My retrospective on a 6 month journey in South Africa (repost)

“Aptitude and intelligence are equally distributed across the world. Opportunity and education are not” Bill Clinton

Last summer I was offered the opportunity to move from the heart of innovation and entrepreneurship in San Francisco to Cape Town, South Africa to work in the affordable education sector. In an effort to share my learnings, I have pulled together my thoughts from the journey.

Prior to leaving for South Africa I tried to envision what the experience would be like from a personal and professional perspective. Professionally, I was headed to work with entrepreneurs addressing the most pressing education challenges in their respective countries. In an attempt to determine these challenges prior to my arrival, I came up with providing internet to underserved communities, offline solutions, training teachers and school leaders, and providing skills development opportunities and pathways to employment. Some of these were correct but I also learned a great deal about what is really needed in these markets. I had the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs based in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana, and Tanzania and was able to travel to several other nations during my stay.

Many in South Africa deal with a host of challenges that have created an educational crisis and continue to lead to students being underserved year after year. This crisis creates a terrible cycle of children not learning, not progressing, not reaching their potential and then creating a wider community of people that have not been educated leading to many larger societal problems.

Each country is unique in the educational challenges they face but there are several common themes consistent in many markets. Corrupt governments, poor parenting, lack of resources, lack of systems to provide consistent and good educational environments and for some — a lack of safe communities where children can thrive. Community, government and education are very complex systems and it is difficult to determine the root cause as well as cause and effect often times. Rather than state my opinions here, I would rather share my thoughts and the lessons I learned with others who haven’t had the opportunity to work in affordable education / emerging markets or who are interested in hearing my perspective.

Learnings and thoughts from my time in Africa:

I met hundreds of great people, attended amazing craft and food markets, saw beautiful countries, encountered wild animals, camped under the stars and meditated to the sounds of the community of life in the wilderness. I learned from and was inspired by a diverse range of individuals from South Africa to Kenya to Nigeria and beyond.

Education entrepreneurs from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana and Tanzania

During a visit to Leap Schools in South Africa, I learned of a girl in 9th grade who for the first time in her life was asked the question, “How are you?” The teacher was shocked and confused when the student was caught off-guard by the question. Unfortunately this story was not unique. Many children grow up in crowded households, with single parents or with their grandparents as caretakers because their biological parents were not prepared to raise them. Communities are very diverse in heritage and culture, which often leads to less than optimal neighborhood environments. Health education in South Africa has been mis-informed or uninformed leading to the spread of disease. Government corruption has led to troubled economic environments in many countries and regions causing an excessive influx of people to specific economic centers. These economic centers are not prepared to handle the influx from a living, education, services, infrastructure and governing perspective. All of this has led to unsuitable living environments. The most important aspect for many of these families is food on the table and day to day survival. Unfortunately this creates a terrible cycle that is very difficult to break. I believe it starts with education. If you educate a woman / mother, they will educate their children. I believe a much stronger emphasis needs to be placed on education at all levels in society but it must start somewhere.

Despite all of these challenges, there are many entrepreneurs, organizations, teachers, parents, NGOs, non-profits and government employees that are coming up with new solutions to provide educational opportunities to the underserved. The following list captures my insight from working in the affordable education sector.

Emerging Market Educational Insights:

Through my experience engaging with the community and working with entrepreneurs across Africa, a few gaps really struck me during my experience: (1) Information Gap (2) Early childhood education / pre-school Gap (3) Affordable and Quality Primary School Gap and the (4) Skills Gap.

The Information Gap:

There’s a huge opportunity gap due to lack of resources, quality teachers, bandwidth / connectivity and limited options. Many people in these communities have cell phones and often cases have smart phones but cellular data is still far too prohibitive which leads to limited access to information. For example, in the US we can watch an 18 minute Ted talk, search chrome and read an article or watch a video to learn on the go without worrying about the data we have consumed for that particular learning. That 18 minute Ted talk would eat an entire months worth of data in South Africa if that user has a phone capable of watching the video. This may seem like a minor problem, but having access to any and all information at your finger tips at all times is really important. There are efforts to zero rate sites (make certain resources free of charge like wikipedia) and facebook is making an effort in this space with the initiative. There is a huge opportunity for companies in the telecom, technology, cellular phone and educational content spaces to partner to address this gap.

