Meet South Africa’s Trendsetting Tech Entrepreneur, Rapelang Rabana

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Rapelang RabanaTalk about a dynamic, young woman.

Having been listed on Forbes’s 2013 30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs as well as Oprah Magazine’s “O Power List,” Rapelang Rabana is one of Africa’s top stars in tech. Right after earning her bachelor’s degree in Business Science and honors in Computer Science from the University of Cape Town, in 2005 she founded Yeigo, an innovative Cape Town-based startup that developed groundbreaking mobile VoIP applications.  The company’s products let users make free phone calls, send emails, and communicate with text messages with other users via the Internet. Swiss-based telecoms operator Telfree Group of Companies acquired a majority stake in Yeigo in 2008.

“I studied Computer Science at the University of Cape Town, and a few months before I graduated I realized that I didn’t want to join the corporate world,” says Rabana, now 30.  “I co-founded Yeigo Communications with two of my classmates in 2006, the year after we graduated. We decided to apply ourselves to the issue of the cost of communication, having been plagued with sending free ‘plz-call-me’s’ to communicate for a large portion of our varsity careers. We were inspired by the reality that using the Internet/IP could dramatically change communications of the future: not just in terms of cost, but also just the sheer variety of the different forms of communication and interaction that become possible when you are online. It was an amazing seven-year journey that has positioned me to keep exploring how we use technology to provide solutions to problems at a larger scale than we could have before.”

After her success with Yeigo, Rabana went on to found Rekindle Learning, a mobile learning application. “I started Rekindle Learning at the end of 2013, after thinking about which industry I would next like to apply my knowledge of mobile and Internet technology to. Learning and development has always been a major point of interest to me and given the huge challenge that this Continent faces in skilling people at scale, particularly young people, I felt this was something I could dedicate my time and energy to,” she says. “While the interest in eLearning is growing rapidly, I believe there is a gap for solutions that can support local, contextualized content within the framework of a learning experience that significantly improves the rate at which we can learn – all while catering specifically for mobile devices in bandwidth constrained environments.”

With both her startups, Rabana was determined to make them a success, even with funding challenges. “With Yeigo, my co-founders and I managed to gather about $3,000 funding from family to purchase cheap laptops and Internet access, and we relied on our families for a place to stay and food to eat. With our living expenses covered, we were able to start building prototypes of our mobile VoIP application. We secured angel investments in September 2006 that allowed us to launch the first version of the product. Telfree then acquired a majority stake in the business in 2009,” she says. “With Rekindle Learning, I have chosen to bootstrap the business. I have partnered with another technology company to reduce the cost and time to develop the software, and I have financed the operations of the company with my own savings and ongoing consulting engagements. It is still in the early stages and we are in the process of validating the offering in the current market. I have come to appreciate the disadvantages of taking external funding too early and want to build up more value in the business first.”

She also serves as the chairperson for Ubuntu Africa Child Healthcare, an NGO providing lifesaving health and support services exclusively to children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Rabana is a smart business woman, no doubt. But still she had her own internal doubts, especially as a women in male-dominated tech. “The biggest challenge as a female entrepreneur has, for me, always been the internal battle of appreciating my own value and trusting the validity of my own journey in the absence of external points of reference I could relate to,” she shares. “Our understanding of entrepreneurship and business and the supporting literature is predominantly built around traditional masculine archetypes and behavioral traits. The challenge as female entrepreneurs is to continue to pursue our dreams and success, with very limited historical reference of people we can personally relate to, in the absence of an established framework that reflects our ideas, interests, values, and views of success. For example, most male technology entrepreneurs start a business because they have a cool idea and want to play around to see if they can make it happen. I started a business because I wanted to create an environment where I could decide how I spend my time and give my attention, as I believed that would have a great impact on who I would become.”

But looking ahead, Rabana has no doubts where she would like to take Rekindle. “In the next 10 years, I would like to see Rekindle Learning as a centre of learning, enabling people to build knowledge from the palm of their hands. From school children, to young high school graduates needing new opportunities, to entrepreneurs, to women farmers,” she says. “I believe that one of the greatest drivers of data usage in 10 years on the Continent will not just be entertainment and social media but educational, training and learning content, and I want Rekindle Learning to be at the crux of that.”