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How partnering with a university in our first year radically transformed our philosophy forever

Tshega having a session on IOT with University Zululand students at the Richards Bay Technohub
Tshega having a session on IOT with University students

Dr Pragasen Mudali, Deputy Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Science and Agriculture has over the years had tremendous value to us as founders at Team Algo as well as our beautiful organization. His influence is the very reason why we are at a position we are in today.

If there’s one thing we are grateful for at Team Algo, having the privilege to remain constant in our philosophy and truth, whatever the moment, time or circumstance.

Dr Pragasen Mudali from University of Zululand
Dr Pragasen Mudali

Dr Mudali [sort of] took ‘a risk’, at only year 1 of existence of Algorhythmlab, our sister organization which technically gave birth to AlgoAtwork Robotics Academy. He proudly pushed for a private-public partnership programme with an entire university Computer Sciences department.

I could be uninformed but I have never heard of such an arrangement — I have always heard of big “for profit” and “not for profit” companies doing missions in universities — it was quite a big an adjustment to make for us as we realised that our 6-month old startup had been elevated to levels we had never imagined before.

We had just launched #ImbokodoApp, a virtual panic button for women to end Domestic Violence and #HumanTrafficking. The App attracted a sizeable audience and over 5 000 downloads through media coverage and features we were getting. We were the talk of the town, people taking selfies with us in malls and stuff like that. Through that experience, we learnt so much, about people and business and most importantly the technology industry and its dynamics in South Africa.

The partnership with the university department came with a big responsibility to us as founders. We suddenly had adopted about 90 students where Tshega, the co-founder and Computer Scientist would have to mentor weekly in order to instil the culture of complex problem-solving and develop within them the critical-thinking ability which the mainstream education system lacks so much.

Madimetja Thabo Mampshika, one of the beneficiaries of the partnership programme at the Richards Bay Technohub
Madimetja Thabo Mampshika, one of the beneficiaries of the partnership programme

This also meant that we had to reposition and reinforce our organisation's mission and what we stand for. We had to ensure that our personal lives as well, are aligned with the new critical organisational missions to ensure sustainability, longevity and good public relations.

So many around us could not understand why we had to passionately take on such a big mission with no monetary value but we were resistant to all the negative forces we were faced with from ‘caring individuals concerned about our lives’. Being both university drop-outs due to a very frustrating and stagnant education system, we were quick to identify the big opportunity: to drive transformation within the education sector through Technology and ultimately the broader society.

Interestingly, 2 years prior to this, In 2015, we had unsuccessfully tried to introduce coding classes for high schools at Esikhaleni Township for free. A Principal at one school was concerned about the safety and security of computers after-school and gave us a big fat "No", another worried about the heavy burden doing coding after-school would have on learners and attempts to secure meetings with the education department in the Umhlathuze region were in vain and so we momentarily gave up on the dream. Little did we know that years later we were going to be offered with an even bigger opportunity to reshape society and ultimately the Zululand region.

Part of the mission at the University was to reprogram the mindset of students to look at solving local, societal problems through the power of code instead of leaving the region straight after graduating to seek for employment opportunities in big cities such as Johannesburg or Cape Town.

We wanted to establish a network of technologists geared to start companies and create new economies so as to broaden the range of job opportunities available to young graduates and youths sitting at homes in numbers.

We would do this in a number of ways: Hosting hackathons, funding students to go to hackathons, hosting dialogues on-campus and featuring local leaders, offering an internship to a few of the students to equip them with the necessary skills needed top thrive in today’s economy. This was all to ensure exposure and stimulate creativity, inquisition and get undergrads the networks they desperately need to advance both soft and hard skills.

By narrow definition, the programme has not been a big ‘success’ as ideally envisioned due to a lack of funds and stability within our startup — but the learning's from the process were vital as we ended up establishing through our Non-Profit Company, AlgoAtWork, a Coding & Robotics Academy for kids.

One of the important lessons learnt through the university programme is that philosophy is best crafted within a person at their first decade on earth and therefore investing heavily into foundation phases will get us better results as a country in the next 5-10 years and beyond.

We need an army of young people equipped with the thinking and doing engineered for change and economic inclusiveness. Through this programme we treat as a pilot for the future of education in this country, we expose children to Software Engineering, Product Development and Prototyping. We are firmly committed to preparing and developing the next generation of industrialists, engineers and entrepreneurs to compete in the ever-changing and demanding global markets.

A message to aspiring entrepreneurs in townships and rural areas is to focus on the purpose and understand that the process of building and development requires massive sacrifice and a long-term commitment.

We either will moan and complain about the status quo or get our hands dirty for the purpose of change and societal transformation.


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