Sector: education, coding
Arlene Mulder, 34, South Africa
Co-founder: WeThinkCode and Toybox
After seven years as an investment banker, Arlene Mulder left the finance world to start a tech company that aims to democratize and revolutionize education and deliver the world’s top software engineers.
She co-founded an educational institution called WeThinkCode in 2016.
In high school, Mulder enjoyed solving mathematical problems and challenges many thought were difficult.
“You had to use different rules, but you could use these rules to solve problems in innovative ways and that’s what I always love,” she tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
With her love for maths, she went on to graduate cum laude with an MSc degree in Quantitative Risk Management at North-West University.
As a student, she stayed at the university residence, where she learned and understood the challenges students faced, unaware this insight would culminate in her business model for WeThinkCode.
After her studies, she joined a grad program and then worked on developing credit risk models.
In 2008, in the middle of the global financial crisis, she joined RMB and the banking world, focusing on quantitative credit risk analysis for two years.
At the age of 26, she then moved to a corporate finance position working with senior players at the bank as a Corporate Finance Transactor for five more years.
She learned how CEOs and corporates think strategically. “They were all worried about what was coming, the digital transformation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
With skills in business and coding, Mulder did not only have the upper hand, but could see a gap between the two industries.
The need was for people with new skills, who could understand technology, and how to use them in a business context and to solve problems.
Identifying this problem provided Mulder the idea to change the landscape.
She then met a woman by the name of Camille Agon, who told her about a school in France, Ecole 42, a private, non-profit and tuition-free computer programming school.
At the end of 2014, Mulder quit her job and the two set out to start a similar school in South Africa, focusing on skills for the 21st century. They called the school WeThinkCode, partnering with Ecole 42 in France.
It uses the principle of no-teachers-no-classes, peer-to peer learning, requires no prior qualification and is tuition free.
“If you look at the traditional education model, students pay tuition. Everyone told us ‘no, you are crazy, how can you make it free for students, they are not going to value it, it is never going to work’.”
But Mulder and Agon ignored the criticism.
“Instead of getting the students to pay for the tuition, we’d rather get the corporates to pay,” Mulder says.
But it wasn’t easy. They didn’t give up.
What kept them going was the need to change the education system in South Africa.
In nine months, they were able to secure R11 million ($778,000).
“I think what we did very well is that even though we set up WeThinkCode as a non-profit, we run it like a business and made sure we were completely on top of things. We had models, we knew all the regulations, so we just made sure that we maintained a high quality.”
Exactly three years ago, they opened their doors to the first batch of students.
To date, they have over 38 corporate partners who sponsor tuition fees and provide students internships.
About 600 students have enrolled since they started.
According to Mulder, of the first class of students at WeThinkCode, 100% of them graduated and were placed in jobs. The second class will be completing at the end of May this year.
Last year, they expanded and opened a campus in Cape Town and introduced a robotics lab. She also co-founded Toybox, a tech hub which is a network of experts and fellows from around the continent who share information and knowledge, grow investments and enable collaborations.
Both the companies she co-founded are two different ventures but similar ideas.
Mulder’s mission is to show that new wealth can be created in Africa.
“If you look across the continent and what we are doing here, and the innovations we have, often the world does not see that. They see the problems, they see the corruption. But actually we are very innovative and we can be the best in the world and I would like to show the world that,” she says.
Sector: Coding, energy
Rachel Sibande, 33, Malawi
Founder: mHub and Earth Energy
From the age of 11, Rachel Sibande wanted to become a French teacher. But that dream did not come to fruition. Instead, she founded Malawi’s first innovation hub called mHub.
Sibande grew up living between Malawi’s two towns, Lilongwe and Blantyre. In high school, she was enamored with the sciences. By the time she went to university, she was certain she wanted to study technology and computers.
She studied computer science and statistics at the University of Malawi, following it up with an MSc in Information Theory, Coding and Cryptography at Mzuzu University. After completing her studies, Sibande went on to teach at one of the of the country’s elite high schools, Kamuzu Academy, for two years.
“I never had an opportunity to study there but I had a chance to go there and teach, so it was still motivational,” she says.
She then left and worked as a market system specialist for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) within their social economic growth portfolio for funded projects.
In 2012, she was part of the Young African Leaders Initiative in Chicago.
“It was a pivotal moment for me because at that time, I knew I was very passionate about creating change in my country, she says.
While in Chicago, she visited a tech hub for the first time.
“When I saw the work that they were doing, it was a light bulb moment, like an aha moment, where I was like ‘ok, now I have actually found what it is that I need to go start back home that will quench my curiosities and that I can use to make the change that I want to see’,” she says.
This ‘aha moment’ saw her going to Kenya to learn about their technology hubs, and to Rwanda and Zambia.
Inspired, Sibande learned what worked and what didn’t and how she could implement it in Malawi.
“That process helped me come up with a business model for the mHub in Malawi that has helped us to actually be sustainable till this day.”
She started mHub in 2013 as a social enterprise and private technology company.
“I was leveraging my tech expertise. I realized the greatest capital I have is my intellectual capital,” she says.
