In South Africa, online rewards power safe, healthy actions in the fight against COVID-19

“It’s about dignity, and helping youth get on in life,” Allan’s story

April 20, 2020

Allan (left) at a Zlto workshop with Cape Town based App Developers in March 2020. @DJReadyD

Allan Van Der Muelen (24) grew up hard in South Africa’s Cape Flats.

With gang violence, little hope and less opportunity, things could have gone a very different way.

Yet lured by live Jazz to a workshop as a teenager, he began a journey of innovation that would change the lives of thousands of young people from some of South Africa’s toughest communities.

“I went for the music, but what I found was knowledge,” he says.

With support from RLabs, the social enterprise that hosted the workshop, Allan went on to co-launch Zlto, an award-winning digital rewards web-app that has helped over 2 million people get on in life.

Zlto, pronounced ‘Zlato’ and meaning ‘gold,’ uses blockchain technology to give online rewards for volunteering, learning and doing good. Rewards can buy groceries, clothes, mobile data and more.

“Unemployment is a huge issue here, so that’s how Zlto got started,” Allan says.

Over half of all young people living in communities like the Cape Flats, even before COVID-19 hit, were unemployed, often with few or no prospects.

“By volunteering, young people get work experience and earn points to buy things they need – clothes, cell phones, bus tickets - basically anything you need to become successful in life.”

By giving them verifiable skills, work experience and helping cover the costs of job hunting, such as getting to interviews, Zlto helps break the barriers people face when looking for work.

Goods and services can be picked up at over 1,000 stores across the country.

“Too many young people are forced to choose between getting an education and supporting their family,” Allan says. ”Zlto means you’re not trapped like that.”

Stay Home. Keep Safe

 Over 2,500  cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in South Africa so far, and Zlto has been swiftly refocused to help stop the virus’s spread and blunt the social and economic impact of the crisis.

 Through the ‘Stay Home, Keep Safe’ initiative,  thousands of young people are now gaining rewards for washing their hands, cleaning their homes and caring for loved ones.

 “What we’re doing is rewarding safe, healthy behaviour in the face of COVID-19,” says Marlon Parker, who founded RLabs back in 2008. “Zlto is throwing people a lifeline in some truly tough times.”

Users can also now access free courses on health, hygiene, life-skills and money management, and through Zlto, are linked to safe, proven and life-saving coronavirus prevention information.

 “There’s a growing pool of young Zlto users with good hearts,” says Marlon. “So far, over 500 elderly people have been gifted with electricity vouchers by young people they’ve never even met.”

World-beating innovation

The Zlto team was one of five winners of the Big Think Challenge, a joint, global UNDP-UNICEF competition that rewards ground-breaking innovations in support of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, that aim to end poverty, boost peace and prosperity and protect the planet by 2030.

Picked from over 190 entries by a panel of leaders from the United Nations and civil society, the team have received 200,000 US Dollars to push the project forward.

Looking forward, the team aims to reach another 100,000 young people, build a data-free interface and boost access to the Zlto platform through a range of free instant messaging platforms.

"Zlto is a great example of the UNICEF-UNDP partnership to tap into grassroots innovation in countries around the world," says Gina Lucarelli, Team Leader of UNDP's Accelerator Lab Network.  

"Solutions like Zlto are what UNDP's Accelerator Lab in South Africa is seeking to nurture as part of our global Lab network that currently serves 78 countries. These labs are helping governments explore, experiment and grow portfolios of solutions to tackle today's most pressing challenges.” 

“In the fight to save lives and livelihoods in the face of COVID-19, innovative, youth-led tools like Zlto are more vital than ever,” says Fayaz King, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director for Field Results and Innovation.

“Allan’s story shows that empowering young innovators and investing in life-changing innovations – both during crises and at all times – benefits everyone.”

As Allan says, “Zlto is about dignity, it’s not a handout. It’s about helping young people get on in life.”

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore and UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner co-host The Big Think Challenge in New York in February 2020. The competition rewards ground-breaking innovations in support of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Photo: UNICEF