Joel Mwale - bringing 'Facebook' education to Kenya
- 28 November 2013
- From the section Africa
A young social entrepreneur from Kenya might have solved one of the conundrums of the Facebook generation - how to stop social media getting in the way of studying.
Joel Mwale, a 20-year-old who never completed his own education, has realised the answer is to stop trying to push social media away, and instead embrace it.
More than one million people around the world seem to agree with him, because in the five weeks since his website Gigavia.com went live, they have signed up as users.
Teachers and schools have always faced the problem of stopping students using social media in class, seeing it as a distraction.
But they also know that teenagers are addicted to chatting to each other online.
His website allows schools and teachers to be part of it, so you can sign into class-specific areas of the site where academic materials can be shared.
There is a personal library section where you can share books at a class level, and there is a section for mentoring.
This is all on the same site which you can also use for all the usual personal social media chats and sharing with friends.
Although he wants his idea to be taken up in East Africa, his ambition is global.
His website has been developed with a team of international software developers.
The proof of its success is not only the staggeringly quick take-up by users, but also that they come from around the world.
More than 50% of users so far come from the US, and other countries like Turkey and South Africa have been quicker to sign on than Kenyans.
Rainwater for school fees?
Mr Mwale arrives on foot for our interview in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, after someone drove into the back of his car in a traffic accident.
Walking through the streets carrying a simple bag with his laptop, you would never guess that the unassuming young man in a checked shirt and canvas shoes has rubbed shoulders with former US President Bill Clinton and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
His extraordinary personal story started aged 14, when he along with others from his village near Kitale, a town in western Kenya, were struck down by dysentery from unclean drinking water.
In the local hospital, the people in the beds on either side of him died, and he thought "something has got to be done".
So he dug a borehole to reach clean water, designed a pump using an old bicycle wheel, and provided clean water for his neighbours.
Drinking water formed the basis of his first commercial venture.
When he did not have enough money for school fees, he collected rainwater from the gutters of a local milk factory, purified it, bottled it and sold it to local people during the dry season.
However, he never went back to school, and sold his "SkyDrop" water company last year for $500,000 (£307,000) to an Israeli investor.
This success brought him international recognition, a spell in the African Leadership Academy, a place on the Forbes list of "30 under 30: Africa's Best Young Entrepreneurs" and meetings with some of the top players in Silicon Valley in California.
It was there, while in a meeting with Mr Zuckerberg that the founder of Facebook said something that made Mr Mwale sit up.
"In the next two years a start-up is going to come up and it's going to grow from zero to 200 million users in two years," he said.
Mr Mwale says he was sitting there listening and he thought:"Wow! I'm definitely going to be that person."
Free for users
It is this confidence and determination that belies his softly spoken voice; when he sets his mind to something he believes he can achieve it.
"What I've learnt is that to be successful you've got to be determined, you've got to work hard, and if you do so the world will give you a standing ovation. If you dedicate 100% of your efforts into something it will definitely succeed."
The mixture of the social and the entrepreneurial, which marked his first successful venture with SkyDrop, is central to his internet platform.
It is free for users - although schools with more than 100 pupils signed up will have to start paying - but he also expects it to be financially successful in the future.
"I came from nothing, we had no money, and I always wanted to be rich when I was young. I want to help people improve their lives, but I'm also an entrepreneur who wants to succeed."
And he seems to be succeeding with Gigavia.
The website has not been promoted in any way, it has not been officially launched, yet has gained more than a million users through word of mouth alone.
It is a simple website which looks similar to Facebook in its layout, but with the added sections for mentoring, school assignments, teachers and schools.
It is this combination of education and social media that Mr Mwale hopes is going to transform the way young people use social media.
"We are connecting education and social media together in a meaningful way."
And he is aiming high - he wants 150 million people to be using his website by March 2014.
"The reality is I started from a very low background, now I'm where I am, and I think that anyone else could do the same thing," he says.
"You've just got to remain focussed, and work hard, and never give up."