South Africa: Why Have All the Rural Tech Projects Failed?

High profile initiatives like Microsoft’s digital villages died a death years’ ago, whilst large scale project, Gauteng online finally petered out this week. Kathryn Cave investigates what is really going on with South Africa’s rural tech initiatives

High profile initiatives like Microsoft’s digital villages died a death years’ ago, whilst large scale project, Gauteng online finally petered out this week. Kathryn Cave investigates what is really going on with South Africa’s rural tech initiatives

On 9th March 1997 Bill Gates visited the sprawling black township of Soweto, an area catapulted into world consciousness 20 years’ prior by its mass uprising. This township, above all, symbolised Apartheid, spliced opportunities and extreme poverty. When Gates visited in ’97 the Spokesman Review reported that in Soweto “a computer could cost as much as a house” and few people would think of going online.  

This was South Africa’s first free-access “digital village,” an initiative orchestrated by Microsoft in conjunction with local computer companies and US development organisation, Africare. The idea was that by providing a $100,000 computer package, housed in the Chiawelo Community Center, it would give the township’s poor residents a link to the information age. As part of the grand opening, Gates observed a class from the local Elsie Ngidi primary school playing with computers for the first time, before telling a crowd of 200: “Soweto is a milestone. There are major decisions ahead about whether technology will leave the developing world behind. This is to close the gap.”

Today there is little evidence of the “digital villages” across South Africa. “[They] worked well for a while but collapsed as soon as the sponsors stopped funding the activities – the community had failed to make the use of technology self-sustaining.” Adrian Schofield, Vice Chairman, Africa ICT Alliance tells me:What should have been a model for others to follow became a failure. This is a common outcome, where there is no long-term follow through.”

The same is true of numerous online projects to get rural communities connected. The Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology (C.A.R.T) has not issued any news since 2010. The Independent Online reported on Wednesday that “R1bn later, Gauteng Online is no more.” While the Computers for Schools project, which is massive across other parts of Africa, is simply not to be found in SA.

In fact many aid agencies often bypass South Africa in favour of more receptive markets.  Schofield stresses: “South Africa is losing out – to Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Rwanda… losing out to countries where there is an appreciation that grasping the opportunities afforded by adopting technology is the only way to grow their economies and become an attractive investment destination.”

Sub-Saharan Problems & Mass Scale Government Failure  

Last year, Douglas Cohen presented stats that stated 89% of the people of Limpopo live in rural areas and quoted: “A woman leaving school in Limpopo stands a one in eight chance of ever getting a job.” And the harsh truth is across sub-Saharan Africa, 91% of households are off the electricity grid entirely, meaning that the majority don’t have access to proper light in the evenings, let alone the power for laptops and other technological equipment.

“Very often, technology in schools fails because there is no (reliable) electricity or network,” explains Schofield “the teachers are not sufficiently skilled, the equipment is kept locked away (or is stolen if not locked away). Companies and NGOs continue to seek opportunities to make technology and training available to communities, but it is more scratching the surface than building a foundation.”

At the root Schofield tells me: “South Africa is a divided country, working against itself. For every community-building initiative, there is a group decrying it or even sabotaging it. Corruption is rife and the nation’s infrastructure (electricity, water, roads, railways, government buildings) is decaying from lack of investment and maintenance.”

“A succession of ineffective Ministers of Communications has meant the failure of our network infrastructure to be as accessible and affordable as it should be,” Schofield continues. This includes last week’s news that the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called for current communications minister Dina Pule to be suspended in the light of a number of large scale accusations, including the channelling of R6m of sponsorship funds for the ICT Indaba in Cape Town in 2012 to her alleged boyfriend.

 “The integrity of the communications ministry is critical to the economic wellbeing of the country and must be fiercely protected against corruption, profiteering and undue influence,” Viola Manuel, chamber executive director said in a statement.  Yet the entire system appears to suffer from internal corrosion: “The National Development Plan (NDP) launched this year offered hope,” says Schofield “but has already been attacked from within the government that produced it.”

NDP provides a blueprint for eliminating poverty and reducing inequality in South Africa by 2030. As part of its mission it identifies the key constraints to faster growth and presents a clear roadmap to a more inclusive economy. Yet in May, Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin said, in a public debate to the National Planning Commissioner, that the plan was fatally flawed and impossible to implement.

 The National ICT Plan is another big dream for South African IT, yet again Schofield is sceptical: “[This] will be another five years in the making. Nearly every government plan talks about what will be achieved at the end of 10, 20, 40 years – none of them is held to account for steps along the way.”

“[South Africa is] small on delivery, poor at executing the plans, lousy at monitoring progress and ironing out the problems that arise along the way,” Schofield continues. “We are bad at taking the seedlings planted by social responsibility programmes and nurturing them into full growth and harvest. We are bad at applying funds in productive and accountable ways. Too many public servants see themselves as having rights and no responsibilities, serving the ‘ruling party’ rather than the citizens.”

Take the Universal Service and Access Agency (USAASA) for example. This State Owned Entity of government aims to ensure that "every man, woman and child whether living in the remote areas of the Kalahari or in urban areas of Gauteng will be able to connect, speak, explore and study using ICT's.” Yet it is sitting on billions of Rands that it does not know how to spend… and what has been spent has achieved little.

 Pistorius, South Africa & the Big Image Problem

Many people believe that since the fall of Apartheid itself, South Africa has suffered from a monumental image problem. This has led the country to bluster and postulate more than most, heightening both internal and external tensions. In one advancement of this theory, the Guardian Weekend Magazine ran an article in May: “Oscar Pistorius: the end of the rainbow” which argued that “Oscar Pistorius was more than a national hero. His success came to symbolise South Africa's triumph over apartheid. Then he shot his girlfriend and left the nation's self-image in tatters.”

It was an interesting hypothesis and quoted journalist, Gerald Imray who wrote: "During his Olympic preparations in Italy, Pistorius pulled out his cellphone to show me pictures of his bleeding leg stumps, rubbed raw from the friction of pounding around the track on his blades… Until that moment, I hadn't fully realised what Pistorius went through every time he slipped on his prosthetic blades to compete or train. Not many people had, I guess."

At this point, Jonny Steinberg, in the Guardian, drew national parallels: “So, too, with South Africa. We are no miracle. We, too, have had to grind our stumps raw. We, too, have had to bury our shame. And so, when we heard what Oscar had done, we felt something like deja vu. As if we always knew that his story was not quite right.” This is an interesting point, if perhaps excessive, but really does ram home the message that whilst image is important to any country, it probably is even more so to South Africa.

And this appears to be a large part of the problem for rural schemes in South Africa: “There are no ‘big initiatives’ [for driving connectivity to the rural area, at present],” Schofield tells me: “They have faded into obscurity for all the wrong reasons. South Africa is big on policy and plans, big on subscribing to the global ‘good stuff’ and being seen on the right platforms, hosting the ‘world events’. We use imported skills and resources to do the big ‘image’ projects.”

Yet for everything that is wrong, Schofield does see clear potential for the country:  “We still have the chance to stop the rot – there are pockets of excellence providing hope for the future. The ‘big initiative’ of the Square Kilometre Array will focus attention on our infrastructure and the skills to support it. R & D facilities are improving, technology ‘hubs’ are appearing and access to education and training through mobile devices is spreading.”

It seems ironic, that it might take a project which looks into space to solve some of the digital issues on the ground in rural South Africa. But really it doesn’t matter how it is done… as long as rural communities don’t have to wait another 16 years’ for the next high image, Microsoft driven initiative.


Kathryn Cave, Editor, IDG Connect