The evolution of HIV education: surf schools and mobile apps

Tim Conibear, founder of First Step Surf

Take a first glance at this gaggle of teenagers stood round in a huddle on one of the most picturesque beaches in Cape Town and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a bunch of mates about to catch some after-school surf. But get closer and you’d see there’s a coach stood among them, raising his voice so he can be heard over the crashing wave break, he says “so tell me, how does it feel to be pushed around?”

A new take on the well-established model of delivering HIV education through sport, First Step Surf purposefully chooses surfing over football. Each of their weekly lessons given to teenagers living in Cape Town’s troubled townships meshes surf skills with life skills in an interactive way. “The cool thing about surfing is that if you don’t listen, then you do get smashed”, Tim Conibear, the founder of First Step Surf, explained to us. Unlike football you can teach kids about consequences in an incredibly powerful way.

Sat bare foot throughout our interview, Tim looks like your archetypal surf coach and he has a CV to match. He moved over to Africa from the UK as part of his job running surfing gap year projects between Mozambique and South Africa. But it was more than just some of the best surf break in the world that caused Tim to become so enamoured by Cape Town. In his time out between gap projects, he ended up crossing paths with an unemployed local guy called Thomas who ran a youth soccer programme in Masiphumelele township (aka ‘Masi’). Thomas’s work inspired Tim to think about how his sport of choice could be used to better address the needs of South Africa’s 280,000 kids living with HIV.

With the support of the gap year company he worked for, Tim spent 2010 successfully putting his vision to the test. He developed an HIV education curriculum called Waves for Change and, in an effort to break the taboos surrounding HIV testing, he made local HIV centres in Masi the compulsory place for sign-up. Tim explained how they’ve kitted out the centres with surfing paraphernalia in the hope that it helps take the darker side away. And it certainly seems to be working. 100 kids signed up in 2010 and they’re hoping that 150 will sign up this year.

Passionate that the HIV programme should be run by local peer coaches who know the community, Tim is purposefully writing himself out of the hands-on teaching. With only a little support from Tim, the Waves for Change curriculum is now being delivered by young people who have come through the programme themselves. Incentivised by a small wage, Tim explained how proud he was to see “young people putting the community before their own interest in surfing.”

What’s even better is that Tim aims to grow First Step Surf into a self sustaining social business within the next two years. How? It’s simple. The peer coaches are being put through professional surf coaching qualifications and those who pass will become full time surf coaches at the First Step Surf School. The school will sell surf lessons to Cape Town’s bulging tourist crowds and just 10 surf lessons a week will pay for the running of the HIV education sessions.

Tim’s idealistic, cool and calm nature might not shout ‘entrepreneur’ but his impact to date marks this project as one to watch. If it goes according to Tim’s master plan, all of Africa’s major coastal towns will all have their own First Step Surf Schools one day. And if nothing else Tim will continue to get kicks out of the young people of Masi who ‘throw bananas’ – a euphemism for the surf dude sign of respect – at him whenever he drives through their township.

First Step Surf is one of a number of projects currently running within the Isiqalo Foundation. For more information, visit their web page at:

Katherine van Wyk, founder of African Pulse

For most University students, their final year dissertation might cause blood, sweat and tears at the time and it’s not long before it becomes a repressed memory. For Katherine Van Wyk, however, her final year project came to great use and was the catalyst for her career to date.

After six months working as an impressionable gap year teacher in Zimbabwe, Katherine was never able to escape the devastating imprint that HIV was having on Africa’s children. As a result, whilst studying a New Media degree at Uni, she set about creating an animated CD-rom package that provided interactive learning about HIV for teenagers.

Against a back drop of traditional HIV Education which was creating limited results, Katherine impressed those around her and attracted funding from the likes of the Department for International Development to take the project forwards. Katherine was shocked herself by her initial backing, “that’s what bowls me over when I look back, so many people got behind this ambitious 22 year old that had no experience in the working field and put their money to it!”.

By 2002 she had moved full time back to Africa, choosing South Africa as her test bed owing to the availability of better resources (most crucially power) in schools. Or at least that was the main reason as she shyly admits that a certain young South African man had something to do with it.

Keeping true to her academic roots, she ran a robust and successful pilot and soon her polished suite of resources including a comic book, CD-rom and teachers guide were being distributed to schools across South Africa via acclaimed partners such as Unicef.

Placed in over 1000 schools, the feedback from teachers was that the power of these tools came less from the time spent interacting with them and more from the peer-to-peer debate and discussion it created. It was this insight which pushed Katherine down a new pathway of thought. She explained how struck she was that “there’s only so much you can control and at some point you have to create a community that can support itself”.

Ahead of the game yet again, Katherine soon turned her energies to the power of ever-growing wireless technology in Africa and learning from organisations like Aids Portal became enthralled by the range of ways in which it could be used to do good. So when African Pulse won a massive EU tender to deliver a 3-year HIV programme aimed at mobilising young people into action across Southern Africa (classified as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho), Katherine decided to put a new spin on the solution.

Instead of facebook, the big thing for young people over here is a mobile phone platform called Mix It. To put a sense of scale to that, Mix It has 33 million users across Africa and 60,000 users join every day! It’s mainly used to send next-to-nothing messages to your network of buddies. Encouragingly, Mix It has a decent social agenda and allows children to access free educational material through their phones too.

So African Pulse have re-hashed, recycled and re-energised their HIV education content to make it suitable for the mobile phone platform and they’re now using it to build a community of followers on Mix It. And their impact is not to be scoffed at. In the last 6 months, they’ve grown their community to 46,000 young people!

After years of hard graft, Katherine is about to step down from the helm of African Pulse to pursue her next adventure. She’s co-founded a social enterprise called Everyone Mobile which goes a step beyond African Pulse and delivers a wider range of social impact media through mobile phones. She said to us with energy, “African Pulse is a massive achievement but it just invites the next challenge. Mobile technology put a whole new dimension on the table”.

Find out more about African Pulse at:

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011