 80.000 students using the platform, it has proven its success already. Zakheni will be in Geneva during the scaling week on the 6th of October and we had the opportunity to speak with him about his entrepreneurial journey.

When I was in my final 2 years of high school, my school, which had very limited resources, also did not have a maths teacher. It delayed my university acceptance by one year as I had to spend an extra year retaking mathematics after my graduation to qualify. Soon I discovered this was a general issue in South Africa. More than 80 per cent of learners in South Africa fail to qualify for University education due to poor performance in math and science. Experienced and qualified teachers leave the teaching industry and the current process of finding replacements and hiring somebody is still very long with inadequate teacher training and support structures.

It’s a serious problem because for a lot of people education really is their way out. The idea therefore is to give people access to other resources. We created an online mobile device with content created by high quality teachers. Students can download the content to study and even subscribe from home or anywhere else, as long as they have a Wi-Fi device.


1069341_655771784451565_1530094213_nSyafunda’s biggest value is in the content. In traditional teaching a lot of students have issues internalizing the info or applying it in daily live. Our content is not too graphic or too intimidating and we try to use as many practical examples as possible. Next to this, we tackled a language barrier. Still 70 percentage of our students are having problems with speaking and understanding English. They are more used to communicating in their local language, Zulu for example. We decided to use the local langue for our video lessons so that students from townships and rural areas can also relate to it.

Of course we changed our ideas along the way. In the beginning our students didn’t like the whiteboards. It looked unfamiliar because there was no teacher. We made some changes to our content. But we also changed our product in terms of the Internet infrastructure since it was too slow. The registration is online, however the content can be used offline. You can now digitally download it in less then 2 minutes. We have added extra features like a bookstore where people can find copies of textbooks. Students pay lot of money for a textbook, making it available online is cheaper then finding it from a retailer.


We didn’t receive funding for three years, but I worked for different projects in return of development of my project. Out of necessity I had to get very creative. You always have something to offer in order to receive something like time or skills. Even without investment you can get very far as an entrepreneur. I am proud i managed to build my start-up by being creative.

Sometimes it can be a lonely road. I like to get my inspiration from other entrepreneurs by understanding their journey and the things they went through. Richard Branson inspired me a lot. Somehow he managed to stay true as an innovator and entrepreneur. I see myself like this. There are different phases in building a company. The start-up phase where you have to be creative and the next stage where you have to preserve and maintain. He managed to stay in the creative start-up phase again and again.

When it comes to new innovations it is hard to get support in our country. Especially when you start something new. When there a no results and the risk factor is perceived as being high, nobody is willing to fund it. You have to prove the concept first. In the places where I come from, entrepreneurship is not fully embraced yet. Especially when you have graduated from university, it is seen as irresponsible and different.


I would also say that start-up communities in developing countries are not built on the same landscape as companies in Silicon Valley. We are lacking the financial, corporate and due diligence structures to unlock funding and are usually born out of necessity. I would encourage companies to think differently about start-ups and how to evaluate them. Look at the potential impact and see what you can do to assist these start-ups to tick the boxes set up these structures to enable them to get funding. I am looking forward to meeting new people in October during the Scaling week. I hope to receive some special support in terms of funding, legal advice and ways in which we can expand our organization. Hopefully it will unlock more opportunities and funds


Our future dreams? Although we have over 80.000 subscribers right now, we are still looking for ways to extend our user base. We have just launched a new campaign. Our goal is to get as many servers linked to as many schools as possible. Next to the government and corporate business funding, we now made it possible for individuals to support our project too through an Adopt A School campaign where performance and impact data and analytics is provided to organizations or individuals covering the costs to set up and manage a Syafunda Digital Library in a school or community centre. So anybody who wants to support us, let us know!



This article is one in a series in which we get to know the International Finalists of our Accelerate2030 program a little bit better. Accelerate2030 is a 9-month program co-initiated by Impact Hub Geneva and the UNDP with a mission to scale the impact of ventures that contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals internationally. All nine finalists will be present at the Impact Hub Geneva from the 6th until the 13th of October during the Scaling week.

