Taking the internet to townships

Wilma den Hartigh

A new initiative of the City of Johannesburg is bringing internet access to disadvantaged communities in and around the city.  As part of its broadband project, multi-service digital centres, or “techno hubs”, will be set up where people can access the internet and improve their technology skills.

“Getting broadband access to people is as important as the provision of running water and electricity,” said Virgil James, media liaison officer for the City of Johannesburg. The main purpose of the initiative is to bridge the digital divide that exists in communities without access to electronic and information technology.

Programmes will be set up at the techno hub centres to help school children, adults and business owners develop computer, entrepreneurial and job-seeking skills. The project, which is a joint venture of the Johannesburg Economic and Community Development Departments, will focus on previously disadvantaged areas. Orange Farm, a township some 45 kilometres from the city centre, has been identified as one of the sites for a techno hub. More sites are on the cards for other Johannesburg townships.

In a statement, Vumani Mangali, assistant director of information communication technology at Johannesburg’s Economic Development Department, said the techno hubs would expose schoolchildren to computer technology. As they become more confident in using the technology, they increase their chances of finding jobs.

Rob Gilmour, managing director of South African internet service provider RSA Web, explained that internet facilities will make it possible for school leavers and job seekers to find employment with greater ease.

“If someone is unemployed, has matric and lives in a township, their chances of finding work are diminished because they don’t have access to facilities such as recruiting companies,” Gilmour said.

With internet access, job seekers can find online information on how to compile a good CV as well as get into contact with potential employers. Access to email facilities means that job seekers will no longer have to travel to town to drop off a CV. “This will be of huge value to people. The biggest challenge for unemployed and illiterate people is that they can’t communicate their skills in a format that employers want to look at,” he said.

Gilmour also pointed out that in the long term the project will ensure that all people can benefit from a wide range of internet functions. “A lot of people find computers and the internet very scary and this initiative will make it more accessible,” he said.

Rowen Chetty, business development manager for vertical markets at Ericsson South Africa, said the techno hub stations will be equipped with the latest technology, allowing not only access to the internet, but a wide variety of services such as video streaming for e-learning. “This project is very exciting and will drive considerable social and economic benefits to the residents of Johannesburg,” Chetty said.

He agreed that such initiatives would make schoolchildren “more marketable” for future careers, as they increasingly become more internet-literate. But other community members such as parents, caregivers and business owners will also benefit.

“They will serve as a place of education where mini courses in career fields and other areas of specialisation can be undertaken,” he said. In addition, all textbook material (be it for school or career purposes) will be digitalised, allowing for easy access.

The Techno hubs will also be beneficial for existing and new small businesses. James explained that computer facilities will make it possible for business owners to network online, thereby reducing the cost and frequency of travelling long distances to visit other businesses and clients. Businesses will also be able to use computers to design promotional flyers and create their own websites.

Justin Stanford, CEO of ESET Southern Africa, an anti-virus software company, said any small township business could instantly have a web presence by using a service such as Yola.com to create a free website. “It is well proven that access to computers and the internet is an enormous catalyst for economic development and low-cost entrepreneurship,” Stanford said.

He added that it is crucial to ensure that the public terminals in all techno hubs are secure and ensure the privacy of users. To avoid various types of malware (malicious software) finding its way onto public machines, it would be vital to have effective safeguards on public terminals.

Mangali explained that since most townships don’t have internet cafes, the Johannesburg municipality will also encourage young people to establish ICT businesses.

To ensure that communities can make use of all the services provided by the techno hubs, trainers will be employed at every centre on a fulltime basis. James encouraged companies to participate in the initiative.

“Part of what we will be doing at the hub involves computer literacy training and in this process, employment is also being created by having full time technical assistance on site,” he said. According to Chetty, telecommunication giant Ericsson has already agreed to employ members of the community to work in the hubs.

The hubs will initially allow people to make use of basic internet functions such as email, but gradually increase their exposure and use. “South Africa needs more internet users and this is a great tool for people to learn how to access it,” Gilmour said.

He added that businesses and the economy could benefit from an increased user base. “The internet economy in South Africa is still very small because there aren’t enough users,” he said.

Initially, the hubs will operate in office hours, but trading hours will be extended based on demand. James said although the City of Johannesburg and other financial partners of the project will absorb the majority of costs, a small fee will be charged for the use of the services.

The project is largely funded by the Johannesburg, but businesses are encouraged to come on board. To ensure the techno hubs are sustainable, companies, banks and retailers are encouraged to “adopt a hub”, donate computers and provide training for on-site staff.

It is a win-win situation for businesses and the communities: “By setting up services in an area, businesses can get now clients and communities can get access to services they often only see on TV,” James said.

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