Marlon Parker (centre) at the launch of a mobile app for maths pupils in August last year, with main developer Malissa Koorrsse (left) and FirstRand Foundation maths education chairman Werner Olivier. Picture: THE HERALD
Marlon Parker (centre) at the launch of a mobile app for maths pupils in August last year, with main developer Malissa Koorrsse (left) and FirstRand Foundation maths education chairman Werner Olivier. Picture: THE HERALD

A FEW years ago Marlon Parker was pushing trolleys at the airport in Cape Town. He did not know what he wanted to do with his life, but his dream was to have an office job where he could wear a shirt and tie.

Today, Parker uses social and digital media to transform lives by transferring skills, offering counselling and teaching entrepreneurship. This is done either online or at his offices in Athlone, Cape Town.

The RLabs (Reconstructed Living Lab) model has been so successful it is being used in 18 other countries.

While working at the airport he applied for a job as a filing clerk, but promised himself that if he did not get it he would leave and study.

He did not get the job. On the way out of work that day he bumped into someone who mentioned IT.

Parker had saved up R1,000 — enough to register for a course in IT at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

“When I started nothing turned me on about it. I’m all about people and this computer thing completely separated me from people. I only became aware later when I saw how technology could be used for good.”

Parker started skipping class and playing soccer, but an injury proved to be a blessing in disguise.

He went to the library where he read voraciously about computing and developed a knack for the subject to the point where he was asked to help lecture when he was in third year.

His first “aha” moment about how technology could be used for good was when some students introduced him to MXit.

“I saw there were some students that never had access to a computer but were now able to engage around certain topics using a mobile phone and it improved their grades. I started thinking ... what if we could use the same thing for support? Technology is only the enabler. Seeing that enablement was unique.”

Parker started a company, RLabs, which used social media to allow people to share stories and give advice. People from his community were talking to each other about their problems. The technology could not cope with the traffic and he built a contact centre using MXit so people could continue to engage with each other.MXit subsequently became an RLabs partner.

RLabs launched officially in 2009. It uses digital and social media to link people to help solve problems, transfer skills and teach entrepreneurship. It also provides counselling and has provided jobs in social media.

The people Parker sought to help started getting involved in running the project, redirecting their energies from crime to social media.

Parker was intent on bringing hope and help to the community using technology. “Hope is a fundamental thing for me.”

He had been suicidal at a point in his life. And seeing the surge in drugs such as tik in the community he grew up in was painful.

“I came from a poor family but still had the freedom to move around and be happy. Seeing kids of eight and nine losing hope became very painful. It’s one thing to build a career for myself; there’s no way I can be happy in my career if people in my community still hurt.”

Parker and some of his project leaders started doing talks in schools and this has become a major part of his work.

His concept sparked interest in Portugal in 2009, with Europe in recession. He developed a franchise and RLabs now operates in 18 countries including Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Kenya.

In Sierra Leone, one employee was once involved in organised crime, while another, who went there to help set up the business, was a crystal meth dealer in the community in the Cape Flats.

Parker said a core principle is to treat students with respect and dignity.

“We give them something to eat or drink. We create an environment where they’re treated like kings and queens. If we’re wanting to educate and have the potential to change, we need to reflect that change. We can’t have a broken table and old computers. I believe we have to treat people with dignity and reflect the hope they want to achieve.”

When participants sit around a boardroom table their language changes. He wants to show them change is possible.

Funders include the Indigo Trust, USAID, Vodacom Foundation, DG Murray Trust, the Finnish foreign ministry and the UK Department for International Development. Another partner, Bertha Foundation, collaborated with RLabs to launch the Kukua Fund which invests in social entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lisa Kropman of Bertha Philanthropies South Africa said that what interests the organisation most about Parker’s work with RLabs is the fact that he is working with people who are finding solutions to their own challenges.

RLabs has equity in a number of innovative businesses such as Jamiix (the platform that companies use to engage with people on MXit) which has offices in South Africa, the UK, Finland and Malaysia.

RLabs also makes money by consulting companies on how to use social media. For example, it shows companies how to create publicity for a film or get youth to be interested in their brand. Clients have included the World Bank and Vote for Table Mountain Campaign.

Each year, 1,000 scholarships are granted. So far, more than 8,000 people have been trained by RLabs.

At the end of last year, 600 people graduated, the oldest being 78.

Since it started, about three million people have been reached through the mobile counselling platform. This includes technology provided by RLabs to other social networking services.

Parker said he does not believe in research and development other than from a community itself.

“You can ask any mom or aunt about the problems; they can tell you the problems.”

Parker said he believed in investing in people. “People can go either way — they can destroy the world or change it.

“I always tell people I’m tired of poverty having a monopoly on our continent. Why can’t we make hope contagious?”

* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times