Q&A: Siyavula founder Mark Horner

As a social enterprise determined to facilitate universal access to quality educational materials for all teachers and students across South Africa, Siyavula’s philosophy is that openness, collaboration and the effective use of technology is the way to revolutionise the country’s education system, as founder Mark Horner tells HumanIPO.

HumanIPO: Where did the idea for Siyavula come from?

Mark Horner: In its current form, Siyavula owes much of its DNA to the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project which focused on the collaborative authoring of high school science textbooks that were both curriculum-aligned and released under an open copyright licence. Mark Horner, a founder of FHSST, initiated and ran Siyavula within the Shuttleworth Foundation (SF) after the successful conclusion of FHSST.

What is the main innovation as compared to market rivals?

Embracing the principles of openness in the approach and focusing on the technology to support it: open and transparent social structures for development of content; open copyright licensing for effective sharing; open standards and formats for content storage and manipulation; and opensource software for the tools to build on.

How was the project implemented, given the special resources needed to get the project off the ground?

Siyavula was incubated within SF, whose model is one of social co-investment, and built on the five years of experience of the FHSST project. FHSST was more than a proof of concept but was not scaleable and widely recognised. The incubation period and global network of thought leaders provided by SF enabled significant advocacy work and time to develop a social enterprise model based on openness to drive systemic, sustainable change in the education sector in South Africa and globally.

What were the challenges to setting up the enterprise, particularly in an African context?

As a fledgling social-enterprise, two things jump out as challenges in the larger context.

Firstly, there is no such recognised legal entity in South Africa that we could adopt. There is a movement globally towards driving sustainable social development through social enterprises that are not just not-for-profit entites and this is an area in which South Africa, and Africa, could see development to give entrepreneurs with the social focus much greater opportunities.

Secondly, there is a relatively small venture capital sector which makes it hard to secure funding but also affects the effectiveness of businesses being developed and their impact.

What were/are the technological challenges in setting up and operating Siyavula?

Generally, poor support for various standards. Given the wide variety of devices, operating systems and browsers/applications through which we aim to deliver open content, the lack of adherance to international standards significantly hamstrings the rate and effectiveness of delivery.

How does Siyavula cater to teachers/students who do not have easy access to computers/mobile phones?

We have put the appropriate legal structures, open copyright licenses, in place so that any individual, organisation or business can support or even develop innovative ways of delivering the resources.

Our efforts also extend beyond computers and mobile phones, despite the extremely high penetration of mobile phones in South Africa. We work closely with the Department of Basic Education to ensure that our resources are at the level where they can be endorsed and even printed. In 2012, DBE distributed printed books produced by Siyavula for some subjects (approximately 2.5 million books in total) which the open licence encourages. The open nature of our work and the fact that there is no business or financial relationship between Siyavula and DBE enables a different set of dynamics.

Every learner and educator in South Africa who takes or teaches the subject for which DBE printed books should have received, at no cost to the school and without impacting their regular textbook budget, copies of the relevant books.

What is the next step in Siyavula’s plans?  Will there be an expansion to other African countries?

Siyavula is currently focusing on the business model of related services for sustainability while expanding into other subject areas and grades.

Expansion into other African countries is more than feasible given the delivery methods and technology Siyavula has developed. In fact, significant consumption of Siyavula’s resources already takes place outside of South Africa.

What sort of growth has Siyavula seen, in financial, resource and human terms?

The company has received investment from PSG Financial Services which has allowed the expansion into other grades and subjects as well as expansion of the organisation by 3-fold since leaving SF.

With hindsight, what would you do differently?

Given the challenges of the sector and the uniqueness of our approach, more time is required before we are able to reflect on real market entry and success to identify key learnings.

In principle, earlier engagement with the investment sector would have been good, however the sector is small and our approach quite unique so it is not clear that been useful in our context.

Is this the way to achieve 100 percent education across South African/African society?

Openness, collaboration and effective use of technology most certainly are.

Is Siyavula filling a gap in the education sector, which the government is currently not providing for (missing books, etc.)?

There is much written about missing textbooks and our provision of textbooks is often linked to those needs but this is not at all the gap that Siyavula fills.

Siyavula brings an alternative perspective on where the publishing industry should be adding value in the school education sector, leveraging new technologies to make that possible. The question that one needs to ask is where is the current sector inefficient and where is their business model essentially a skeuomorphism.

Please can you give some advice to budding tech entrepreneurs?

Taking anything from the garage to the real world is much harder than you can possibly imagine! Find and listen to those experienced heads that tell you it will be hard and that you must be very focused on one thing but don’t let them dampen your spirit.

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