As founder of Yeigo, one of the world’s first VoIP applications, Rapelang Rabana was named one of Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs by Forbes and included in Oprah Magazine’s “O Power List”. In her newest venture, she’s tackling two of eLearning’s greatest challenges: measuring impact and improving the retention of knowledge. Here she talks with eLearning Africa about what’s wrong with on-the-job training, why eLearning execs should be focusing purely on mobile apps and how to create more African female entrepreneurs.
by Steven Blum
How has it felt to be made somewhat of an icon for female entrepreneurship in Africa?
I am so continuously surprised that I still struggle to internalise it all. Certainly, when I wake up in the morning I don’t feel or even remember that – I still see myself as girl with some ideas I am trying to make happen, and the entrepreneurial journey is as complex and demanding as it’s always been. What does thrill me is that it seems to have inspired others, and if one person, or particularly one woman, has decided to become an entrepreneur after hearing my story, that gives me a tremendous sense of purpose.
The rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region of the world, according to the World Bank. Why do you think that is?
We need to draw some distinctions in the types of entrepreneurs to process that question. Broadly speaking, there are entrepreneurs of choice and entrepreneurs of survival. The vast majority of female entrepreneurs in Africa are entrepreneurs of survival, because they were excluded from better economic and educational opportunities to be able to find other income-generating activities and entrepreneurship was their only option. Female entrepreneurs of choice are much much fewer and that is what we need desperately because that is where female captains of industry will come from. We need women who have had an education and choose entrepreneurship over other jobs because they see opportunities to solve major problems in a sustainable way. We need the value system and ideas of the other 50 per cent of the population to be reflected in the kind of businesses that are created and how they are run.
In an interview with Ventures Africa, you talked about being drawn to entrepreneurship because you didn’t want to spend your life playing organisational politics at a large corporation and wanted control over your own destiny. Do you think women working in the corporate sector in South Africa are more hindered than female entrepreneurs?
It’s pretty hard for me to have a clear view on that given that I have never been in a corporate environment and haven’t been their shoes.
The observable fact, however, is that the “corporate world” as we know it today was built by men. Consequently it is largely built around masculine principles, traits and behaviours and according to more patriarchal views of purpose and definitions of success. While of course many of these same principles also affect entrepreneurs, because we operate in the same economy, I certainly feel I enjoy a greater degree of independence from that and I have the room to explore my own instincts and build my own points of reference.
What advice would you give other women looking to break into the eLearning field?
For starters, focus more on mobile than computers. Then it’s important to dissect the different aspects of learning and the learning processes that each entails and focus on improving a particular process. Too often, we look at eLearning as one big chunk of stuff, without looking at the learning or teaching process we are trying to address and fix. No one tool will ever address everything – learning is too complex. So it’s important to identify the real problem you are trying to address and not just jump on the coolest tool that comes up, which may well be addressing a different aspect of learning.
What made you want to move from working in communication services to eLearning?
In my mind, I am still doing the same thing – using mobile devices and the Internet to deliver transformative services that address major socio-economic challenges. My first venture happened to be in telecommunications, but it was always driven by the desire to deliver innovative products and manifest a whole new business in an emerging market using technology. I believe that mobile phones and the Internet will prove to be the most effective and scalable tool for delivering, facilitating or improving access to new services, new products, new businesses, and critical social services across many sectors – from financial services to business services, education, health, retail, agriculture and government. There are so many areas and industries to explore. Having held a long term interest in learning and education, I decided to make this industry the centre of my next venture.
One of the greatest challenges facing eLearning today is how to measure impact. How does your company, Rekindle Learning, track engagement among students?
Our applications are focused on reinforcing and consolidating knowledge after a classroom session at school or a workshop / seminar in a corporate environment. We already know from learning theory that building retention of knowledge is about active retrieval, or asking questions in a manner that requires the learner to independently recall the information. Doing so a number of times over a period of time builds knowledge into long-term memory. We go beyond giving a quiz or test by randomly bringing the learner back to their weak areas as a lesson progresses until they demonstrate accuracy and retention. So a lesson is completed when accuracy and retention is achieved, not when a learner ‘gets to the end’, which is actually what we really want anyway. In this way, questions are used as a learning tool instead of an assessment tool.
Name one big thing you’ve learned from the data you’ve collected.
From conversations with learners in some of our pilots it was amazing to see how personalised, question-based learning that doesn’t have time limits and is done on a mobile phone was far less threatening than a traditional test. Suddenly it wasn’t about catching people or failing them, but giving them an opportunity to see for themselves what they know and don’t know and readjust their thinking to get it right. It’s like having your own private teacher who isn’t going to get irritated, tired or judgemental.
Why did you develop your eLearning software for smartphones instead of putting your tools online?
I think we need to distinguish between learning on computers versus on mobile phones as they are fundamentally different and will follow very different paths as they grow. What will work on computers will not necessarily be as compelling on mobile phones; even if it is “accessible” from a mobile phone, it is a fundamentally different interface. Mobile phones are more widely available and will continue to outpace computers, given that the physical infrastructure required to store and maintain a mobile phone is far less onerous.
Our efforts need to go into learning experiences on mobile phones instead of computers/online, which is where the edTech market in the US and Europe is currently focused. Developing mobile solutions changes how you package the learning content because of the smaller screen, bandwidth usage, and considerations for offline and online activities to cater for intermittent connectivity. One of many reasons all the edTech programmes overseas will struggle to see mainstream success in Africa is because they are not designed specifically for mobile.
Many of Africa’s economic sectors – like tourism, for example – show the potential for amazing growth. How can eLearning provide large-scale training to those in emerging markets?
I am pretty excited about the potential for mobile phones to provide large-scale training in emerging markets as the de facto device. We are often very good about getting people together for training workshops and the like, but the follow-up has always been the weakness in training, particularly in emerging markets. This where I believe mobile phones can play an instrumental role. While it is quite hard to conduct all learning processes on mobile devices, I believe [they] are well suited to provide that follow up, that reinforcement and consolidation to enable on-going measurement of the individual’s learning progress. More importantly, they allow someone to take ownership of their learning. Given the number of people to train and develop, the ownership must be shifted from the educator to the learner because we simply don’t have enough educators to cope. For example, I imagine a world where young high school graduates can learn on their mobile phones to qualify for entry level jobs in retail or call centres and be able to provide potential employers with objective evidence of the knowledge they have gained as a result their own ambition.
Rapelang Rabana will bring her story to eLearning Africa 2014 in Kampala, Uganda. If you want to find out more about the opportunities and challenges for African entrepreneurs and the African solutions that are transforming education, attend her session at the conference. To find out more about this year’s speakers, visit our site, where a provisional version of the Conference programme is now available!