April 20, 2008

“You don’t travel South Africa. South Africa travels you.”

The quote comes from the cover of a beautiful coffee table book on South African fashion titled “Well-Souled.” Lately, through work, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around SA quite a bit, and nearly every moment reminds me of the truth in that quote.

Quick stories from some of the places I’ve been:

Orange Farm, Alexandria, and Langa
Whereas Soweto includes a burgeoning Black middle class, Orange Farm and Alexandria are Johannesburg’s “ghetto.” Alexandria (or Alex as it’s called here) is located literally next door to the super rich Sandton suburb. Orange Farm is about 40 minutes outside of the city. Langa is Cape Town’s equivalent.

Corrugated steel barely held together make up many of the “homes.” Violent crime is rampant. Unemployment is upwards of 60%. And HIV/AIDS is a very serious, very present issue.

Each of these regions are Black townships created by South Africa’s apartheid government, placed close enough to the cities to provide cheap labor, but far enough away so the people could not benefit. Today, the kids born in these townships are able to go into the cities without the previous regime’s pass laws and entry requirements, but there is still no effective system to help them benefit from the financial hubs so close by.

Interesting story: When I was in Orange Farm, I spent the day at the loveLife Y-Centre focus-grouping our mobile social network. The kids are all on MXit (SA’s mobile chat application), ao I asked them what they would want if they could create their own MXit. They didn’t tell me they wanted games, music, pictures or other prizes like I thought they would. They literally asked me for inspiration. “We need role models. Inspirational quotes. Maybe even the Bible.”

Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone
Ethenbeni is about an hour outside of East London in the Eastern Cape. Port Shepstone is about and hour and a half south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Both villages are pilot sites for loveLife’s gogoGetters program, which is working to organize the already mobilized grandmothers of South Africa who are raising many of SA’s 1 million AIDS orphaned children. (Gogo means grannie in Xhosa.) Here’s the PSA:

All of the Gogos I met in Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone were as beautiful and vibrant as depicted in the PSA. Passionate, energetic, and full of life, they are very serious when they assert that they have watched their children die of AIDS; they won’t stand by and watch their grandchildren die too.

Painful story: The gogoGetter program is designed to help the Gogos achieve five things. (1) Make sure the orphans and vulnerable children feel like part of the community. (2) Keep the kids in school. (3) Help the children access government grants. (4) Ensure food security. (5) Work to stop sexual abuse.

When the loveLife program development team was discussing the final point with the Gogos, they asked who was the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse? The uncle? The neighbor?

The Gogos responded that it was actually the younger men in the community. And that they would come to the Gogos’ houses in particular to rape both the children and the grandmother, because they knew no male figure would be around. As I looked around the room, my heart sank as I realized many of our beautiful Gogos had likely been victims.

Whereas Jo’burg feels like Los Angeles and Cape Town is like the south of France, Nongoma is National Geographic’s version of Africa – stunningly beautiful, pristinely natural, and heartbreakingly poor.

The poverty, however, is only one piece of Nongoma’s story. Located in Zululand in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, the beauty of Nongoma’s people is further enriched by the beauty of the land - green, lush, rolling hills for miles, complemented at random by circles of traditional, brightly-colored, clay homes with thatched roofs.

The people of Nongoma face difficult circumstances: Gender equity is incredibly tough to accomplish as many traditional rules still apply (the Zulu King still rules the area). Unemployment sits at above 80%. And the region has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, reaching upwards of 50% in certain cases, such as mother-to-child transmission.

But Nongoma’s people have tremendous amounts of faith and hope, and those who can are doing what they can to give themselves and their families a better life.

Inspiring story: The young people we met at the Nongoma Y-Centre were like many of loveLife’s youth – hip, happening, passionate and on it. It didn’t matter that they were from one of the most remote parts of SA; they all had this immense sense of passion & style combined with a deep desire to succeed beyond their circumstances.

