Interview: Obami founder Barbara Mallinson on startups and e-learning

Untitled-1.jpgWith her own savings, support from friends, and the backing of a UK Government Grant, South African entrepreneur Barbara Mallinson founded Obami, a social networking site that’s been developed specifically for schools and to facilitate e-learning.

Mallinson has since brought Obami back to South Africa to try and make a difference in the country she’s always called home. caught up with her to talk online education and where it is all going.

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Memeburn: What are the major trends you are seeing in your industry?
BM: With Mxit and Facebook making up a huge percentage of South Africa’s online audience, I think educators are really starting to get how beneficial social media could be, if applied to the classroom. And with the rise of cheaper broadband connecting more schools, and content being accessible through a much wider range of devices, it looks like e-learning in South Africa is on the cusp of something wonderful.

MB: What will the industry look like in 10 year’s time?
BM: It’s easy to picture the virtual 3D classroom of the future, but the biggest shift will occur when our education model, which has been the same for the past 150 years, changes from standardised schooling to personalised learning.

I imagine students will be using social media tools to gain accreditation based on their natural talents and interests, rather than regurgitating a set curriculum. And then, 15 years after that, we’ll start seeing a world filled with business leaders, artists, biochemists and engineers that have been in training since birth.
This isn’t to say that schools will become redundant; they serve an important developmental role, but with online resources becoming more readily available and more engaging, geographic location will no longer be a limitation.

MB: Which new technologies most excite you?
MB: Anything that makes life better for a group of people — i.e. green technologies, simpler online payments, etc.

MB: What social media tools do you use?
BM: The big ones like Facebook and Twitter, although I tend to keep quite a low profile on them. I also find LinkedIn, Slideshare, WordPress, Snagsta and a number of Ning communities all quite useful too.

MB: Why, in your opinion, is Google not cracking the social networking game?
BM: Google is the silent giant – they’ve always been quiet in launching new features, and because of this, they haven’t been positioned (or positioned themselves) as a social networking “destination”. Instead of building a social website, they are integrating their social graph into every corner of the web.

MB: What in your opinion will be the next Google, Facebook and Twitter?
BM: Besides Obami, it’ll be something that…

  • runs openly but respects privacy preferences, and/or
  • builds real value from geo-tagging, and/or
  • offers a simple social payment platform

MB: What inspires you?
BM: Positive South Africans. They’re the ones that are making a huge difference, they’re getting on with life by looking forward, not backward.

MB: Blackberry, iPhone or Android?
BM: The iPhone 4 is looking pretty hot!

MB: Can you recommend two to three books we should read that will change our lives?
BM: Any of Malcom Gladwell’s books, Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and, business aside, Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffron Foer.

MB:How did you end up in your current field?
BM: I studied business at the University of Cape Town and then worked at a couple of corporates in London – that just confirmed the desire to start my own business, so it was simply a matter of finding the right idea.

MB: What is the most fulfilling project you have worked on?
MB: Hands down, it’s Obami – whether it’s receiving messages of support and gratitude from the kids and teachers, learning new ways to do things in business, or discussing ideas with some incredible minds within the industry – everyday brings new challenges and rewards – I couldn’t ask to be in a better place.

MB: What was your biggest failure and how did you deal with it?
BM: Trying to launch Obami as a generic social networking site… it was going nowhere, fast! Re-strategising, determination and good-timing have allowed me to carve out what looks like a promising future for the business.

MB: What do you love most about your job?
BM: The energy that is Obami – it’s a cliché, but I love that it has the potential to make a real difference.

MB: What would you most like Tech4Africa attendees to take away from your talk?
BM: It’d be brilliant if I could play just a small part in motivating someone who has a great business idea, to go out and make something of it.

MB: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing African tech growth?
BM: Accessibility

MB: What one thing should Africans be doing to better compete globally?

BM: Again, it’s accessibility. For Africa to compete globally, we need to ensure that its people are educated, and that innovation is rewarded… both of these will be natural by-products of a connected continent.

MB: What advice would you give to a tech start-up trying to get a great idea off the ground?
BM: There’s a delicate balance between getting the hard slog done and spending time networking (both are so important to a new business). Just keep at it – it’s amazing what doors are opened when you exercise passion and determination, while having a clear focus and positive mindset to match.

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