Early childhood education / pre-school Gap:

Going back to unsafe communities and houses with children not receiving attention. There is a lack of early childhood care that is safe and also educational. Efforts like Kidogo in Kenya and True North in South Africa are addressing the early-childhood sector but there are still millions of young children not being served.

Mandela Day at early childhood learning center in the Soweto neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa
Bridge International Academies classroom in Nairobi, Kenya
Spark Schools Learning Lab, South Africa

Skills Gap:

Unemployment is extreme in many of the countries I visited. Some stats suggest unemployment is around 25% in South Africa and even 50 to 90% in certain townships (informal settlements / communities near urban areas in South Africa). In America, we are panicked when unemployment rises to 8%. 50 to 90% in townships. This leads to a host of other problems including crime and many people not contributing to their communities and families. Unfortunately the story I heard far too often was from single mothers who work 5 days a week as an underpaid domestic worker providing for their children’s father, their kids, and one or both of their parents off of their earnings. Therefore, there is a need and demand to provide workplace skills and job training to get more people to work.

These huge rates of unemployment also lead to unmet demand from corporates to access local talent. Many businesses are trying to fill this gap with career accelerators, vocational schooling and workplace readiness training. Efforts like Business Bridge, Open Futures and Funda Online in South Africa, Spire in Kenya and Learning Horizon in Nigeria are providing opportunities in this category. There are also additional efforts that are looking to upskill underemployed and unemployed youth to fill the unmet demand for more skilled and technologically savvy labor for software development related jobs, including: Rlabs, codeX and Andela.

Youth Cafe by RLabs in Cape Flats, Cape Town, South Africa

Personal Reflections:

Finally, this journey taught me a lot about myself. I have spent a lot of time in my comfort zone in the US, and this experience provided an opportunity to step out of that zone and see the world from a different perspective. Here are my most salient personal takeaways.

  • Growing Pains: Personal growth is a great thing, it opens and expands your mind to new realities but growing is also painful. I left an easy, comfortable and great life in San Francisco to pursue this opportunity. It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows but I now have a new lens in which to view the world. This has expanded my ability to understand the world around me and I am grateful for that and can hopefully make a larger impact due to my new understanding.
  • Don’t take life too seriously: It’s really easy to get caught up in the day to day BS. Someone is creating an unnecessary road block at work, your partner isn’t totally attentive at all times, your wifi went out for an hour, Whole Foods is out of New Zealand apples. There are massive and real problems out there in the world and many of these are far more present at the surface in South Africa.
  • We are all just people with our own goals, needs and ambitions; keep that in perspective: In the US, many of us get comfortable in our communities with people very similar to us. We have a huge divide in social class. One thing that was really refreshing in South Africa was the experience riding the mini-bus. This 14 seater van brought together a collection of people from different social classes, including: domestic workers, tourists, bricklayers and business people. All of the riders accommodating and co-inhabiting the same space, going from point A to point B to do what they need to do to get by.
  • My success comes from my community: Probably my most important takeaway from my experience. My community includes a loving and supportive family, teachers who cared and others who have taken an active interest in me along the way. I didn’t have to wait until the 9th grade for someone to ask me how I was. I had a stable emotional and financial household my entire life. I owe my success and abilities to those who have supported me. Therefore, rather than judge those who are less fortunate I strive to provide access to opportunities, all people should have an opportunity. We need to appreciate our loved ones, communities and the opportunities to LIVE and engage all around us.

I feel fortunate for my time in Africa. Now that I have had this experience, I have a better understanding of the reality in many of these communities. I am continuing on this path contributing to the affordable education sector in an attempt to provide high quality education opportunities to underserved learners in many emerging markets. Education unlocks the potential within each of us to become liberated global citizens.

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