The kids are alright: Geekulcha and the students who love tech
Hunched over a laptop screen with with a fisherman’s hat pushed low over his head, headphones around his neck and dressed in super casual T-shirt and combat pants, Mixo Fortune looks for all the world like a pirate DJ broadcasting strange beats over the urban airways around his native Tshwane. He certainly has the name for it. But it isn’t mad tunes he’s mashing together on the computer in front of him: it’s business plans, snippets of code and speaker lists.
Mixo is the founder of Geekulcha, an organisation through which he wants to help tackle the country’s systemic failures in STEM education by encouraging more students to take up science subjects at university and – importantly – keep them motivated to stay there once they start. On the face of it, Geekulcha is about organising hackathons, social nights and acting as a bridge between other organisations and businesses that want to speak to student bodies.
“Our main focus is building a tech community for students,” Mixo says, “I come across a lot of students from all over the country who are hungry for information, who are hungry to learn, and aren’t being supported by their colleges. Through the community, we can help people to learn, and find jobs, and stick with their studies to the end.”
A familiar face at meet-ups for tech entrepreneurs all over Guateng, the idea for Geekulcha came about when Fortune realised the same atmosphere of innovation, inspiration and collaboration around technology was missing from campus life.
Where young people should have been meeting, coding and hacking their way to stellar careers, rote learning an poor teaching quality were the order of the day.
“What I’ve noticed is that some of the best lecturers over the years are no longer around, and you find a lot of student teachers filling their places,” he says, “The tech community moves fast, though, and institutions aren’t keeping up. You do feel there’s a gap between what you’re taught and what you need to know.”
Geekulcha began life as Innovators IT in April 2012, although Mixo was forced to change its name in January this year when he wanted to register it as a company and found that the soubriquet already existed. The first year of its life has brought with it some valuable lessons: coming straight from studies – the 27-year-old is still working to complete his BTEC at Tswane University of Technology (TUT) – he went in with the optimism and naivety typical of a student and shot too large, too soon.
“I tried to big things, attack the big problems and attract bigger crowds and bigger audiences,” Mixo says, “But it was really hard to sustain interest. We’d get a good turnout, but interest would dwindle fast. Now I want to focus on smaller, grassroots groups.”
That new direction is doing well so far. The high point of Geekulcha’s short existence, according to Mixo, was to be invited to the South Africa Innovation Summit last month, to create videos of the event for mLab. The team has also been invited to create an app for the forthcoming TEDxPretoria, and two of its members are presenting speeches there on the day.
Aware that the South African tech industry is perilously close to ‘conference-fatigue’, Mixo says he’s less interested in organising big events that sap resources for little reward and keener on multiple small projects where the focus is on community and sustainability.
“I want to get the right people together, get them interested and build up from there,” he says, “And I want to filter back to high schools as well, and start getting kids involved with technology from a younger age.”
Mixo says that with the problems in higher education as bad as they are, and businesses struggling to find suitable candidates for development positions, it’s up to the students to help themselves and support each other. The current drop-out rates for South African higher education institutions is around 58%, and it’s even more in science-based subjects. Lack of support for students who are struggling to cope with the workload or social pressure of being at university is widely believed to be the problem. Being confused and intimidated is part of being young, but Fortune believes that something like Geekulcha can help to fill that support gap.
The current vogue for entrepreneurialistic endeavour in South Africa resonates with Mixo. He started his first business young, selling Pokemon cards and marbles at school. He was an early adopter of mobile, too, selling phone covers and eventually airtime to help pay for his studies.
Now, however, he’s very much focussed on Geekulcha. Throughout 2012, it was funded almost entirely out of his own pocket, although he now receives sponsorship from Standard Bank via the Coach Lab program. Part of the benefits of this sponsorship is an office in the Innovation Lab in Pretoria, a futuristic-looking shared workspace on Mark Shuttleworth Way and two interns to share the workload.
“It’s still mostly self-funded,” Mixo admits, “But now we have a place people can come and work on projects and support to get them to events and so on.”
For the future, though, Mixo says that the aim is to make Geeklucha self-sustaining from a business point of view. He’s looking at several models, including setting up as a development house in its own right and acting as a broker between Geekulcha members and businesses who want to hire developers and designers for project work.
“A lot of people come to us asking if we can supply talent,” he explains, “Which we can’t at the moment, but we are thinking about taking on an agency kind of role.”
There’s also plans for advertising revenue, and while Geekulcha largely exists through Facebook chatter today, Mixo says that eventually he wants it to evolve into a specialised social network for ICT students in its own right.
A social network, that is, as well as an event organiser, training outfit and a software developer. It’s an ambitious project, but it might just work.