Marlon Parker
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   South Africa

Marlon Parker

Marlon is using information technology to reach out to vulnerable youth and help them design practical technology-based solutions that address social challenges in their communities. In the process,…
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This description of Marlon Parker's work was prepared when Marlon Parker was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Marlon is using information technology to reach out to vulnerable youth and help them design practical technology-based solutions that address social challenges in their communities. In the process, they improve their employability, create opportunities for self-employment, and regain a sense of belonging in their communities and hope for a better future.

The New Idea

Poverty and unemployment fuel social ills such as organized crime, drug abuse and violence in the Cape Flats Township in Cape Town, South Africa. Most young residents have dropped out of school and belong to gangs, and have little hope of turning their lives around for the better. Marlon engages young people in the Cape Flats (and other similar communities within and outside South Africa) by teaching them to use technology to create innovative solutions to address social challenges in their communities. His goal is to re-introduce hope into communities where there is none. He believes that he can do this by teaching young people to use technology to transform their lives and the lives of others. Marlon began working on this idea in 2007 with the objective of empowering ex-convicts, gang members and former drug users to share their stories through social media. Since then, this idea has evolved to what RLabs is today: an information technology hub that fosters creativity and innovation in a community and enables young people to became leaders of change in their communities and create employment opportunities for themselves and others. Marlon’s idea is based on a chain of three interlinked programs that together provide the necessary skills, opportunities and exposure to stimulate creativity and change making in disadvantaged communities.

The RLabs Acandemy is the first program in the chain. This is the training and leadership development hub in which unemployed youth from disadvantaged communities can become technologically literate and learn the basics of computer use. The academy offers about fifteen different computer courses that are affiliated with and certified by the University of Cape Town. This basic training improves their skills but more importantly, expands their understanding of the power of technology to improve their lives. The courses share an underlying appreciation for critical thinking and encourage young people to design solutions for societal challenges and needs. The next program in this chain is the Living-Lab. This platform builds on the foundation of the RLabs Academy and stimulates the participants’ creativity and challenges them to use the skills and knowledge acquired from the academy to design solutions to existing social challenges in their communities. Marlon then helps the participants move their solutions from idea to program/product design to implementation. The Living-Lab provides the space for people to reconnect to their communities and discover a new world of possibilities through technology innovations. The last program in this chain is the Incubation platform. Living-Lab innovations that demonstrated potential for success are moved to Incubation in order to develop fully-fledged social ventures. RLabs incubates the ideas for a period of nine months, after which they are registered and launched as social enterprises. The idea is to create sustainable social ventures that offer employment opportunities to other people in their communities.

After rapidly scaling within South Africa, Marlon is now using this model to work with young people from disadvantaged communities in 21 countries within and beyond Africa, equipping 18,500 people with computer skills and incubating 22 companies under his program. Furthermore, the Living-Lab has fostered the design of technology applications that have benefitted more than 40,000 people have so far. Overall, RLabs has created over 20,000 employment opportunities directly through the academy and indirectly through the incubated companies. Marlon’s next challenge is to build a process to enable these hubs to thrive in different cultural contexts and to design a revenue-generating component of RLabs to increase the sustainability of the organization.

The Problem

The rate of unemployment (especially among youth) in impoverished communities and townships in developing countries is alarmingly high. In South Africa, unemployment in low income townships and squatter camps is currently over 50 percent (World Bank, 2011) as compared to the average rate of about 29 percent for the whole population. Most of the youth in these townships have not undergone formal education and have no hope of breaking the perpetual cycle of poverty and unemployment they are born in. The high rates of unemployment breed a lot of other social challenges turning the communities into hubs of crime, violence and substance abuse. Reports from South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC, 2012) indicate that more than 37 percent of youth in the townships in Cape Town between 15-25 years are involved in either alcohol or drug abuse, especially in the areas where gangsterism is high, like the Cape Flats. Even after being convicted and then released from prison for such crimes, the ex-convicts have no resources and capacity to start afresh and transform their lives. With no hope, the only option is to follow what everybody is doing and go back to the world of crime and drugs.

Reports from the South Africa Government News Agency (Sanews, 2009) indicated that almost 90 percent of young people in South Africa’s prisons are repeat offenders, especially those belonging to crime gangs. These material problems stem from a history of forced displacement that particularly affected colored communities during the Apartheid regime. These displacement policies forced many of today’s townships in Cape Town and other South African cities. This led to a loss of inherited identity and consequentially, new generations started seeking alternative forms of belonging through gangs and organized crime. Broken families and the loss of parental role models further aggravate this situation.

