May 2018

It’s a small black box that doesn’t open‚ but for tens of thousands of children it’s a life-changing treasure chest: a digital library containing support material for high school maths and science.

Anyone within a kilometre can download the material to their phone – and they don’t even have to be online. The black box is essentially its own server so learners can use WiFi without having to use the internet provided by the main service providers. It is thus free and doesn’t require them to be online. On that server they can access digital copies of text books‚ and sound and video recordings of science lessons by hand-picked teachers who know how to make content accessible.

Thanks to the Syafunda box‚ matric science marks have gone up by almost 30% in some schools‚ and another 15‚000 pupils are about to join the 31‚000 already benefiting‚ thanks to corporate sponsorship. The aim is to reach 100‚000 children by the end of the year.

It’s a concept whose time has come‚” said Mary Metcalfe‚ former MEC for education in Gauteng.

The Syafunda digital library is the brainchild of Zakheni Ngubo‚ 31‚ whose struggles with education inspired his dream to change the lives of others.

Ngubo was living in a relative’s small house in Umlazi‚ KwaZulu-Natal‚ with his poverty-stricken parents and four siblings when a trip to Cape Town changed his life at the age of 14.

Some wealthier neighbours invited me on holiday. It was the first time I had travelled. Exposed to a different life‚ I knew I wanted to come back one day to study at the University of Cape Town‚ though I had no idea how‚” he said.

Driven by his new dream‚ within weeks he went from 47th to 1st in his Grade 10 class of 60. Then he decided to transfer to a notoriously strict school down the road which had a close relationship with UCT.

You had to be there at 6am‚ and they still used corporal punishment. Many in our area shied away from it‚” he said.

The school only accepted new students in Grade 8‚ but he sat outside the administration office for four days until the school relented and admitted him.

It was so disciplined‚ it scared the living daylights out of me‚” said Ngubo‚ but within weeks he was in the top three in his grade.

A new blow fell when the maths teacher left and went unreplaced for two years. Despite his four matric distinctions‚ UCT rejected Ngubo because of his poor maths result.

This happened to a few of us‚ and it was sad to see many classmates taking jobs as security guards when we had worked so hard to get to university‚” he said.

Still determined‚ he spent another year redoing matric maths‚ then took a R1‚200-a-month teaching job at a rural school. He taught by day and studied at night‚ and was eventually offered a bursary at UCT.

After graduating with a BCom‚ he began working at Virgin Mobile in Joburg where he “really got to understand the impact mobile technology could make”.

Drawing on his own experiences and research‚ he pinpointed three key shortcomings in the school system: language barriers‚ patchy academic support and teachers lacking in confidence.

Still with no start-up money‚ he went on a quest….

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