Understanding various factors in township ecosystems is a prerequisite to unearthing strategies for using tech in favour of these economies

CTIN & jamlab director and event facilitator Indra de Lanerolle ( c) and speakers Ngwako Ramohlale, Tumiso Malombo and Lethu Masango. Picture: Tshepo Tshabalala

How can South African townships develop and use technology to boost township economies? Are township enterprises taking advantage of existing technology? These were some of the key questions coming out of our most recent Civic Tech Innovation Network’s Breakfast Session on Tech for Townships.

Although the technology is there, Lethu Masango managing director of Cityzen Solutions said, technological platforms, programmes and innovations are not being taken up by township enterprises for a number of reasons. Masango shared his Masters research which focused on information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) honing in on the experience of a local startup operating in Soweto called the Township Economy App (TEA). The platform was part of the top 10 in the Jozi Hackathon challenge, a competition run by the City of Johannesburg.

But after the competition, there is a lack of support from the government.

“ We need to bridge the technological divide in South African townships and teach the people the value and worth of technology for their communities and enterprises,” says Masango.

According to their website TEA is a web and mobile app which aims to connect businesses to consumers, businesses to businesses and bridge the technological gap affecting the majority of township residents. “The app is aimed at small and informal businesses operating within townships in order to help them grow their footprint through accessing larger clients and markets as well as to realise economies of scale by making important linkages and connections among related businesses,” Masango said.

He further said, according to his research people in the townships either are not aware of the technology and programmes available to them to help grow their businesses or are not aware of the value technology can bring to their enterprises. This means that programmes such as the Microsoft programmes, apps, the City of Johannesburg’s free Wi-Fi and many others available to township enterprises are underused.

There are many competitions, programmes and opportunities for people to innovate. Tech giants such as Microsoft and other organisations roll out programmes to help people innovate and take advantage of technology. For example, Nunnovation Africa Foundation runs programmes on how to innovate in the townships and rural areas in South Africa by teaching kids different ways to innovate through coding and robotics.

Ngwako Ramohlale, founder and chief executive of Nunnovation Africa Foundation believes that the challenges and social ills in the townships and township enterprises present opportunities for technological innovations that can elevate the dire situation within these areas.

Tumiso Malombo, digital architect and advisor from Microsoft said in order for us to help township enterprises we must understand how technology is used in the townships, or how information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) is impacting township businesses. He said we need to look at the highly interdependent factors in the townships. These include the township economy, education, corruption, 4th industrial revolution, healthcare, connectivity, crime, youth employment etc.

There are many programmes that are set up to assist those interested in how technology can better their lives or business enterprises. Microsoft and other companies in the tech industry have rolled out some of these programmes to help townships and township businesses innovate for their economies. These are some of the programmes Microsoft has for township enterprises: the Microsoft Academy, the Microsoft AI School, the Microsoft AI Business School and the Microsoft Start program.

“Through these programmes, township enterprises can be empowered and gain support from Microsoft through the nurturing or progression of their businesses and you can take all these courses and get certified,” Malombo explained.

Microsoft also hosts hackathons to encourage innovations that would solve South African problems. He said that during one of Microsoft’s hackathon, one participant from Tembisa, South Africa created an app for a township car wash. Malombo said the participant wanted to create a marketplace for car wash’s in townships but the issue with the app was that he created it for his local community only but he wanted to compete in a global market.

“This is an issue many have to think about, South African township enterprises and innovators must realise that they are competing in a global market. If you are going to create an app think about a scalable platform which can scale on demand from any place in South Africa.”

Another example Malombo shared was “Phulukisa Healthcare” which is an app that allows clients to keep a partial record of their condition for people who do not understand what diagnosis or medications they on. Through the app medical practitioners can electronically capture the medical information of patients such using sensors. The information can then be stored in the cloud as the app is built on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. The project was spearheaded by urologist, Dr Raymond Campbell.

The project includes the app and a bus that has been turned into a mobile clinic that can be used to reach remote communities without access to big city hospitals and medicine.

While there are many ideas on developing technology and using technology to develop townships enterprises and economies Malombo suggests it is highly important to go within the townships to understand the problems they face before bringing in first world technological solutions that will not help uniquely South African townships.

“We have to understand the independent factors of the township ecosystems, we have to understand how technology can influence townships. Understanding these factors will help us understand how to use technology in favour of our townships so that the rand can bounce within the township economy,” explained Malombo. “Technology is a tipping point, a driving factor for township enterprises but for technology to work townships we need to look at adoption and change models to successfully implement technology in ways that will benefit the townships.”

Ramohlale agreed with Malombo’s sentiments, saying, “We need to understand the needs and challenges of the township enterprises then bring in the innovations. “Townships do not need glamourous technological solutions, they need fast solutions that work for their challenges.”

At the end of the event, it was clear that innovative ideas that could change the townships are there and people are building technological solutions which can solve township challenges. The persisting challenges when implementing technology include complex technologies, the understanding of the value and worth of technology, digital literacy and data security, support and awareness just to name a few.