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Tech 100: 'Technology isn't the solution to everything... a business model built around people is more important'

Tech 100: 'Technology isn't the solution to everything... a business model built around people is more important'

Founder Riaz Moola, fourth from left, with colleagues Brandon Chetty, Umar Randeree, Richard Niescior, Godfrey Maringa and Dimitri Kalamoudacos. Credit: Julian Carelsen.

There has always been a link between the UK and Africa, even between Scotland and South Africa. For my part, I was studying computer science in South Africa then transferred to study computer science at the University of Edinburgh five years ago.

Computer science and software development skills are so critical, not just in South Africa and Africa but around the entire world. I’ve seen both sides of the picture.

In Africa we have great infrastructure and the ability to deliver things but places like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa just don’t have the money to teach people these skills at scale. Here in the UK there is also a huge need because many people want to learn but getting mentorship and support can be really expensive.

Hyperion Development, which started as an idea in July 2012 when I was at Edinburgh, was set up to create an experience that links the two continents together and brings revenue into Africa to support the lowest-income demographic in learning these skills.

We’re a social enterprise. We sell online courses in programming and computer science in the UK and every course we sell, we link students to one of our mentors based in Africa. Those mentors are selected by us after delivering those courses for free to low-income demographics in Africa, finding the top one per cent and then employing them as trainers to support others here in the UK.

We add value in the UK because with nobody else can you get the same level of human support in an online course that we offer. We’re not just talking about a few chats a day but an intensive month-by-month mentorship with somebody experienced in software development and who can mentor you through many advanced technical concepts.

And by students here purchasing our courses, they also support free education in Africa and employment too. We think that is critical to bridge the economic divide but also the education divide on the two continents.

In total we’ve raised $270,000 from Facebook, Google and the South African government. Now $270,000 is $270,000 in the UK but in Africa it’s about a million dollars. However, the first people who ever gave us funding was the University of Edinburgh when we won a £5000 grant from their development trust in December 2012. Basically, I don’t think we would be here today if it wasn’t for that grant.

We’ve worked with a mentor in the LAUNCH.ed team at Edinburgh Research and Innovation since this January and we’re looking to expand our work with Edinburgh a lot more. I studied in the informatics department and I’m very aware of the world-leading research they do. We’re currently discussing collaborating with them.

When we deliver online courses we obviously get a lot of data on students and a lot of data about some students who are hard to reach, for instance people who are in very rural areas in central Africa or west Africa. Working with Edinburgh University we really hope to flesh out the methods and the technologies that can better deliver support to these students because that is the part where technology can start playing more and more of a role.

We’re also considering setting up our UK office in Edinburgh and are working with Scottish Enterprise to see what the possibilities are, although we haven’t yet made a decision. That said, we would be very excited to be able to set up in Edinburgh, looking at Europe as a whole or even the world. It’s an excellent place to launch a start-up and there are a lot of support mechanisms in place. We really hope we’ll be able to do it.

One thing I would say to other potential start-ups, though, is that technology is not the solution to everything. There is a very big focus on technology, especially in Edinburgh. I come from a very technical background. I worked in artificial intelligence and I worked at Google for a short time as a product manager.

But sometimes a business model built around people in terms of a social business model – how you use the means or the opportunities of one demographic to help build something new and make a difference to another demographic – is more important. Technology can be a part of tying it all together but technology alone is very hard to make the basis of something refreshing or very impactful.

Riaz Moola is the founder and director of Hyperion Development, a tech company spun out of Edinburgh University which provides scalable software development and computer science education internationally. The South African founded the company in 2012 while studying at the University of Edinburgh.

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