One particularly inspiring young woman had recently moved 60 km from her home in order to be able to simply volunteer at the loveLife Y-Centre. Just the travel alone would have been quite a feat for her in rural SA, but she made it to Nongoma and was able to organize a place for her to stay while away from home. She went to all of this effort because for her, like for so many of SA’s youth, loveLife’s Y-Centre is the only place even remotely nearby where she can learn computer skills, debate skills, motivation, or quite frankly, gain any form of skills development. And she was determined to get the skills she needed in order to get a scholarship to go to university to make her dreams come true.

April 16, 2008

Thank You

Many who read this blog have written me with incredibly kind words. And I wanted to share here how much those words mean to me.

When I decided to take this trip back in August 2007, I knew how hard it would be for me to be so far away from my friends and family. And I won’t lie; it isn’t easy. But being away has been a consistent lesson in gratitude. Gratitude for the amazing people in my life. Gratitude for the many wonderful life experiences. Gratitude for the love felt, shown and shared through those people and experiences, even when I can’t be in the same physical space.

So, thank you for making it easier. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

April 8, 2008

The Work: Part II

When I said I would write more “tomorrow,” I actually meant next week. =) Funny enough it has been work that has kept me from writing about the work.

But now on to the why and how around loveLife’s mobile program.

Why mobile social networking?

1) Social networking plays directly into the key triggers of behavior change – identity, belonging, and purpose. Creating a profile is an explicit exercise in developing identity as you decide how you want people to see you; the nature of groups, forums, chats, etc. is rooted in developing belonging. And the core of this particular social network is around purpose.

2) loveLife’s massive physical network makes creating a virtual network a natural extension. Launching a viral product with a built in base of 20,000 people and access to 800,000 more is a marketer’s dream.

3) One of the core objectives of loveLife’s “Make Your Move” campaign is to link young people to potential opportunities. (Each year, millions of rand go back into the SA government budget simply because not enough people know about or know how to apply for government grants.) Another core objective is igniting initiative and self-reliance. Social networking tools provide a platform for young people to organize themselves. And since it’s all on their mobile, information dissemination (particularly around jobs, scholarships, and internships) becomes significantly easier.

So strategically, mobile social networking makes sense for loveLife. It may not be right for all NGOs, but it will bring this organization where it wants to be. How we came to create this thing, however, is a more interesting story.

The How

As a marketing consultant, I’m in the business of messages and ideas. In my past experience with non-profits, the messages have been forced to be watered down and the big ideas are hardly ever able to survive.

The difference with loveLife is their CEO, David Harrison. Spend ten minutes with David and you realize he’s a visionary. Spend thirty minutes and you understand why he’s a brilliant fundraiser. Spend an hour with David and you notice he’s a bit of an anarchist, or at a minimum, not a huge fan of conventional wisdom.

More important than all of that – he gets it.

I spent only five minutes walking him through Facebook (an exercise I end up doing with most clients over 35), when his eyes lit up. He immediately saw the potential I had seen of social networking on mobile, and simply asked me, “How much?”

I warned him about the challenges, the largest of which was that we wouldn’t be able to control or always monitor the social network, as doing so would kill it. He understood. I warned him that it would require multiple hires and a reconfiguration of content development from his media team. He understood. I warned him that if it took off, it would be huge, and he had to be prepared for both the good and the bad that comes with that, including a need for new sources of funding. He understood.

One week later I interviewed nearly every mobile development agency in SA.

Two weeks later we hired one.

Three weeks later we outlined the scope.

Four weeks later I ran around the country focus grouping the functionality.

Five weeks later we began endless partnership conversations to bring in music, games, fun and prizes to the network.

It’s now six weeks after I mentioned a simple idea to David and I’m writing a product launch strategy.

This June, the product will be live.

I often can’t believe this is all actually happening. What began as a personal journey to South Africa has become one of my most enriching professional experiences. More importantly, I actually feel like I’m creating something that will provide value to the youth of South Africa. 10 of them could use it, or a million could be on it, and it would still mean as much to me. Because each of those kids is one additional person who has access to more information and more people and more tools than they did before. And for me, that's exactly how media and technology can help create social change.