Syafunda: The digital learning platform changing the face of Africa

Access to information on the part of students is very important. In South Africa, a digital learning platform called Syafunda is recording some measurable success in providing digital content to students through mobile technology.

Founded by Zakheni Ngubo, who is also the Senior Managing Partner, Syafunda aims at using solid business principles to find a viable and sustainable solution to challenges facing the South African education system. It helps children access educational material and especially those with limited access to information and other resources.

Zakheni Ngubo, who is a Mandela Washington Fellow and a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship alumnus, also aims at improving the low math and science grades that South African students are victims to due to lack of adequate learning material. Moved with intense passion from his learning experience in Umlazi where there was limited access to educational material, he came up with a greater resolve to address the problems bedeviling the South African education sector.

Ngubo did not have a mathematics teacher during his final two years in school. This meant that he did not have a teacher in grade 11 and 12 who could help him produce good marks in the subject. He obtained five distinctions, but could not gain admission to university due to his poor mathematics marks. It was only when he upgraded his results that he was admitted at the University of Cape Town.

Syafunda Digital Libraries have been set up in schools, community centres and municipal libraries. Pre-loaded with premium digital educational content, the system allows learners to download e-books, video tutorials, past papers and worksheets free of charge. Although the system currently only offers mathematics and science material, Syafunda are looking to expand it and add geography and accounting aids.

“Through digital tests we identify, capture and monitor performance data and profile each student for support, career guidance and university bursary placement while giving our clients and schools real-time feedback and intervention capabilities,” explains Ngubo.

The Syafunda model has registered significant success and hopes to expand its reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 community centres by 2019.

Syafunda, Bridging A Gap In The Education Sphere: Nunnovation

Social Entrepreneur Zakheni Ngubo, providing a learning opportunity for high school students.

During a sit down session at The Innovation Hub, I got to have a lovely chat with Johannesburg (South Africa) based social entrepreneur Zakheni Ngubo. He is the Senior MANAGING Partner at Syafunda, which means ‘we are learning’. Syafunda is an e-learning platform that is focused on providing a digital curriculum and virtual classroom for Maths and Science students. Zakheni takes Nunnovation on his trail of thoughts as he recalls how for three years of his high school life, he had no maths teacher due to the lack of resources, which later reflected in his marks. Zakheni passed matric with four distinctions, yet failed Mathematics. Twelve years down the line, the mishap he faced then, he has turned into a victory, and hopes that no child will ever have to go through the struggles he encountered.

Today, Zakheni develops localized digital content for high school learners. Zakheni speaks about this venture with a smile as he recalls how far he has come. “We started with nothing in our pockets. I was just blessed enough to find a team that was selfless and driven, who, for a long period of time, worked without receiving any income”, says Zakheni.

This digital platform company, not only provides learning material to students, but also serves as a platform where corporates and these students engage. Students’ information is stored on these platforms, and corporates can then go through these profiles, SELECTING students for various bursaries.

Zakheni has been traveling around Africa, trying to FORM partnerships with various institutions. University of the Witwatersrand has come on board; Pearson Publishers, RedBull Amaphiko as well as Maths Centre have also joined Syafunda. “The politics in Education are too many; people are territorial when coming to this field. They always want to stick to what they know”, says Zakheni with frustration. As he goes on to express his gratitude to these partners of Syafunda.

We may soon be hearing of Syafunda sealing a deal in Nigeria as CURRENTLY, tests are being run there too. Botswana and Swaziland may also be well in line.

While some people may be wondering how much it costs to access Syafunda, the ANSWER is, it’s free. Once a local server has been set up, you can access it from any network.

Speaking to Zakheni was insightful as we wait to see new innovative ways that will CHANGE the education sphere.

Syafunda Digital to boost maths, science literacy: IT Web

Syafunda Digital to boost maths, science literacy

By Kgaogelo Letsebe, Portals journalist
Johannesburg, 19 Jul 2017

Students are able to download maths and science e-books, video tutorials, past papers and worksheets from the Syafunda Digital Library free of charge.