With just her skill-sets in coding, developing algorithms and technology solutions, she started the company developing websites and enterprise systems.
“I realized there were no platforms like that in Malawi at the time, and I wanted to see and encourage young people to consider careers in tech,” she said.
The company would generate social improvement programs, which led her to setting up the mHub trust.
Through the trust, she trained youth, particularly young girls in digital skills; from the basics of animation to apps and robots.
Since 2013, Sibande says they have reached over 30,000 young people in the country, within all their programs.
Fast forward to 2018 and they have grown exponentially.
Today, mHub also incubates innovative entrepreneurs from the tech, agriculture, architecture and construction industries.
They offer innovative entrepreneurs $40,000 each, with support from external investment partners.
One of the entrepreneurs they have incubated harvests human urine to produce fertilizer at a lower cost than chemical fertilizers.
While working, Sibande realized the constant electricity cuts in Malawi posed serious problems to her business.
“It was even embarrassing for me to have international calls and Skype calls with colleagues outside the country because of the power challenges. So as an innovator, you see the solution in every problem,” she says.
“I had been researching the idea of using locally-available resources to generate electricity to cater for 90% of the population not connected to electric grids, and a third of them who are actually poor.”
She researched low-cost affordable energy in India, Uganda and other countries, for solutions.
And that solution was right in front of her eyes. It was the staple food of Malawi, maize crops.
Sibande reached out to Florida Polytechnic University, a project-based STEM education institution, to help her idea come to life.
They provided her with the technical support to start Earth Energy, an energy business that uses maize cobs to generate electricity.
At the time, they generated enough electricity, using maize cobs, to cater for lighting four houses for six to seven hours.
She employs five people within Earth Energy and buys maize cobs from community members who would have thrown them away.
“I believe in starting where you are from, where you are, and with what you have,” she says.
She pitched her idea at the Next Einstein Forum global gathering in 2018 and received $25,000 prize money for her business idea, ‘Light from Maize’.
She plans to use this to invest in machinery to deploy community micro grids.
She spends her time between Malawi and South Africa, as she is currently completing her PhD in computer science at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape.
“For me [new wealth creation] is about creating opportunities for others and for growing my country’s economy and the continent. I believe that for a long time we have had to import solutions from elsewhere, which meant exporting wealth. So, creating new wealth now, means that we are exporting solutions. We develop home-grown solutions, we export wealth, we retain wealth and it lives within our communities and our continent,” she says.
Sector: Sustainable energy
Sarah Collins, 48, South Africa
It is round, made of recyclable material, and uses no heat, electricity or fuel. It is called the Wonderbag.
It cooks food using heat retention, estimated to cut carbon emissions by half a ton per year.
This slow cooking bag was founded by Sarah Collins in 2008.
Her company was honored by TIME Magazine as one of the most genius companies of 2018, alongside Steve Job’s Apple and Rihanna’s Fenty.
Collins’ Wonderbag was a result of years of activism in South Africa. She grew up on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal, spent most of her time with her nanny and learned to speak isiZulu before she learned to speak English.
By the age of 10, she had learned a great deal about farm traditions, such as using firewood to cook, riding horses, selling vegetables and tending to farm animals.
“As kids, we grew up very entrepreneurial and so that laid the foundation for what was to become my life,” she says.
As a teen, Collins began to understand the social injustices of apartheid. In 1986, she was one of the many arrested for striking against the apartheid government.
Collins said her experiences moulded her into becoming a gender and anti-poverty activist.
“I think the discontent and also the inequalities and a sense of not belonging in any world bred in me an activism which has shaped my entire life,” she says.
In the 1990s, she left South Africa to work in tourism in Botswana and began working with women on empowering them around conservation.
She started a horse safari business and later, a social enterprise involving local communities in the Okavango Delta.
She then returned home to South Africa and started an NGO that integrated young people and the elderly into nature reserves to learn about tourism and conservation.
She ventured into other social businesses after that.
“I tried everything from earthworm farming, vegetable gardening, recycling, and dress-making; every social enterprise I could think of that would fit around a household so that the mother or grandmother was still present but could generate an income,” she says.
In 2008, she had her biggest epiphany.
“I was thinking about my grandmother and how in the 70s, we didn’t have electricity on the farms, so would we cook with these boxes. And the Wonderbag was born.”
It reduces fuel emission, conserves forests with less firewood used and reduces electricity usage.
“Why can’t heat retention work? Why can’t it be the energy of the future?” Collins asked herself at the time.
Together with 500 women, they played around with heat retention cooking as a pilot program and the results were successful.
“Africa has the most fertile land of female entrepreneurs in the world,” she says.
“I knew in my heart that my life would never be the same and this was going to be one of the revolutionary products in the world in terms of cooking.”
Whenever she spoke about the idea, people thought she was crazy.
Today, Wonderbag is sold in 32 countries globally.
It can be found in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, and in households across Africa.
Last year, she was awarded ‘Woman of the Decade in Entrepreneurship’ at the World Economic Forum. Collins plans to have 50 million more bags in homes in the next five years.
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