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