Rapelang Rabana: African Tech Trailblazer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this serial entrepreneur wants to revolutionize education in Africa by turning mobile phones into classrooms.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Addicted to your smartphone? Well, Rapelang Rabana thinks that could be a good thing.
The 29-year-old South African entrepreneur is the founder of Rekindle Learning, a company looking to improve education in Africa by turning people’s compulsion to check their phones into an opportunity to learn.
Digital education is not new, but western companies often focus on software or online university-style courses, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where only 2 percent of the population has a computer, Rabana thinks mobile is the way to go.
There are about 67 million smartphones in Africa. By 2025, this number is expected to jump to 360 million.
Rekindle’s app works on a small screen, both offline and online — to account for unreliable connectivity — and enables users to take short, personalized tests designed to maximize memorization.
According to Rabana, the system is meant to “close the feedback loop” by using Tweet-sized chunks of information, asking short questions and bringing users back to what they got wrong until they show they’ve mastered the material. The entrepreneur hopes this tailored “micro learning” method will seduce users and educators alike by allowing users to learn on the go and providing teachers with detailed feedback that could improve their pedagogic methods.
There are about 67 million smartphones in Africa. By 2025, this number is expected to jump to 360 million, and Rabana looks at every one as a potential beacon of knowledge.
“I see Rekindle Learning enabling people to build knowledge from the palm of their hands. From school children, to young high school graduates, to entrepreneurs, to women farmers,” she says. This might seem like an overly ambitious goal for a young entrepreneur — especially since mobile learning has far to go to prove its claimed benefits. But this is not Rabana’s first rodeo. At 23, she developed some of the world’s earliest mobile VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services – a crucial method for turning analog audio signals into digital data that can be transmitted over the Internet. Rabana is also keenly aware of the benefits of education. Her parents, an architect and an electrical engineer, were the first in their families to earn degrees and, as a child, she remembers her dad telling her about his own father saying, “Leave the cattle and go get an education. Something no one can take away from you.”
Born in Botswana, Rabana moved to Johannesburg when she was 10 to attend a prestigious private school, but when it came time for university, she felt uninspired and asked her brother to choose a degree for her in “anything but actuarial science or chartered accounting.” It wasn’t until her first class that Rabana realized she’d enrolled in the business and computer science program.
Learning to code didn’t seem much fun at first but she quickly grew to enjoy it. “You could think up your own stuff and actually create something from the figment of your imagination, from nothing — there seemed to be real power there,” she explains.
After graduating with honors from the University of Cape Town, Rabana was hungry for a challenge and had no interest in starting at the bottom of the corporate food chain. “Becoming an entrepreneur at 22 was for me like putting a stick in the ground marking the end of a life by default and the start of intentional living,” she says.
So she enlisted two classmates to work on a problem that mattered to them: the high cost of phone calls. After months of designing prototypes, Yeigo was born, one of the earliest mobile VoIP service providers in the world. It launched in February 2007 in South Africa, and a year later, the Swiss company Telfree bought 51 percent of the company.
Becoming an entrepreneur at 22 was for me like putting a stick in the ground marking the end of a life by default and the start of intentional living.
— Rapelang Rabana
In just five years, the teenager who didn’t want to go to university has become head of a successful company in an industry where women are still a novelty. And she’s grown increasingly aware of the difference education can make. “I was privileged, I got to ask all the questions I wanted,” she says. So now, she hopes Rekindle will extend this privilege to as many people as possible.
But is her country ready for the expansion of mobile learning? When it comes to tech in Africa, Senegal and Kenya are leading the way and South Africa might be losing its competitive edge due to stiff regulations, lack of infrastructure and a shortage of highly skilled labor.
Yet Rabana is not the only one moving into the tech-ed space. Other South African companies like Obami, a social learning management system for schools, and Yoza, which transforms books into bite-sized stories to read on a phone, are making strides. And Obami’s director, Ennis Jones, points out that its tool is made “by Africans for Africans,” unlike Rekindle, which uses European technology. “Finding the right talent, especially in tech, is a major challenge. And when you do, they are very expensive. It’s a supply and demand problem,” explains fellow entrepreneur Catherine Lückhoff, CEO of HQAfrica.
“Yes, my partners are from Austria,” answers Rabana, “and Rekindle didn’t develop the solution from scratch. But I have repackaged and customized the approach for South Africa because it was a good fit and the fastest way to get to market.”
Rabana talks with the spunk of youth and the confidence of someone who knows precisely what she wants. This self-assurance, paired with her successful business background, is what might push Rabana to overcome South Africa’s economic limitations, beat the ever-growing list of competitors and turn Rekindle into the leader of mobile education.
Meanwhile, the young entrepreneur is already leading by example. “We have more and more young women interested in IT,” says Sadecca Kgaka from the South African Women Entrepreneurs Network. “And people like Rapelang are so important for them because they show that what they want is really possible.”
If Rabana has her way, Rekindle will soon empower this tech-savvy generation by leveraging their mobile addiction and teaching them the skills they’ll need to design their own groundbreaking solutions.