Residents of these marginalized communities have less access to knowledge and opportunities that can help them overcome the challenges mentioned above. Many people have never had access to a computer or other information technology platforms and do not understand the opportunities that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can unlock, whether in terms of employment creation or in addressing various social challenges in society. Those that are exposed to ICT view it as a career path where one learns skills that increase employability and access to employment. Most people do not see that ICT can be a part of social innovation design. ICT is also viewed as exclusively the domain of the educated and many would never dream of creating software applications that can transform lives.

Although the government and other development organizations offer programs that create employment for young people from such communities, little has been done to unlock the potential of youth to pursue self-employment or to solve the social challenges they face through ICT. Most colleges and institutions offering ICT education to people in townships are either too expensive or have curriculuma that are too academic and theoretical to stimulate social innovation. The national Education Department has established Further Educational Training (FET) colleges in many townships that offer various vocational courses including basic ICT training at lower costs for low-income populations. However, they too offer courses that are very basic and aim at teaching young people to use computer packages and not necessarily to train them in software design and development. Furthermore, FET colleges do not have the capacity to absorb the demand and need for ICT literacy in local townships. On the other hand, innovation and entrepreneurial hubs that exist in the communities are mainly aimed at enterprise development and lack a technology design component, as well as a social drive, that would enable communities to create their own solutions while entering the world of work.

The Strategy

Marlon’s idea pivots on a three-pronged strategy: (1) development of ICT skills for design (programming) of mobile software packages; (2) stimulating social innovation through ICT and (3) implementation of social enterprises to scale the social benefits of the ideas. The ultimate goal is to create sustainable employment and self-employment opportunities. To this end, RLabs manages three interlinked programs that draw on each other to empower and develop the ICT skills of young people in these communities.

The training and development program is managed under RLabs Academy. RLabs has fifteen different courses in basic ICT, especially in software development, that are targeted mostly at the youth ages 18 to 25 who are unemployed and have no opportunities for higher education. This is to help them understand how software packages and applications are developed and used for different purposes, preparing them for the next level of the strategy. RLabs academy sees between 350 and 400 students graduate every year who obtain tertiary level certificates accredited by the University of Cape Town in different IT courses like social media, operating systems and software design and development. Almost 80 percent of graduates from the academy are able to find employment in various IT organizations in the industry as the certificates are highly accredited and the coursework encourages creativity and not just computer literacy (that is to say, they learn how to create their own software and not just how to use existing packages). The academy is self-sustaining and ensures continuity by incorporating the graduates as volunteer facilitators in the program. About 90 percent of the facilitators are graduates from the academy. The academy also has special courses for other age groups with different material content to suit the beneficiaries. For instance, there is ‘Mom 2.0’ for mothers, ‘Geeky moms’ for older women and another platform for ex-convicts and drug addicts through which participants are taught how to use social media to tell their life stories. In just over 5 years, about 20,000 people from various countries have been trained in the academy. 65 percent are from South Africa, of which 95 percent are black, colored or indian and 70 percent of them are women.

The next platform that springs from the academy is the Living-Lab. This was developed to foster innovation and create an environment where youth can design their own solutions to address social problems, transforming the society and bringing hope for the future. Marlon realized that people who experience these challenges have a lot of potential and that they are best positioned to create practical solutions. On this front, events and workshops are organized on topics that are chosen by the participants around issues in their communities like unemployment, drug abuse, robberies, gangs, teenage pregnancies and alcohol abuse. Participants are empowered to think critically in order to use the software design skills they gained from the academy to come up with IT innovations that address the social challenges. The Lab then helps conceptualize and implement the application/project through its various resources. Some of the projects that have come out of the Living-Lab are a mobile application through which people can find employment and piece-jobs (like a Linked-In platform from the township), which was developed by a community member through the lab and is still operational. About 300,000 people are registered users with almost 17 percent able to find employment. Another one is called Jamix which is a mobile counseling and support platform offering support to millions of people on issues relating to HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, stress and depression, career counseling, amongst others. This platform is also used to co-create social IT innovations with other social organizations like the ‘Migox’ application (with the government of South Africa) through which local people can access public information and increase government transparency.