Syafunda Digital, with the help of the Department of Education, Dimension Data and Virgin Unite, is distributing educational digital content to 80 000 students in 47 schools across the country.

Through its Syafunda Digital Library in schools, community centres and libraries, students are able to download maths and science e-books, video tutorials, past papers and worksheets from the library free of charge.
“Once a student is registered with us, they can do assessments and quizzes to practice as well as compete and engage with teachers and students from different schools,” explains founder and senior managing partner Zakheni Ngubo.

“The students also have access to educational, entrepreneurship and IT content on their mobile device for free without the high cost related to Internet access.”

The platform gives students access to digital skills, entrepreneurship and career guidance. It also provides monthly analytics and student data to sponsors for impact assessment, marketing and public relations purposes.

Ngubo explains that his frustration at not having a mathematics teacher during his final two years in high school led him to establish Syafunda.

“When I started working, in the mobile sector at Virgin Mobile, I knew I had to find a way to use the technology in a very productive way because a person’s future is not determined or limited by their background or financial status but by information and access to available opportunities.”

Through the platform’s “Adopt A School” campaign, organisations adopt a school by covering the annual costs of setting up and managing a Syafunda Digital Library in a school or centre of their choosing, and in so doing, allow over 1 500 students to gain access to the various materials.

Ngubo adds that of an estimated 3.5 million high school learners between the ages of 15 and 19, about 76% own or have access to a mobile device. “Access to hardware alone without relevant content and software does not aid in the education process. The majority of digital content in education is either too technical and therefore intimidating or irrelevant in the South African context.”
The platform’s content is accredited by the Department of Education, which vets and approves the methodology and language policy and assists in developing teacher training material. It is also in partnership with the Technology Innovation Agency and Durban University of Technology for hardware research and development.

He acknowledges it is difficult to get solutions integrated and implemented in the public school sector, but still aims to expand its reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 community centres by 2019.

“Education removes the burden of isolation and levels the playing field between socio-economic classes. Increasing literacy skills, particularly in maths and science, gives learners the ability to find solutions to problems. Africa is in need of unique and local solutions to our unique challenges and therefore we have to equip our young people to drive those solutions and innovations,” he noted.

Syafunda e-learning empowers students : Destiny Man

Syafunda is a learning and data management platform that provides access to digital content through mobile technology

Founder and Senior Managing Partner at digital learning platform Syafunda, Zakheni Ngubo uses solid business principles to find a viable and sustainable solution to challenges facing the South African education system.

Ngubo has developed an online learning platform to help children access educational material. He learnt when he started working at Virgin Mobile that learners were dealing with the same issues he did while at high school.

Inspired by his own experience when he was a high school learner in Umlazi with very limited access to educational resources and information, Ngubo saw a need to help solve the crisis in education.

“When I started working, in the mobile sector at Virgin Mobile, I knew I had to find a way to use the technology in a very productive way,” he said.

Ngubo did not have a mathematics teacher during his final two years in school. This meant that he did not have a teacher in grade 11 and 12 who could help him produce good marks in the subject. He obtained five distinctions, but could not gain admission to university due to his poor mathematics marks. It was only when he upgraded his results that he was admitted at the University of Cape Town.

“It is the crucial point that ultimately led to Syafunda. At the core of our organisation, we are driven by the need to create a fair world, where a person’s future is not determined or limited by their background or financial status, but one where information and access to opportunities are available,” he said.

Syafunda Digital Libraries have been set up in schools, community centres and municipal libraries. The system is preloaded with premium digital educational content and allows learners to download e-books, video tutorials, past papers and worksheets free of charge. Although the system currently only offers mathematics and science material, Syafunda are looking to expand it and add geography and accounting aids.

“Once a student is registered with us, they can also do assessments and quizzes to practise, compete and engage with teachers and students from different schools,” he said.

Without support, black students will continue to drop out – Lehohla
Ngubo said the firm is an active member of Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa, which assists them to identify and build relationships with the best mathematics and science teachers and understand challenges faced by teachers. They also source additional content through partnerships with publishers like Siyavula, Presto Academy, Digify Africa, Pearson and the Department of education. “We empower and educate our students in a wide range of issues from academia, entrepreneurship, IT, career guidance and life skills,” he said.

