South Africa's Living labs: What inclusive development looks like

Living labs, community-based tech hubs, gather resources, expertise, and community knowledge to devise solutions to local problems. The model positions community members as co-creators as well as beneficiaries of innovations, which then have greater uptake within the surrounding community. A recent HSRC study illuminated the positive and far-reaching impact of some of South Africa’s living labs, suggesting that they warrant greater government support as transformational tools. Andrea Teagle reports.

A woman works at her computer in an open-plan working space at Rlabs in Cape Town, July 2019.
Photo: Andrea Teagle

Refugees in the United Kingdom face a conundrum familiar to many job seekers in South Africa: jobs require experience and references, but getting such experience requires a job. A lack of English proficiency compounds the problem. According to Anji Barker, a leader of charity organisation Newbegin Community Trust (NCT), which assists refugees in Birmingham, UK, “Even to get a job as a cleaner you now need six months’ experience and some health and hygiene certificates or the like for other low-paid work.”

Enter Zlto, a South African-developed mobile and blockchain platform that tracks and incentivises social community work. Users ‘bank’ hours spent on volunteer work, collecting Zlto digital currency in return. The Zlto can then be exchanged for donated items or services indirectly related to finding employment, such as travel expenses, food and education fees. At the same time, the app builds a profile of verifiable volunteer work experience and real-time references that essentially works as a digital CV for refugees and asylum seekers.

“Asylum seekers who were Zlto members for the past 12 months have been able to get employment as soon as they were granted leave to remain,” says Barker. The NCT also uses Zlto to assist ex-offenders who struggle to get jobs.

Zlto is the 2014 brainchild of an innovation and upskilling hub called Reconstructive Living Labs (Rlabs) in Athlone, a low-income area in Cape Town. In 2018, Zlto won the Google Impact Challenge for South Africa for helping to tackle youth unemployment. Co-founder Senzo Masumpa, who is also a student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, explains that the idea was born when Rlabs realised that youth enrolled in an IT workshop were too hungry to focus. By attending class or volunteering in their communities, young people collected Zlto, which they could redeem for meals.

Later, Rlabs partnered with local supermarkets, including Shoprite, and eventually over a thousand other stores where Zlto can now be spent. The system avoided the danger that stipends would be misspent, while empowering and incentivising young people in a way that direct handouts would not.

Tackling youth unemployment

In a country with a 55% unemployment rate among youth (15-24), Rlabs’s Zlto gave users an edge over other inexperienced job seekers. As the app picked up speed in Cape Town, headhunting companies even began to search the Zlto database. As for the partnering organisations who donate the items for which the digital currency can be exchanged, Masumpa says that they can track the impact of this corporate social responsibility work through the number of volunteer hours logged.

Rlabs is an example of various ‘living labs’ that are based on the principle of knowledge exchange between innovators and intended beneficiaries.

Last year, HSRC economic development researchers Dr Alexis Habiyaremye and Dr Irma Booyens set about investigating the impact of South Africa’s living labs, including the Wellbeing Innovation Lab (WINLAb), affiliated with the North West University in the Northern Cape and Siyakhula Living Lab in the Eastern Cape.

Participants were asked about their experiences with the co-learning projects, as well as changes in their behaviour attributable to those experiences. The study did not measure the impact of innovation directly. By focusing on the people involved, the researchers hoped to capture the longer-term impacts.

Nearly all Rlabs respondents (93%) reported having learnt new skills and indicated that the project is achieving its overall objectives.

Innovations aside from Zlto include WINLab’s flagship food security project that brought together community members and nutritionists to devise nutritious recipes based on traditional food knowledge. Another was the Siyakhula Living Lab digital platform, TeleWeaver, which allowed traders to market traditional Xhosa crafts and tourism services online.

“User capacity building through collaborative learning can enable creators and users of innovations to overcome the hurdles of knowledge asymmetry, in order to co-create innovative solutions to tackle societal challenges,” Habiyaremye writes.

Local knowledge for local innovation

Research increasingly shows that new technological innovations often run into diffusion difficulties in new settings. In some instances, the technology simply does not suit the context. A notorious example is the locally developed merry-go-round water pump – or PlayPump. The idea was to harness the energy of kids at play to pump water for rural communities. Instead, in some instances, women ended up laboriously turning the merry-go-rounds long after the children had tired, or the pumps were abandoned because there was insufficient underground water.

When communities are consulted, such costly mistakes can be avoided. The living labs approach takes this conclusion a step further by involving community members in the entire process of innovation, from conception through to implementation. The advantages pertain to the viability of the product and its successful diffusion, and to the upskilling of community members.

Living labs arguably help to bridge a psychological divide as well as a digital one, by positioning community members as active contributors to their own socioeconomic development. Participants of the various programmes reported greater confidence and belief in their professional capacity.

The Rlabs youth cafe, located in Mitchells Plain, offers a three-stage training programme called Believe, Create, Become. Teri-Lee Dilgee, a programme manager at Rlabs, explains that the youth are first supported to expand their aspirations. They subsequently receive technological education and are then assisted in pursuing further education or entering a chosen field.

The youth café is space themed and based in an area with high crime and unemployment rates. “For the young people to go to a space like that, it’s simply amazing,” Dilgee says. The programme gives them the tools to imagine a life beyond the confines of their socioeconomic circumstances. “There are young people who used to want to be taxi drivers. They went through the process, and some of them started their own tech businesses, and are helping their families.”

Untapped potential

According to Dilgee, Rlabs is sponsoring 50 women and young entrepreneurs, providing expertise, resources and guidance, through a Nedbank grant. It is also expanding through a partnership with the multinational internet group Naspers, setting up more youth cafes – called Nasperslabs – in underprivileged communities.

While private partnerships have enabled some expansion, Habiyaremye says that the scale-up potential of the living labs has been hindered by inadequate state support. For example, despite its success and its empowerment of women in particular, TeleWeaver was forced to shut down after the withdrawal of two major private sponsors.

South Africa’s white paper on science and technology is geared towards harnessing the technologies and opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution towards inclusive development.

“There is an untapped potential, but it needs a lot of investment in capacity building,” Habiyaremye says. “Not just for the people who are developing the technology, but also for the communities … to take this empowerment as a springboard … .”

Author: Andrea Teagle

Researcher: Dr Alexis Habiyaremye