A robot, teaching children to build new robots, might sound like something out of a science fiction story, but it’s actually the model used by a South African entrepreneur transforming the education sphere through robotic technology.

Twenty-six-year old Tyrone van Balla’s start-up company, RD9 Solutions, builds robots as educational tools. Along with his business partner, Ridhaa Benefeld, they designed a robot and curriculum, which offers a course in robotics and programming.

“Given the era we find ourselves in, where digitization and technology are penetrating almost all fields, it’s imperative for young children to be exposed to these technologies in some form or another. This prepares them for the worlds they’ll enter in their careers and ensures that they are ‘future-proofed’,” said Van Balla. 

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He explained that Benwfeld and him have always been inspired by technology. 

“We’ve always been inspired by technology, and we’re dedicated to making it as accessible to others as possible, so that they too may be inspired,” said the entrepreneur.

The startup is a tech innovation company that aims to solve everyday problems with creative, cost-effective technological solutions. RD9 Solutions is currently operating in the ed-tech space offering an innovative and accessible platform through which programming, electronics and robotics are taught.

This platform feeds into the skills gap among the youth – programming, data science and big data are quickly shifting from being “buzzwords” to necessary skills needed for emerging fields.

Having grown up in Grassy Park, Cape Town, van Balla developed an interest in computers at a very young age.

“I remember that while we may not have had much while I was growing up, I was also exposed to many new things and opportunities. While I didn’t own one, I had frequent access to a computer from about five years old. This opportunity sparked my love and interest for technology and influenced my career choice,” he said. 

His career has been supported by the Alan Gray Orbis Foundation Fellowship programme, which he joined in 2011.

The Fellowship Programme is one of three programmes the Foundation offers in pursuit of creating a pipeline of responsible entrepreneurs. The Foundation provides Fellowship recipients, known as Allan Gray Candidate Fellows, funding for university studies as well as access to support and development to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset, these programmes run throughout the academic year alongside the Candidate Fellow’s university studies. 

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“At the time I applied for the Fellowship, I was mainly focused on finding a bursary. I knew my parents couldn’t afford my university fees, and I had set my mind on studying engineering. I was most intrigued by the idea of being among like-minded individuals with a similar drive for excellence. The Fellowship fosters a solid foundation for your personal growth, while university fosters your academic growth,” van Balla says.

He says the Fellowship is more than just a funding scholarship: It’s an opportunity for personal and entrepreneurial growth. 

“I am proud of the fact that I made the most of the opportunities I was presented with in life. In doing so, I am now in a position to motivate, empower and inspire others to achieve their goals, despite their circumstances or background,” he says.

RD9 solutions has impacted the lives of a few learners through workshops.

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“We’ve had a number of Robotic Workshop Pilots over the last two years and have interacted directly with over 100 learners in the Grades 8 to 11. To us, the biggest benefit we feel the kids are getting is that during the workshops they all had a desire to learn more,” said van Balla. 

Van Balla added that South Africa is more than ready to embrace the transformation. 

“As the founders of RD9 Solutions, two engineers, we believe that the technology readiness of robotics education is at a stage where it can successfully take off,” he said.

In the future van Balla see’s RD9 moving to the whole of South Africa and even the rest of Africa. “I am passionate about teaching and empowering others. In five years, I see us expanding our offering not only across South Africa, but also throughout Africa. I see us making a lasting contribution to lives of the African youth through our work,” he said. 

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