Good hope and the Cape
Years ago, during a university summer vacation, I went with a number of friends to Birdland – a New York jazz club named after Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Sitting next to me at the next tiny table – shoulder to shoulder in the crowded space – was a young, mid-thirties, South African. We were soon talking about the music and a host of other subjects. He was a professor of anthropology, a medical doctor and a PhD; he was a fascinating conversationalist with informed opinions about everything. We all left together after the show and walked downtown towards the ‘Village’ for a few beers, talking as we walked. When the bars closed we exchanged addresses.
We wrote back and forth a few times, but I let the correspondence slide, increasingly aware of my inability to keep up my end of the exchange. Although overwhelmed by Dr Phillip Tobias’s brilliance (I recently looked him up in the Wikipedia, he has since been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize), he fired my longtime interest in South Africa.
In the years since, I have avidly read every bit of news about the country that came my way – relatively little, as with most countries, except in times of trouble. What little I knew about the state of technology in South Africa came mostly from articles published in Connect-World by government officials and local ICT sector leaders.
Savant – South African Vanguard of Technology – is a public-private partnership between the government and a number of important South African information and communication technology sector players. Savant’s main concern is that, outside of the country most people in the ICT sector, like me, know little of what South Africa’s ICT sector is capable of producing.
Savant’s mission is to raise global and local awareness of South Africa’s ICT (or, as they often put it, electrotechnical – ICT, electronics and electrical engineering) sector skills by showcasing the capabilities, successes and competitive advantages of SA companies. Their job is to promote the sector, build its exports and attract foreign investment and joint ventures.
When they invited me to visit South Africa, to take part in a dti – road tour of their country in the company of other ICT editors from around the world, I couldn’t say no. The ‘dti’ is the South African Government’s Department of Trade and Industry.
Savant, a coalition of industry leaders supported by the Department of Trade & Industry and the ICT Development Council, is South Africa’s first marketing and branding campaign for its hi-tech sectors. The aim of the tour was to showcase the best that South Africa’s ICT sector has to offer.
All in all, it was an intriguing, highly interesting, experience. Although the tour only scratched the surface, it soothed a long-term itch.
The road show – from Cape Town to Durban to Johannesburg, took a week. Savant, dti, ICASA (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) and USAASA (Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa) briefings provided the social, political, regulatory, government policy and government programme background information needed to put the daily visits with ICT sector players into context. A number of detailed briefings from Frost and Sullivan, Africa Analysis, the South African Electrotechnical export council and Dimension Data concentrated more on sectorial and economic analysis.
As expected SA is a leading user of ICTs in Africa, but overall, the usage is low. Universalization of services and bridging the digital divide are top-level government priorities, but are not easy goals to achieve, especially given the country’s skills deficit. Surprising were the charts showing SA as the world’s fourth fastest growing mobile market at 50 per cent per annum, and that HSDPA mobile networks provide 34 per cent of the country’s broadband access.
South African Governments at all levels are rightly proud of a number of initiatives aimed at promoting, rather incubating new ICT companies. Although there are many differences between the way the programmes are structured and their specific goals, they follow a common pattern.
The Bandwidth Barn – a subsidiary of the Cape IT Initiative (CITI), is a Business accelerator, an incubator, for information and communications technology start-ups in the Western Cape. The Bandwidth Barn cuts the costs most start-ups face by sharing common office spaces and services; it also promotes networking between the start-ups and established businesses. The Barn’s business development programmes teach the business skills required to develop into profitable companies.
Like the Barn, Durban’s SmartXchange, a public/private partnership, seeks to incubate start-up businesses. It provides start-ups with rental space where common areas and services are shared to reduce costs. SmartXchange’s most significant contribution is the intensive mentoring that it, and its partners offer the participating start-ups. Deloitte, Dimension Data, Axiz, IBM, Microsoft, bizWorks, Business Connexion, Waltons, CityWorks, Lexmark, the City of Durban, Ramco, AdaptIT and Thusa, a mixture of local, multinational and government entities, are the partners behind this effort.
Unfortunately, I was only there for a week; it was impossible to cover everything I would have like to have seen. I missed seeing some of the many ICT-driven economic and social inclusion projects – the hard-core digital inclusion efforts. The inclusion programmes I did get to see were essentially platforms to include technically savvy graduates, they accelerated the inclusion of the already included to build the momentum of South Africa’s high-tech sector.
