This week, we were in Johannesburg, to meet one of the most creative mind in Africa: Lebogang Nkoane. He is the founder and owner of 2LMN, a media Research and Development Studio in South Africa which has received notorious design awards like The Loeries and The Bookmarks, the Oscar of Digital artists.
Lebogang is also the founder of the “African Flickr” at http://75.co.za/, very popular in South Africa, and a preferred destination for people looking for artistic photography in Africa. He entertains a selective audience with his philosophic essays at http://ygb.co.za/.
In 2004, after his uncle had a car accident, Lebogang started thinking about a transportation utility that would help people in his city navigate the heavy traffic safely, and quickly. Awayto.be, a public transportation mobile app for Johannesburg has been recently launched, with plan to expand to other African countries in the future.
In this Interview, Lebogang shared his passion for design and innovation in Africa.
Silicon Africa (SA): Good Morning Lebogang! You define yourself as “Young, Gifted, and Black sometimes”. I’ve spent almost 1 hour trying to find a way to tell our audience who you are in 1 sentence, but failed miserably. “Who the fuck are you?” What is your background?
Lebogang Nkoane (Lebogang): I refer to myself as, an Alter Native — it is more of a sense of recognizing where I come from (native) and yet not become it exactly (alter), allowing myself to be anything. With that pseudo-intelligence out of the way. I am a computer scientist, born in Alexandra Township (Johannesburg); raised and bred everywhere.
SA: You have inspired so many, include myself, with your work, life style and essays. Recently when Studio83 won the South African Design award “Bookmark Award”, they said you have been the source of the amazing illustrations of “The seven deadly sins”. How do you manage to get so many inspirational ideas? Do you know a secret path to innovation to share with us?
Lebogang: For the record, I did not inspire the illustrations, but the edition — although, I don’t remember the moment I inspired George (creative editor of Studio83. `
About the 7 deadly-sins — we spend a lot of time discussing ideas over food and beer, so ideas go back and forth between me and him.
Getting ideas (innovation) is simple, I think — one just has to stop their minds from making the same conclusive narrative about what we observe.
Although I think because I have been a teacher for over 10 years, I suppose, the ability to see potential in simple things was groomed during that time, you know, everybody has potential, teachers see the best of us — maybe that its.
Oh, don’t try to be an innovator — an innovator is someone who has innovated, already, instead identify a problem (preferably one that affects you personally), then try solve it. simple.
SA: You are the founder of the “African Flickr” at http://75.co.za/, which is very popular in South Africa. The main twist about http://75.co.za/ is that photographer can upload only 1 picture per day. This single restriction force them to chose carefully what to upload, and therefore the pictures at http://75.co.za/ are stunning, compared to a flooded place like Flickr. What was your motivation to start http://75.co.za/?
Lebogang: 75, was inspired by a photo-journal I’ve been running for over 10 years — the journal is named after my grandmother, Sinah Ntholi Nkoane. At some point I thought it would be great to has a space where we could see other people’s photography, the year that this idea came to mind, my grandmother was turning 75.
SA: You are the founder of a design research and development (R&D) firm in South Africa 2LMN. Through 2LMN, You have shaped the development and growth of a few online projects — 75; ttby; Gusto; Osiris; HALF – and received some notorious award: Loeries and The Bookmarks. Tell us more about your company and how you work with your clients.
Lebogang: 2LMN R+D — my company. Actually, I never speak about my company, instead I speak of the work it does; It is a one man-shop as they say; I have no desire to make it a big corporation, all it is, is the harbor of ideas bigger than itself. Clients provide the bread and butter capital required to self-fund my ideas or the ones I work with others in.
My clients won’t like that huh? lol.
SA: How do you define your current design style, and what are the things that have brought you to this style or design patterns?
Lebogang: Post modern minimalist — I was never formally trained in design, I learned it along the way, but because of the concept of abstraction in computer science it made more sense to be a minimalist: only add/show (form) what is needed (function).
SA: You hold a BSc (Honours) degree in computer science, and you have been teaching in the fields of web, mobile, internet development and mathematics for more than 10 years. What advise will you give to a young african who want to study design or computer science today?
Lebogang: Complete the three year degree. Then get an honours degree — never work full-time until an honours degree is acquired.
SA: You have recently launched http://awayto.be/, a mobile service that gets you from .a to .b using public transport, within south Africa. If someone asked you to tell them about “awayto.be” in about three sentences, what would you say?
Lebogang: it is is a way to be anywhere, using public transport: bus, train and teksi.
SA: How did the idea come to you? and How long you have been working on it?
Lebogang: In 2004, my uncle had a car accident, and I had to lend my aunt my car — then I realized I didn’t know how to get from my apartment to work using public transport: I didn’t know when, how, what type of public transport was available. And so, I put together the proposal — but, it was left untouched until 2010 which is when I started designing and developing it — it was perfect timing in that, now, mobile phones (with GPS and advanced browser support) where common.
SA: Why should I use Awayto.be, instead of Google map or Microsoft map on my mobile phone ? How are you different?
Lebogang: a away to be: combines all localized modes of public transport to provide routing, including (well as from next year February) mini-bus-taxis (teksi) — none of these, and as far as i know, does yet.
SA: Is there any acceptance for your concept? Can you give us some incidents to illustrate that?
Lebogang: The current version is more if proof of concept — I am currently working on version two, where those things will matter. But, even in a very draft-form a way to be was nominated for tech4africa innovation award in 2011.
SA: Where do you see your start up five years from now?
Lebogang: how to get from Cape to Cairo using public transport.
SA: As an entrepreneur, what are your joys? What are the challenges?
Lebogang: Greatest joy: is being in control of my time.
Challenges: innovating in a business environment that only rewards success, but is not willing to make losses. By this I mean, how do we as continent foster innovation if we are not willing to accept that some ideas will fail? Through failure, I believe, we get closer to success.
SA: You have a great concept, and you look confident. Do you have some expansion plans to other cities or countries?
Lebogang: The entire continent within 3 years.
SA: What are your current major challenges? How can people reading could help you?
Lebogang: Getting public transport route and schedules data — so, if anybody is keen to help expanding into the city they live in, I would deeply appreciate it they could supply me with this data or at least point me in the right direction to go get it.
In the future, after I have digitized a substantial amount of routes, I plan to make that data publicly available to anybody and everybody through the site (and an api) — the contribution of others will also benefit those that have ideas in and around public transport but need data.
SA: How could our readers get in contact with you?
Lebogang: a way to be: @awtb and hello(at)awayto.be;
2LMN R+D: @2LMN and dream@2LMN.co.za
as personal contact: lebogang.nkoane(at)gmail.com
@ltdn — i would exercise caution in following this account, liberté toujours
SA: Thanks Lebogang
Lebogang: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.