For the Partnership Pitch session at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2019, three non-profit organisations (NPOs) were invited to showcase how they leverage technology to strengthen cross-sector partnerships for sustained developmental impact. RLabs’ ‘Zlto’ digital platform was voted the audience and judges’ favourite for its innovative approach to improving youth employability and incentivising community service.
RLabs was founded in 2008 by social entrepreneur, Marlon Parker, in the marginalised community of Bridgetown, in Cape Town. The organisation initially aimed to upskill former gang members and people recovering from drug addiction with technology training that would ultimately support their rehabilitation. RLabs’ programming draws from the lived experiences and needs of its participants to strengthen and equip both individuals and their broader communities. As word about the organisation’s good work spread, the demand for programming rapidly grew.
The organisation has since expanded into a low-cost community model that is franchised to RLabs’ alumni who pass onto others the knowledge and skills that they gained through RLabs programming. The RLabs network runs programming in community centres, schools and churches that are not only conveniently located, but that are also rent free during off- peak hours, thereby cutting down on operational costs. Programmes target a broad range of people with varying skill levels, from parents and their children to local business owners.
The organisation has three main focus areas: training and development, innovation, and incubation and acceleration.
1. Training and Development
The GROW Leadership Academy is RLabs’ flagship work-to-learn programme that focuses on skills development for matriculants.
The RLabs University offers upskilling programming to anyone keen to learn about various subjects, from basic computer studies to graphic design and project management.
RLabs Women trains women from communities on the Cape Flats on a broad range of skills, from teaching mothers how to use social media and other technology that their children may be using, to entrepreneurship and small business development
The Living Lab, a workshopping and knowledge-exchange platform, attracts local and international university students, as well as corporate and NPO participants who want to learn about social and community engagement, design-thinking processes and sustainability. Through this platform, RLabs also organises hackathons to encourage the development of practical and effective tools that can help ideas to launch.
RLabs also hosts opportunities for local businesses to test out their ideas with design-thinking processes. Viable business ideas are then supported to evolve into the next stage, known as the ‘validator phase’, with additional resources.
3. Incubation and acceleration
Business ideas that make it to the validator phase are incubated, tested for viability and have tailored business models developed. Bootcamps are also run to help small businesses expand their offerings.
RLabs has supported over 3 500 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through incubation, technological support, funding and mentorship. Programming and courses depend on SMEs’ desired outcomes during and after their 12-month journey with RLabs. The organisation also aims to accelerate high-impact businesses to scale.
Zlto – Incentivising community service and improving employability with technology
At an ‘un-conferencing’ event hosted by RLabs in 2013, youth from across Cape Town were asked about the barriers to education and work. Most of the barriers identified were poverty related, inspiring the idea of Zlto. This award- winning digital platform was piloted in 2014 in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town – an area infamous for socioeconomic scourges such as gangsterism and drugs. Here, young people struggle to finish school and find jobs. There are skills shortages and work experience is often the barrier to entry for most. “You make finding a job your job. If you start to make the calculation of how much it costs per day to actively look for a job, it could add up to about R1 500 a month,” says Zlto co-founder, Allan van der Meulen. That amount, he added, is likely a third of the total household income for most families living in the area.
Zlto incentivises youth to participate in community service, leverages the power of digital and blockchain technology to increase positive user behaviour, and enables partner organisations to track their impact via live data dashboards. The Zlto platform and data are not needed to use the app and users earn Zlto currency that can be exchanged for a variety of essential services and items such as electricity, food, clothing and more. Businesses, community members and organisations that partner with Zlto are able to set tasks with customised incentives. Partners range from other NPOs like Ikamva Youth and African Climate Alliance who set incentivised tasks, to big businesses like Shoprite who provide products that can be redeemed with the Zlto currency earned.
Zlto currency aims to foster a culture of hard work and to empower youth, rather than to make them feel as though they are receiving handouts. Van der Meulen explains that the platform helps to make youth more employable by redefining work experience. Users can share the time spent and skills demonstrated through their community work, as well as references and evidence photos on the app. Top users review and moderate tasks – a process managed through blockchain technology. The platform also allows organisations to measure impact and return on investment for the community.
Top users review and moderate tasks, measure impact and return on investment for the community. Verification of tasks are based on reviewers voting on the legitimacy of the activity, based on compulsory data points. Once voting has been completed, partners are informed about the reasons for acceptance or denial of their activities. To eliminate bias, reviewers do not review activities completed by members of their own communities.
Van der Meulen, who himself is a youth from the Cape Flats, explains that income inequality extends well beyond economics, impacting people’s confidence and dignity. Youth from low-income households often lack the social and cultural capital that enable them to enter or progress in professional environments. Through the Zlto platform, youth are able to validate a wide range of skills that would not otherwise be recognised as work experience that can bolster future work applications.
The app was recently updated to also track and incentivise education and employment milestones. Users can earn Zlto currency for completing high school, post-school qualifications, starting and sustaining a business or staying in employment for more than a year.
Zlto entered the Google Impact Challenge in 2018 and, along with three other NPOs, won R3.4 million. This prize money is being used to expand the programme to low-income communities in three other regions across the country.
RLabs aims to expand Zlto to all provinces and further into the African continent through its existing networks in southern and east Africa. The app already has an international footprint as RLabs also works with a UK-based NPO that supports unbanked refugees.
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