The third arm of the strategy is the incubation, which is the exit point into becoming a registered social enterprise. Innovations from the Living-Lab that have potential to go beyond being a mere application or project and become a social enterprise are incubated here for a period of nine months after which they are launched as start-ups. The ultimate goal for incubation is to maximize the innovation’s social impact, increase sustainability and ensure scalability. Innovations that fail to satisfy the criteria of the platform go back to the Living-Labs to be launched and implemented as applications or projects. So far, 22 companies have been incubated and launched under this platform, most of which are still running with only four that have closed down. One example of such innovations is a social enterprise called ‘She is the Geek’ which is an initiative where women in ICT professions reach out to both young and old women to stimulate interest in the profession and create employment opportunities for community transformation. Typically, businesses are incubated in a 9-months model which is a metaphor of the pregnancy period and also incorporates the best assets from the community itself, such as turning to the ex-gang members for know-how in marketing and branding, which gangs are very good at.

So far, Marlon is working in 21 countries and has 17 physical spaces (mostly in Africa), with the as virtual platforms/spaces. Most of the virtual operations are in Europe, in partnership with several universities. Elsewhere in Africa, RLabs is present in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia and has plans of extending to Malawi soon. Because of the presence in so many countries, courses are developed around the different local needs. For example, in Tanzania, the focus is around bee-keeping and farming. Nonetheless, what they all have in common is the play and learn approach in an environment where people are treated with dignity and sense of belonging. Other countries where Marlon is working beyond Africa include Portugal, Brazil, Malaysia, Canada, the Philippines and the UK. He is also setting up a physical office in Hyderabad, India in 2014. Most of these hubs are managed by beneficiaries from RLabs programs who operate on a franchise partnerships with the main hub in Cape Town. So far, about 18,500 people have benefited directly from RLabs programs creating more than 20,000 jobs in several fields (directly and indirectly) through various social innovations and initiatives conducted and supported by RLabs. Currently Marlon has plans to reinforce the structure of the organization and create a ‘for profit’ model to provide services for large development organizations with customized social innovations to build up financial sustainability and independence. Furthermore, Marlon plans to standardize the model and methodology for scaling to ensure that the goals and objectives of RLabs are not lost as a result of the accelerated rate at which RLabs is infiltrating new territories with different needs and social problems.

The Person

Marlon grew up in the Cape Flats, in South Africa, during the Apartheid era when crime and gangsterism was on the rise because of increasing rates of unemployment. Raised by a single parent and the oldest in the family, he grew up feeling responsible for protecting his siblings and he represented a father figure in the family from a young age. He took advantage of opportunities around him and at the age of eight, he had already started selling sweets and carrying grocery bags for old women to make money to supplement household needs.

Marlon was inspired to study IT by a colleague he was working with at the airport who also did not know what IT was but had heard that it was the ‘up and coming’ career for modern young men. At this point Marlon, at 19 years, had never seen, let alone touched a computer before and such a career prospect was intimidating. While studying at the University of Cape Town, Marlon realized that a lot of students were finding problems with Statistics as a subject. He came up with an idea to make money to cover for his tuition fees by providing extra lesson to his fellow students (in a theatrical way) and charged R15 per hour for it, with a money back guarantee that they would pass their exams. Through this, he was able to pay his way through college and in third year, the university asked him to become an associate lecturer, having seen his lecturing abilities. By this time he was financially responsible for his whole household including his younger brother who was already involved in drugs and gangsterism. Marlon finished his bachelors and honors degrees in IT without even owning a computer.

In 2007, as he was walking down the streets in his home town, Marlon realized that there were a lot of social challenges in the communities and yet the local members had accepted the fateful environment with no hope that things could be turned around. However, he realized that solutions to many challenges in the communities were lying with the very same people that were experiencing the problems. He decided then to use what he knew best, IT, to unlock the potential and creativity in local community members to design IT based innovations to solve their social challenges. In 2008, he mobilized 14 of his friends who were mostly ex-gang members and drug dealers and asked the University of Cape Town, where he was still lecturing, to use the computer lab to provide ICT lessons to them in designing social innovations for community change. Many people, especially the youth, became interested to learn more about IT and how it could be used to design social innovations and soon Marlon was overwhelmed by the demand for his idea. In 2009, Marlon registered RLabs as a not for profit organization with different innovations adding on to the original idea to become an integrated IT based social innovation lab it is today.

Marlon now wants to redesign the spread strategy (as RLabs has so far experienced rapid growth and spread) to ensure that even through the franchise model he is currently using to penetrate other areas, the vision and underlying principles of RLabs are standardized throughout the network. Marlon also wants to work with the governments in different countries to incorporate the RLabs model into various youth innovation centers for social entrepreneurship. Furthermore, he plans to build on his increasing global exposure to spread his idea exponentially in the next five years.

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