Will the rise of smart townships and informal settlements help to bridge the digital divide?

21 February 2023

South Africa’s failing infrastructure and local service delivery has been well-documented in recent years.

Failing infrastructure has an outsize impact on township and rural communities with the growing digital divide in townships fuelling inequality.  Townships were never designed to become major economic drivers, with the result that today they are characterised by high rates of unemployment and challenges with housing, education, healthcare, transport, crime, and inadequate digital access. South Africa’s digital divide is exacerbated by uneven broadband distribution.

In 2021 the Department of Small Business Development – through its implementation agency, the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) – put out a request for tenders to establish technology incubators and digital hubs in townships. Seda cited the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) as one of the reasons for the tech incubators and digital hubs. There is no question that technology has the ability to respond to some of the challenges faced by township residents and those living in rural environments, including transforming them into more inclusive micro-economies.

At Gwakwani, a small, rural village located in the northern area of Limpopo which previously had significant issues with infrastructure, electricity, and telecommunications, including no access to technology, the introduction of basic 4IR technologies has resulted in a smart Internet-of-Things village that is operating successfully without municipal infrastructure. A partnership with the University of Johannesburg and Schneider Electric South Africa has reaped life-altering results for the local community including providing electricity and clean water. The first phase of the project included the installation of a solar powered water pumping station, a mini cellphone charging station, a security lighting system and a remote monitoring and communication system. The second phase of the project included the installation of solar lighting in households and the establishment of a local bakery which provides employment and bread to local residents.

However, it is the Stellenbosch township of Kayamandi that plans to be the first smart township in South Africa. In the latter half of 2022 the township embarked on a programme to implement a digital platform which is intended to serve as a catalyst for its digital vision. The idea behind smart townships is to use data and digital technology to improve the quality of life of its residents, enable better decision making and to connect local communities with local government. Ultimately, the idea is to use Kayamandi as an innovation lab for townships and rural areas both across South Africa and the African continent.

Bushra Razack, the CEO of Philippi Village, a multi-purpose commercial park situated in the Cape Flats township of Philippi, cautions that although we should be using smart technology platforms to help people achieve a better life, the reality is that technology is not an answer by itself. “The creation of community and business hubs like Philippi Village are a strategic and meaningful way to amplify the power of technology in an impactful, inclusive and relevant way,” she says. The term ‘Community’ isn’t investigated deeply enough. Philippi Village is moving past simply informing or consulting community, we are attempting to foster a culture of collaboration without passive coercion and facilitating administration aspects that allow the community to build their own economies. Tech has been a tool for enslavement in the past. Philippi Village aims to consider this in its approach moving forward.

Philippi Village, which boasts world class fibre and wireless internet access, is currently exploring how to use IT and technology to become more efficient, including working with partner organisations Afrolabs and CoderLevelUp to help address the digital divide. Afrolabs is working closely with Philippi Village to better understand how technology and humanity work together. David Campey, the founder of Afrolabs, reveals that a QR-community solution is being rolled out to allow local residents to record participation levels in community activities. He explains that this has the dual benefit of enabling Philippi Village management to understand usage patterns as well as providing incentives to encourage community members to participate in the activities.

Philippi Village has also established CoderDojo, an international network of coding clubs aimed at the youth, including helping the local community develop coding skills. The hub is home to technology tenants currently, including Women in Tech South Africa, a global organisation that fosters inclusion, diversity, and equity in STEAM with a particular focus on young girls and women, and Silulo Ultho Technologies which offers basic computer skills training. Philippi Village also supports programmes that help embrace informal traders including connecting them with cashless payment options as well as providing them with technology demonstrations and training. In addition, it provides the local community with access to computers when required.

Bryan Banfield, MD of Artibeus, the IT service provider to Philippi Village says there is a growing demand for access to the internet in townships and informal settlements from both residents and small businesses. Although the high cost of data is an obstacle, he maintains this could be overcome if larger retailers saw the provision of WiFi services to informal communities as a potential opportunity. The latest tenant Close The Gap is an international social enterprise that aims to bridge the digital divide by offering high – quality, pre-owned IT devices to educational, medical, and social projects in developing and emerging countries.

Despite all these advancements within Philippi Village, Bushra maintains that it is not tech alone that creates a successful “smart township”. Technologist Cod Harrell is attributed with the quote: “You can’t fix broken things by digital technology. You will only get digital broken things.”

Philippi focuses on an understanding of technology within its social-cultural context and brings a holistic approach to tech implementation including reducing food, water, and other scarcities. Coming from a place of community sovereignty, Philippi is strategising an approach of technology for, and of, the people. This involves decentralised algorithmic governance and microeconomics that focus on stakeholder belonging and responsibility over its economies and environment.

Bushra is incredibly excited to begin a journey with Benjamin Gellie, a Social Ecosystem designer who she describes as a mentor, to better understand the ways in which digitisation is a double-edged sword.

It is a tool to control and that allows control. Philippi hopes to aid in digital skill building within the community that will flip the traditional wielders of technology and allow digital agency within the community.

Razack concludes pointing out that hubs like Philippi Village become spaces that bring together the community, township entrepreneurs, local government, and corporate South Africa in a joint effort to support how technology can be used to transform township spaces in ways that allow digital agency and true transformation.

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