He grew up in grinding poverty; his mother went hungry to feed the family. At university he was so hungry that he disguised himself as a lecturer just for a free lunch. Years later, his determination and curiosity turned him into a genius in the world of innovative disruption; this is the life and story of Griffiths Sibeko, an app developer from Duduza, one of South Africa’s poorest shanty towns.
“I remember one day attending an inauguration of a professor and when I heard there was lunch and dinner I had to rush to the student residence to change into formal clothes so I look qualified to be in the meeting. This would become my lifestyle until I dropped out of school,” Sibeko says of the hungry road he has walked.
“I grew up in a one-bedroom house with three other family members. We were so poor that some days my mother would give us food while she went hungry,” he says during a break at the Riversands Incubation Hub Innovation Conference. At this conference, he was a delegate with an assured free lunch.
Sibeko’s inspiration in developing apps comes from the challenges his country is facing. He built an app for public transport users that gives information on routes, times, distance, fares, stops, stations and where tickets can be bought.
“I am working on building apps that bring calm when there is chaos, like in South Africa’s taxi industry. This field requires passion, if you are in it for money then you will struggle and will not last long,” he says.
But where did Sibeko’s love for apps come from?
“I was 11 years old when my curiosity for computers started. I would go the Zakheni Primary School every day after school to observe people using computers. On my third visit, the instructor called me and gave me access to a computer that would become the path to my new life.”
His mother did not allow him to spend time with his neighbors.
“She feared they would spoil the character she was developing in me. It is these moments I spent alone and in the library that I came across a book called Mistakes That Worked. This book inspired me to explore more,” says Sibeko.
The man from Duduza felt he should share some of his knowledge to the next generation of computer wizards and enrolled for a degree in education at the University of Johannesburg.
“After a year, I realized it was not my thing and I dropped out,” he says. But, it was not over for Sibeko.
“I enrolled the following year for a degree in information management. I realized through this course I would get access to do courses in informatics and programming. After a year, I could not sustain studying as I was struggling financially,” says Sibeko.
As the year wound down, Sibeko left university. Through a hackathon challenge, organized at an aeroplane hangar, Sibeko would soon start solving problems he thought were within human reach. It was here where he developed the Rea Vaya app.
“Microsoft had advertised some fellowship towards the end of the year. I was told I had been accepted. I had to choose between continuing with school and working my way out of poverty.”
After this, Sibeko was set. He went on to win the MTN Apps Challenge in 2014. He says innovation should respond to the needs of the community.
“It is important for African app developers to devise solutions for people in their communities. I am working on developing apps for low-income earners,” he says.
Sibeko is working on yet another project.
“An app that seeks to expand how individuals can make new discoveries based on their environments. Finding hidden gems in familiar or unfamiliar places,” he says.
To achieve his dreams, Sibeko says he will have to put in a lot of hard work with many sleepless nights.
It is true; there is no such thing as a free lunch.