by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 5 February 2019
When Gavin Weale became a Shuttleworth Fellow in 2011, his goal was to create LiveMag - a credible print magazine for South African Youth, and more importantly, by South African youth. Looking back now, that initial bar was set a little low.
Not only did Gavin succeed in creating a youth-led magazine, but he has pivoted LiveMag into the online LiveSA and established the Digify Africa platform to provide digital skills and training for those who would normally miss out. Tens of thousands of youngsters from all over the continent have benefitted.
As we reflect on the tenth year of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Fellowship model, we caught up with Gavin to chat about his time as a Fellow and Alum, his impactful work, and what the future holds. These are the edited highlights…
Shuttleworth Foundation: Hi, Gavin. A lot has happened since your Fellowship began in 2011. Thinking back, how did it all get started?
Gavin Weale: I was working at Livity UK. It’s a socially responsible marketing agency in Brixton, London. I trained young people as content creators to produce influential youth content for Live Magazine - all created by young people.
In 2010, I was nominated for the UK Young Publishing Entrepreneurs of the Year and taken for a trip to South Africa. As soon as I arrived I was immediately struck by the opportunity to create jobs, empower young people and amplify their voices. I thought I would have a greater impact in South Africa than Brixton and by the end of the trip, I really wanted to do Live Mag in Africa.
So how did you discover the Shuttleworth Foundation?
I was lucky to meet Karien Bezuidenhout who said I should apply - so I did. I was amazed when I got accepted, because I’m not from the open world, although there are open elements to what I do.
By all intents and purposes, they probably should have said no. There have been lots of lucky breaks and fate making this happen. But that was it. I quit my job, moved to Cape Town and have been in South Africa ever since.
A suitcase, a new continent and an idea. That’s…brave!
Well, I had a model from the UK which was moderately successful in helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get jobs. It had an interesting mix of social impact and sustainability.
The question was about how you can adapt that model to South Africa where the demographics are so different and the social challenges are so much more severe.
There’s a terrible education system here, low levels of literacy and massive problems with access to resources. Straight away, I had to immerse myself into the lives and challenges of young people. I found it hard because many of them had given up hope and it was a big reality check when I landed. But I just had to dive in and started completely from scratch.
On a personal level, everything changed because I moved continent. There was lots of uncertainty and I was in limbo, but also on a serious adventure - semi-building a life but knowing you might have to go back. There was an element of risk-taking, but you can with the Foundation behind you. It was a lot of fun, but equally, I was surrounded by extreme poverty. I was constantly inspired and humbled by the work.
How did you get things moving with LiveMag?
I recruited a small team, and then started to create a rolling boot camp experience as a full-time activity. We were trying to prove we could build a credible youth audience and, at the same time, become sustainable. The early part was just about getting up and running, and we were iterating on the go.
We launched LiveMag four months after I landed. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t been able to tap so quickly into the Fellowship network of contacts and expertise.
The Foundation staff - in particular Karien - and some of the Fellows gave me a real cross section of expert opinion about things I needed to think about. I had Mark Horner and Philipp Schmidt in the same city who had spent years working in open education and how that could work in a South African context, plus Karien’s wealth of knowledge about virtually everything.
And I also had their introductions to people - I found the right people to talk to and could figure a lot of things out quickly. It was a ready-made network.
LiveSA and Digify Africa have both had a massive impact on young African lives. Was LiveMag as impactful?
I wanted to prove this process could end up with young people actually getting jobs. I think once the Boot Camp was established about 50 percent of young people who did 3-6 months with us did get some kind of job or internship - it was much better than the rates I was getting in the UK.
But we had to mutate the model over time, too, because we were operating in a declining print circulation. Making money was going to be a problem, so we used some of the funding to make the switch over to digital. We had our first online platform in 2012 and started to build a proper digital strategy.
Live Mag was published all the way up to 2014 but it made complete sense to pivot for a few reasons. We could reach more people, while still delivering the same kind of training experience. And we could do it at a fraction of the cost. I’d also came to the realisation the Fellowship - and funding - was ending!
Ah, the famous ‘cliff edge’…
It was challenging! We’d been building an organisation and I had to cash flow a business that employed 12-15 people.
I was so stressed about the ‘what next,’ but you just have to do it. It forces you because it is like a cliff at the end - you need to make some makeshift wings.
You’re lucky in that your time is yours as you see fit, so there is freedom. But it’s also entirely self-managing. You’re not handheld out of the Fellowship.
We pivoted to online and also to a digital service provider. It wasn’t just typical content - we did social media campaigns and youth campaigns around the election.
We had a massive growth spurt in 2016, which attracted lots of funding. We launched the Digify project - it’s now the name of the company - as Digify Africa with Google and the Rockefeller Foundation.
It made us scale very quickly and we’ve trained 85,000 young people across Africa. But that was difficult in itself. We grew to almost 60 people across ten countries on the continent. It was too fast and we ended up crashing by the end of the year.
That meant 2017 was very tough, but now we’re back on track. The focus is very much on people and we do Digify Pro ten-week bootcamps, and intense social media and marketing bootcamps to get people high value jobs in digital agencies.
The idea is to take a tertiary level learning experience and squeeze it into a shorter period. We offer it to those who won’t -or can’t - get a degree. We’re also doing Digify Startups with Facebook, where we collaborate with young people to deliver work. There is a new model emerging and we’re doing community management projects with the biggest digital agency in South Africa, crewing up teams of people and pairing them with clients.
We’re looking back at the past ten years of the current Fellowship funding model. What memories do you have of experience and what changes have you seen?
One thing that sticks out is the sense of freedom and trust you get from the Foundation. It took me a while to get used to the fact that I could do anything I felt was right - it’s almost shocking.
The trust they put into you as an individual is immense and it means you have maximum space to learn. It’s so significant because it’s filtered down to everything I do professionally.
Also, it’s the thinking about learning - the dedication to learning - and not being set in your way about what works and what doesn’t. For example, I never would have figured out that LiveMag wasn’t going to work in the form that I brought from the UK to South Africa.
The support from the network is amazing, too. I’ve made a point of staying connected to the Foundation - to the Gatherings in particular. It’s such an important space to refresh myself professionally - especially when we were having difficult times.
It feels like lifelong support and a place to come back and get inspiration. I feel like that works really well and I have stayed in close touch with a handful of Fellows.
It’s so much better run these days than when I was there. Those Gatherings I found a bit difficult to begin with. It was all 90-minute powerpoints which were very laborious and half the people weren’t paying attention. It was all very white male, some intellectual competitiveness. Diversity is still a challenge - I just wish there was a more diverse faces amongst the Fellows and the Alumni.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I might have managed money a little differently and given myself some breathing space. It was all gone on the last day of my Fellowship! I definitely would be a little more cautious.
Also, I wish I had documented things a little more. I did a lot of that at the start and was being meticulous with my experiences. But once I had a team and small company, all that stuff went out the window.
Thanks for your time, Gavin. Any final thoughts?
The Fellowship changed my life. No other funder gives you as much freedom or trust in you and your ability. Most want to see a specific output while the Shuttleworth Foundation are output agnostic as long as you are learning and in touch with the change you want to make in the world.