“Africa is in need of local solutions to our unique challenges and therefore, we have to equip our young people to drive those solutions and innovations and ensure the next generation of Africans in informed, involved and empowered,” he said.

Ngubo said the mobile industry was growing, with about 76% of the 3,5 million high school learners between the ages of 15 and 19 enjoying access to a mobile device, either at home or at school. “For the students who don’t have access to digital devices, we give the school a minimum of 20 tablets to give to students on a short loan basis to use while at school. Our goal is to expand our reach to 500 schools, 200 public libraries and 100 community centres by 2019,” he said.

He said textbooks were expensive and most learners did not have access to them. “We are working on a plan to give publishers an alternative channel to sell their textbooks that will eliminate the cost of printing, distribution and retailer shelf space. Students will be able to buy points, which can be used to buy an encrypted digital copy textbook or certain chapters directly on our system at about R9 per chapter,” he said.

Tags: Digital Library, e-learning, education crisis, Syafunda, Zakheni Ngubo

Syafunda e-learning empowers students

Disrupting for good: meet our Necker Island competition winners!

Several times a year, Virgin Unite organises Leadership Gatherings on Necker Island. The trips are a great way of bringing together like-minded people who share our belief that when entrepreneurial ideas are coupled with the right people, we can change the world.

At our next gathering at the end of May, we’re bringing together business leaders, entrepreneurs and philanthropists to discuss the topic, “Disrupting for Good” – how disruptive thinking and entrepreneurial approaches can create opportunities for a better world.

For the first time, we ran a competition to offer two entrepreneurs the chance to join this group. During this all-expenses-paid trip, the competition winners will present their ideas and pick the brains of some of the brightest and most talented people in the world. And of course enjoy the Island sunshine!

We were looking for entrepreneurs with an existing business that is making a positive impact to people and planet, as well as making a profit. We had some incredible applicants tackling a range of issues; from eco-tourism to battling unemployment and it was a really tough call. Nonetheless, we are excited to announce our two winners: Zakheni Ngubo and Nathaniel Peat.

Zakheni Ngubo
“Where there is passion and purpose, prosperity always follows. Doing good is good business and you have to stand and live for something much bigger than yourself.”

Zakheni grew up in Umlazi, a Durban Township in South Africa. He completed his high school education without a maths teacher and this experience led him to his create Syafunda. Syafunda is an organisation that provides fun and interactive maths and English lessons through mobile technology.

In just over a year and with the support of the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa, Syafunda has become a key player in the education and technology sector, developing and distributing maths and science digital content for students in grades seven through 12 in South Africa. They have also created a free wireless network that allows students to download and access educational content directly on their mobile device without internet.

On Necker, Zakheni hopes to get the opportunity to take time to reflect and learn about himself away from his usual busy schedule. In the future, Zakheni hopes to expand Syafunda and has already been testing the viability of their business model in Botswana, Nigeria and Swaziland. Their goal is to ensure that every child in Africa has access to digital content that will educate, empower and inspire them to reach their full potential.

Nathaniel Peat
“Aspire to inspire before you expire, the only limitation we have in this life is the one in our own mind”

Nathaniel grew up in North London in a Jamaican family and has always been passionate about helping young people who struggled at school. He co-founded GeNNex, a business selling portable solar chargers and home power systems to people in the developing world, whilst empowering women and young people to learn how to build, maintain and sell the products for themselves.

GeNNex also works in the UK with disengaged and underprivileged young people through its school program in which students (aged 13-14) design and build renewable energy products that are shipped to partner schools in Africa whose students still use dangerous kerosene lanterns. Nathanial and his team aim to empower communities by making them more financially independent through awareness of renewable energy and its benefits.

Nathaniel found out about the Necker competition through Virgin Start Up, who awarded GeNNex a 10k loan last July, to help them really get the business of the ground. Virgin Start Up thought GeNNex were a great example of a socially conscious business and we agreed!

