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.


Zakheni Ngubo is a busy man. His answer to South Africa’s chronic shortage of decent maths and science teachers is to digitise the school curriculum and create a virtual classroom for the benefit of learners everywhere. Pursuing his dream of developing a mobile phone app that can deliver top-quality maths and science teaching has seen him attending conferences and being nominated for awards across the globe.

Ngubo recently returned from the Tech Open Air Conference in Berlin where he pitched his Syafunda project to tech venture capitalists; Syafunda is being considered for the Pearson Edupreneurs Programme award (worth R800 000 in seed funding), The Queen’s Young Leaders Award, and the University of Johannesburg’s Emerging Social Enterprise Award.

THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve overcome township educational problems. How has this shaped your career?

ZAKHENI NGUBO: I completed my matric in a high school with no maths teacher and as a result, despite my outstanding performance, I wasn’t accepted into university. So I enrolled in evening maths lessons and got into the University of Cape Town the following year. When my brother struggled with maths, I enrolled him in Saturday classes and he got a distinction, and a bursary to study at UCT. This led me to create Syafunda. Where I come from is at the heart of what we do: we put young people first and try to give them a chance of competing and contributing in a global economy.

What about the Syafunda app?

We are working on the content input side so that anyone can add and edit content, particularly teachers who are not necessarily well versed in technology. And to avoid the high cost of data or lack of connectivity in rural and township schools, we are testing a wireless network that allows students to download content free without using 3G or ADSL.

When will the app launch?

On the technology side, the hard part is over. It’s now more about the operational side: customising and testing. Our mobile solution will allow teachers to manage a virtual classroom, upload and share content, and engage with learners. We will launch in March 2015 with Grade 11 and 12 maths and science, then add content as we go, all the way to Grade 8.

Tell us about your networking.

The Tech Open Air Conference gave us some great international mentorship and exposure, and the Digital Edge conference in Joburg helped us to solve the question of access to smartphones and low-cost feature phones: we’ll deliver audio lessons with the video, worksheets and assessments.

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Zakheni Ngubo
Zakheni Ngubo, 29,is the driving force behind the Syafunda mobile learning app
Has your outlook changed since Red Bull Amaphiko Academy 2014?

Where there is passion and purpose, prosperity always follows. I have learned that business is an endurance game and that teams are worth more than gold.

How do you strike a work-life balance?

I go back home to Durban as often as possible to those who inspire me to be more than an entrepreneur – particularly my one-year-old son and my fiancé. My family keeps me grounded and focused on what life should and could be.

Any examples?

I had my birthday recently and I was still working at around two o’clock in the morning when five tipsy girls burst into my apartment and sang “Happy birthday!” really loud. A neighbour had got together some people from the building to surprise me. But when they got to the part where they were supposed to say my name, they paused because none of them knew it! I burst out laughing. It made me realise that I need to be more sociable with people in the building where I live.

When times are hard, how do you find encouragement?

I draw strength from those who know that tough times are inevitable, but push you towards a solution. I am part of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy WhatsApp group, which is a safe place to talk, and share experiences and encouragement with social entrepreneurs.

Any advice for South Africa’s young entrepreneurs?

It’s not about what, but about who, you become. Your dreams represent the essence of your soul, so do not give up on them. And always trust your instincts.