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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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

Be more, do more and give more

Virgin Unite Leadership Gatherings Are A Great Way To Connect Like-Minded People Who Hold A Passion For Creating Positive Change In The World. Yesterday Nathaniel Peat Shared Some Of His Learnings From The Week And Today We Want To Introduce You To The Founder Of Syafunda, Zakheni Ngubo.

Let’s Start With A Brief Summary Of Your Business – What Does It Aim To Do And Why?

Poor performance in Maths and Science continues to persist in South Africa due to shortages of teachers, books, resources and teacher training in rural and township schools across the country. With less than 10 per cent of young people getting access to quality education Syafunda provides universal access to free, quality education by leveraging the most accessible media technologies, such as smart and low cost feature phones.

Working with some of the best teachers in the country, Syafunda generates math and science interactive video and audio tutorials. These are then distributed for free through a wireless network for students in grades eight to 12 in a South African context, using a mixture of English and four South African languages.

Through online tests and assessments we are able to identify, capture and monitor performance data on students and close the feedback loop, while providing relevant supporting resources. Our system automatically creates a relevant and up-to-date digital profile for a simple and effective bursary application process, while distributing a wide variety of educational content in business, climate and environmental issues, current affairs and technology – all to ensure the next generation of Africans are empowered, inspired, informed and involved in creating a better world.

Why Do You Think Being An Entrepreneur Is So Important?
Entrepreneurship is the only way to effectively redirect resources and opportunities, regardless of who you are, and where you come from. It is the only field that rewards passion, ambition, integrity and work ethic while compounding abilities and potential with each experience.

…And How Do You Hope To Use Your Business To Create Positive Impact?
At the core of our organisation we are driven by the need to create a more equitable and thus fair world, where a person’s future is not determined or limited by their background but where we are truly able to create a world where every person – rich and poor – has a fighting chance at prosperity and a life they can be proud of. Education, entrepreneurship and technology all play a vital role in ending the burden of isolation and unite people of all borders, social class and race, in working together and sharing information to figure out this thing called life and our role and place in it.

You Recently Won A Place To Attend A Virgin Unite Leadership Gathering On Necker Island Due To Your Participation In Our Entrepreneur Programme – What Were The Top Learnings You Took From The Speakers During The Gathering And Why Did They Strike Such A Chord With You And Your Business?
I was really inspired by the passion and kindness of everyone from Virgin Unite and their aspirations to change the world.

I remember a debate between Simon Sinek, Richard Branson and Russell Brand about systematically creating change and Richard said “one cannot impose a system on people, but rather change the way people think, by educating them and empowering the early adopters and the innovators so they can empower more people.” Therefore lasting change can only come from within and can be driven by the people themselves and cannot be imposed on people or a society.

Simon said that “if you want to tear down a wall you cannot do it in one blow but by moving one brick at a time” and that “at first it doesn’t look like much, but soon people start to notice and the cause starts picking up momentum – not because it is imposed on people, but because they start to believe and feel empowered and inspired.”

I also spent a lot of time with Jean Oelwang talking about leadership and the role of leaders – particularly in Africa – and how The Elders came to be, and it made me realise that individuals really do have the power to change the course of history. People united are a force for good that can create an unstoppable movement.

Why Did These Lessons Strike Such A Chord With You And Your Business?
It taught me the importance and the value of empowering people instead of just providing aid. Empowering someone not only provides resource, but also instils a sense of pride and purpose in the person, hopefully giving them the confidence to change the lives of people around them too. Developing more leaders who can innovate, create and problem solve is of utmost importance – as the world changes we too must change and adapt with it, embracing the new solutions and possibilities that arise each day. Not only must we embrace change but we must drive it in the direction that achieves the greatest good.

If You Had To Summarise Your Experience On The Trip In One Sentence, What Would You Say?
I was inspired to be more, do more and give more.
Learn more about Virgin Unite’s upcoming trips
Zakheni became involved in the Entrepreneur Programme through his time at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa – find out more about the centre.

Find out more about how you can join Virgin Unite’s community


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.

Pioneers Startup Challenge 2013 winner Urška Sršen on life as an entrepreneur
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.