I also missed seeing and learning more about SA’s networks and countrywide communications – again, not surprising given the time available. The statistics confirmed that South Africa’s networks – as far as they currently reach – are as well managed as any and from the balcony above Vodacom’s network control centre there was as impressive a display of computer screens and blinking lights as any such room I have ever seen.
I expected to see a number of good digital inclusion projects in SA and I was not disappointed, but I had not expected a number of the globally active South African-based technology companies and I certainly had not expected some working, bleeding edge, quantum technology.
Fundamo, based in Durban, is a world leader in mobile funds transfer. Most of Africa’s people, indeed the majority in most developing regions, are ‘unbanked’. They have no bank accounts and live on the edge of the money-based economy. Many of these people do have pre-paid mobile phones, and the systems designed to store credits in these devices to pay for calls are, in a sense, equivalent to money left in a bank. Phone companies with mobile banking applications, such as those developed by Fundamo, let users transfer funds to other users in distant villages or even serve as a sort of debit card to make purchases. As a broader range of applications become available including, especially, mobile micro-credit, mobile money will drive an economic revolution in developing regions. Mobile money, perhaps more than any other mechanism, will soon make the ‘long tail’ economy at the bottom of the pyramid relevant. Fundamo is working with Accenture in GSMA project to build a hosted mobile-wallet platform that will let operators quickly rollout mobile money financial services for the millions who have no bank accounts.
DigiCore, traded on the Johannesburg Exchange, is another South African global company. Its GPS tracking technology is used throughout the world for end-to-end trucking and fleet management and to locate and recover stolen vehicles. DigiCore currently manages more than 340 thousand vehicles in 32 countries on five continents.
The Quantum Secure Network programme at the University of Kwazulu in Durban was wholly unexpected. They are building the world’s first network secured by quantum cryptography. Currently, the best cryptography for secure messaging utilises complex mathematical algorithms to encode the content. Although exceedingly difficult to break, they can be overcome by using massive computing power. Some years from now, when quantum computers are available, most such cryptography will be easy to break. Quantum cryptography, though, is inherently impossible to break. Any attempt to measure a quantum encoded transmission will, following the laws of physics, change the state of the transmission and make it impossible to read.
Durban’s Smart City Initiative will use this technology over The eThekwini Municipality optical fibre network and make it the world’s first quantum encryption network. Links between Durban and several suburbs are now being tested.
I visited a number of other very impressive companies as well; I can’t cover them all now, but I promise invite a number of them to write in future Connect-World EMEA and Africa and the Middle East editions and let them each speak of the part they are playing in the transformation of South Africa.
The Cape of Good Hope was once the turning point in a long voyage, the mark that the worst was over and there were good prospects ahead. Today, technology marks the turning point in South Africa’s quest for inclusion, progress and good hopes.
The next issue of Connect-World Global will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Mobile World Congress (16-19 February 2009, Barcelona)and CTIA Wireless (April 1-3, 2009 Las Vegas)
The theme for this issue will be The information society 2015 – corporate responsibility and digital access for sustainable development..
The World Summit on the Information Society, WSIS, established a number of goals for the year 2015. Providing the world’s peoples with access – to connect the world’s people in even the remotest regions, its schools, governments, research centres, libraries hospitals and health centres, cultural centres, museums, post offices and archives – was the primary goal. One of the most important goals set by the WSIS calls for a world where, “more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach,” by 2015. The WSIS also called for, “ensuring that all of the world’s population have access to television and radio services”.
Providing digital access, as a way to achieve sustainable development, to half the world’s population within a decade is a grand ambition. It will take a mighty effort. Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organisations – NGOs, can do part of the job, but far from all of it. Much of this mighty effort will depend upon the world’s business enterprises. To complete this mission, new technologies, new hardware and software, new applications and content, manufacturing genius, financial resources and logistics that only private enterprise can efficiently provide, develop, deploy and manage will be needed.
What is corporate responsibility in this context? What can, and should, corporations do, then, to help achieve the ambitious WSIS goals? What are they already doing? How can businesses participate? Why should they participate? What will be the rewards and the costs? Is corporate responsibility – corporate participation in the building of the Information Society – good business? These are the questions Connect-World will ask global leaders.
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