On this trip, Nathaniel hopes to learn from some of the world’s most successful businesspeople on how they managed to scale their business, foster new ideas and learn how to handle the challenges that come with working internationally. GeNNex hope to expand to a further two countries and see growth both financially and also in terms of positively impacting lives by providing power to those who have none.
Look out for our next blog telling you all about our finalists who were narrowly pipped to the post!

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Young innovator impresses Richard Branson

S’thembile Cele
2015-06-15 15:23

Zakheni Ngubo. Picture: Supplied
A young man from Umlazi, southwest of Durban, has come up with a revolutionary idea to attend to South Africa’s education crisis and its failure to produce pupils who are competent in maths and science.

Zakheni Ngubo’s innovativeness has been recognised by renowned international entrepreneur Richard Branson. Ngubo recently returned home after spending time with the billionaire at Branson’s private Necker Island.

In 2002, Ngubo’s high school maths teacher fell ill and was not replaced by the school. At the time, Ngubo was in Grade 11 and, until the end of his matric year, he and his classmates were without a maths teacher. Despite obtaining distinctions in other subjects, his maths marks were not that good and, as a result, he was not able to get into university.

The following year, he repeated maths and was accepted into the University of Cape Town for a BCom in marketing and supply chain management.

His struggle – and that of many other pupils around South Africa – led him to create Syafunda, a platform that provides learning solutions through mobile technology.

Through the platform, the best maths and science teachers are identified and asked to record their lessons, which can be downloaded by students for free.

“So we had auditions around KwaZulu-Natal to find the best teachers in the province. Eventually, we found two for maths and two for science. We got the four of them to teach the entire grade 11 to 12 curriculums on video, and students can download it for free. The lessons are also available in MP3, and soon we will have workbooks in PDF format as well,” Ngubo told City Press.

All of the content is available on a Wi-Fi network, which has a connectivity range of 100m. Students can download the content while at school, and even other members from the community can access the material when they are in range.

The service is free and is a sophisticated mobi site, which means it is supported by a number of low-cost phones.

The Wi-Fi network has now been used in 100 schools in KwaZulu-Natal. Ngubo says they hope to increase the schools benefiting from the Wi-Fi network to 1 200 by this time next year.

Ngubo’s involvement in the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg afforded him the opportunity to pitch his idea to Branson at his island. His week on the island was a networking opportunity for him and other Branson Centre graduates from around the world, which also gave them a chance to be mentored and advised by other well-known entrepreneurs.

“It was an incredible opportunity. It was amazing to have the chance to have breakfast, lunch and supper with Branson for a week and to engage with him and some other entrepreneurs I have admired for a long time,” Ngubo said.

Mzansi’s top 100: Disruptor, Zakheni Ngubo Founder of Syafunda

“I live by the words: Live and stand for something bigger than yourself,” says Disruptor, Zakheni Ngubo.
At school Zakheni Ngubo, 30, struggled with maths – probably because his school didn’t have a maths teacher.

His poor maths marks meant that, even with distinctions in four other subjects, he couldn’t attend university. Undeterred, he enrolled for maths classes and was accepted at university a year later. It was here he realised how many other people lacked access to quality education and the idea for Syafunda – a company that produces interactive maths and science video tutorials in local languages – was born.
As the founder and senior managing partner of Syafunda, Ngubo is changing the game, one tutorial at a time. Syafunda distributes videos directly to learners’ mobile devices through wireless networks at their schools, which are sponsored by various organisations. At present Syafunda reaches 60 000 students in 41 schools and has won a fistful of awards, including the University of Johannesburg’s Emerging Social Enterprise Award and the South African Impact Investment Network Award.

Through Syafunda students can also get support, career guidance and help with university scholarships. In 2015 Ngubo was one of a select few who participated in an annual leadership gathering hosted by Richard Branson at his home on Necker Island. “Your work ethic, integrity and character should determine your destiny and future, not your background, language or financial status,” says Ngubo. His track record confirms this as much as his words.
Find Ngubo on Twitter: @nzakheni


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.