Making a profit vs making a change

“To register as a non-profit business is unsustainable,” begins Amaphiko academy alumni Zakheni Ngubo. “It’s like going into business with your hands tied behind your back and hoping people feel sorry for you. It just doesn’t work.” It’s a wintry autumn afternoon in downtown Johannesburg – the sun hanging without definition in the sky – and the founder of mobile learning app Syafunda is dressed in a grey knit jersey and a modest pair of black jeans to fend off the chill. It’s a sharp contrast to the sleek blazer and pointed toe shoes he wore while delivering a talk at this year’s Tech Open Air Conference in Berlin. Described as a “conference meets festival”, the event brings together leading authorities in disciplines ranging from technology, music and art (such as the Discovery Channels’ Mike North and SXSW general manager James Minor). It’s a remarkable feat given that Zakheni only started developing Syafunda a little over a year ago and only made it available to the general public in March this year. And while he continues to make sense of his newfound success, there are matters of a humbler nature that he still has to contend with – like whether his app will make him any money.

For as long as the term “social entrepreneurship” has been around, there has been an eternal tension between making a profit and making a change. Critics – while acknowledging that non profit organisations are unsustainable – generally argue that altruism and generating profit are mutually exclusive. In fact, American serial entrepreneur Steve Blank (the man famously dubbed “the Godfather of Silicon Valley”) once remarked that social entrepreneurship is “a bit of a fad” and that “startups that confuse doing business with social change” usually end up as tax-exempt NGOs. There’s also the contention that “for-profit” social enterprises end up “selling” change, with their intended beneficiaries (often marginalized and poverty-stricken people) becoming paying customers. Zakheni disagrees.
Zakheni Ngubo sharing a moment with some participants at Tech Open Air Berlin. Photo: Nika Kramer
Zakheni Ngubo sharing a moment with some participants at Tech Open Air Berlin. Photo: Nika Kramer
“The definition of social entrepreneurship is problematic,” Zakheni continues, creasing his forehead for emphasis. “We’re usually referred to as entrepreneurs who solve problems, but that meaning could be applied to any entrepreneur. All entrepreneurs are problem solvers; we’re just the only ones who aren’t getting paid for it.”

Zakheni also argues that profit is the lifeblood of any business and, whether you’re in the business of making profit or driving change, it’s the only thing that can continuously sustain your business. This is a sentiment shared by his fellow Amaphiko alumni Sifiso Ngobese. Ngobese; whose enterprise, Unconventional Media Solutions, offers free carts to township recyclers that are paid for by selling their sides as advertising space, believes that the complexities of South Africa’s social and economic landscape call for businesses that offer a positive return to society.
“Profit is definitely necessary to sustain any business but it shouldn’t be the only motivation,” he begins. “In South Africa, social entrepreneurs are tapping into an emerging economy that isn’t driven purely by profit margins. There are high levels of inequality and poverty in South Africa [that need innovative solutions] and social entrepreneurs are providing those solutions.”

Sifiso Ngobese, showcasing a protoype of his recyling carts in Kliptown , Soweto
Sifiso Ngobese, showcasing a protoype of his recyling carts in Soweto. Photo: Sydelle Willow Smith
As Johannesburg’s skyline darkens – the city’s frantic activity slowly being muted by the impending stillness of night-time – Zakheni is pensive. While both him and Sifiso don’t have the greatest assurance that their businesses will generate enough money to be self-sustaining, they continue to make plans for life outside of the Academy. Sifiso aims to extend his business’ reach by the end of the year while Zakheni improves his mobile app “to make sure it runs efficiently offline”. Eventually, Zakheni believes, companies and the general public alike will warm up to the idea of social entrepreneurship:
“The era where companies are all about making money is nearly over. People are holding companies to a higher standard – they expect them to contribute to society.”
Follow Ref Bull Amaphiko on Twitter @RedbullAmaphiko and Zakheni @Syafunda

by: Rofhiwa Maneta – 14 August 2014
Zakheni Ngubo in Berlin. Photo: Nika Kramer
Zakheni Ngubo in Berlin. Photo: Nika Kramer

Destiny Man’s top 30 Young Achievers.

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