A Mitchells Plain-produced app called Zlto has caught the attention of Google, Mastercard, a number of local philanthropic funds and even a UN agency.

The award-winning digital rewards app, which uses blockchain technology, has helped 45,000 people — most of whom are otherwise unemployed youth — to earn some form of income.

Zlto has been paying unemployed youth for community services and has now expanded that by rewarding users for taking precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Its users are paid in Zlto currency that can be used for purchases at Shoprite, Pep stores and Pie City, buy airtime and data, get haircuts or pay for medical and optometrist visits.

Zlto was co-founded by 24-year-old Allan van der Meulen in 2016, when he was a teen, with the support of Cape Town NGO Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs).

Van der Meulen says when the lockdown began, users flocked Zlto. "We decided to raise awareness of Covid-19 and let users earn currency by creating micro-tasks that can be done from home, like washing hands daily, applying for social grants and doing online courses."

It has also helped provide food vouchers, airtime and prepaid electricity to its users, after a survey was done to assess people’s needs, says Van der Meulen.

Though its aim is to reduce the youth unemployment rate, it plans to use its platform for relevant causes, he says, referencing the Covid-related tasks. "The health aspect will continue after we fight coronavirus as we believe it is an important contributor to the wellbeing and development of young people."

Allan van der Meulen: When the lockdown began, they noticed users flockeding to the Zlto platform. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff
Allan van der Meulen: When the lockdown began, they noticed users flockeding to the Zlto platform. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

Before Covid-19, users earned a minimum of R45 an hour through skills training, community outreach or agriculture-related tasks. R1 is equivalent to 3 Zlto.

The blockchain is used to validate activities through the use of smart contracts. Selected Zlto "super users" are peer reviewers who weigh the legitimacy of every "deed" by looking at the proof submitted (date, time, description, references and even a photograph) before reaching a consensus. Users who have been denied payment are given a reason; and each user generates an "asset of work" — much like a CV — which is stored on the blockchain.

By helping the unemployed build this CV through their participation in community service activities and training programmes, Zlto is helping them develop their marketable skills.

Zlto works with a selection of retailers (it charges them a platform fee) and is also funded by philanthropic foundations.

Its current list of funders are the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, E Squared, JPMorgan and the UN International Children’s Fund (Unicef).

A journey that started in 2014 at the RLabs Youth Café in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain led Van der Meulen to become a finalist in the Seedstars start-up awards, a global competition to find the best start-ups in developing countries, in 2017.

In 2018 he was named the winner of the Google Impact Challenge (GIC).

This was key to Zlto’s success. It has secured $250,000 from Google, which allowed it to expand in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, with pilot projects in KwaZulu-Natal.

Google has zero-rated the platform, which means it can be accessed without charge.

The GIC win helped the app unlock other partnerships locally and internationally.

Communications and public affairs head at Google SA, Mich Atagana, says GIC provides a year-long accelerator programme, in partnership with local organisations, which includes coaching, training and hands-on support.

Funding is allocated in tranches, and is assigned to each enterprise as it reaches a set of predefined milestones, says Atagana. "This ensures that winners get a package that includes strategic support, funding and the assistance of Google volunteers to help them make the most of their award. The idea is that they get as much as they want or need."

Yonela Khohloko, a Zlto user, says she first heard about the platform at RLabs. "I was on the internet but did not have an income and felt like Zlto was a good way to cover some of my expenses.

"I volunteered by giving out food, spending my time teaching unemployed people new skills and helped them apply for work," says Khohloko, who learnt leadership and facilitation skills during this process.

"I earn 2,000 Zlto a month, which helps me buy clothes, personal items, stationery and books. The process is not too difficult, but requires a bit of patience especially with vendor staff who aren’t so tech savvy," says Khohloko.

Zlto has a team of 12, nine of whom are full-time employees: developers, designers, advisers, account managers and operations staff. The platform has tracked over 1.5-million hours of work.

And it is working with Unicef on multiple projects together that will see it launch on Moya Messenger and WhatsApp, and are building a Pan-African youth marketplace called Yoma.Africa.

Most recently it has launched what it calls an Essential Fund to disburse R10m worth of food vouchers, electricity and airtime to the youth using Zlto.

"This initiative will allow us to support more than 200,000 beneficiaries directly with essential goods during this time," Van der Meulen says.

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