By empowering social entrepreneurs throughout South Africa, Siyafunda, in partnership with Cisco, has transformed government-run telecenters into hubs of economic vitality. A tea lady/server has become an administrator at a local company and improved her economic stability. A woman in a wheelchair learned basic technology skills and now earns enough to care for herself and her family. Young men and women have opened new businesses, bringing jobs to impoverished communities. This is the difference a Community Knowledge Center makes.
By using technology to make educational opportunities accessible and affordable,Community Knowledge Centers (CKCs) have unlocked the potential for economic growth and opportunity in historically disadvantaged communities throughout South Africa. “We connect people to opportunities,” explains James Sekhonyane, a master trainer and manager at Inhlakanipho Academy. “We are creating learner experts who can research information on their own. I see them making the big change in our community.”
“South Africa’s past was about marginalizing communities,” said Aysegul (Smiley) Ildeniz Ahmed Ismael, director of Siyafunda Community Technology Centre, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to using technology to develop and engage communities. More than 60 percent of people in South Africa do not complete their matric (the equivalent of a secondary degree) and become locked out of formal vocational schools or university. As a result, historically disadvantaged communities are rife with poverty and unemployment. “I see the challenges people face day to day,” said James. “Without skills your opportunities are limited. With skills you can access things you were never able to do.”
“The school system has serious challenges,” said Alfie Hamid, Corporate Affairs Regional Manager for Cisco. “To go to school in many African countries, you have to come from an affluent family. How can we create a virtual school using technology so that the masses have access to education? The CKC is the only viable alternative to help people continue their education, start a business, or find a job at an affordable cost.”
Beginning in 2000, the South African government opened hundreds of telecenters in historically disadvantaged communities to provide access to technology. Instead of flocking to the centers, people passed by them. They did not know how to use technology or they opted for more expensive Internet cafes. Many of the centers languished with few patrons, failed equipment, and no one to keep them going. Smiley saw an opportunity.
In India, he had visited thriving community technology centers that combined information and communications technology (ICT) with local ownership and meaningful learning opportunities. He realized that the South African telecenters had never connected to local needs and local people. He founded Siyafunda Community Technology Centre to develop leaders who could attract people to the centers and use technology to connect them to educational opportunities.
In 2009, Siyafunda partnered with Cisco to transform 3 telecenters in Palmridge, Wattviille, and Batho Pele. Cisco provided a blueprint for partnerships, training, and mentoring through the successful CKC model it developed through its Clinton Global Initiative commitment. They funded training for master trainers, technology, and introduced Siyafunda to proven NGO partners: Appleseeds Academy, One Global Economy, and Inveneo. Siyafunda developed partnerships with Regenisis, a distance university for associates degrees, and Unisa, the largest online university in South Africa, to open the door to all kinds of learning. “The whole concept of the CKC was to bring technology to these communities for e-learning and empowerment,” Smiley said.
“The CKCs offer an alternative pathway to higher education,” said Alfie. “They can go to distance learning, sessions with tutors, and support sessions with instructors. We’ve literally brought the university to the doorstep of the underserved.”
With Siyafunda, Smiley tapped into a rich vein of social entrepreneurs who were eager to help their community members transform their lives. Despite exponential growth—from 3 centers in 2009 to 70 in 2012 with a total of 150 planned by 2015—Smiley manages to keep his organization small by enabling local managers to support each other via Run CKC, an online community, and a network of NGO partners. “We use technology to empower social entrepreneurs,” said Alfie. “They are not alone anymore. They have a massive support structure with all of the NGO partners and Cisco, a global corporation. If they have a problem, they can get help right away.”
When Puleng Moyaha, manager of the Thokoza FabLab, had trouble getting her entrepreneurship students to class on time, she posted the challenge online. Her peers encouraged her to start her class at the scheduled time and students would learn not to be late. The strategy worked!Babalwa Dube started as a volunteer at the Tembisa CKC and eventually became the manager and owner of the CKC in Ivory Park, a former township with a population of 100,000 Black South Africans, 8 schools, 2 health clinics, and 1 police station. “I was always interested in technology,” she said. “I played with boys, connecting TVs and radios, wanting to learn more. Most of the people have never touched a computer. They are scared to touch the mouse. When they start, you see the warmth in their eyes.”
Close to 100 adults attend classes at Ivory Park and many more regularly use its services. Babalwa provides support, encouragement, and a model of success, especially for girls and women. She started a Women’s Club discussion group to motivate and empower women, and organized a Winter Camp for environment and leadership studies at the nearby Sukerbos Nature Reserve. When Babalwa sees girls taking part in her ICT classes, she encourages them to post on Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.
CKCs charge a modest amount for courses, Internet access, copying, and other services to become self-sustaining. Based on the success of the centers, the South African Department of Communications signed a formal agreement with Siyafunda to bring 200 telecenters into the CKC network.
Siyafunda CKCs have become incubators for economic development. Two of Babalwa’s most successful community members attended a 3-month business course and successfully applied for funding from the National Youth Development Agency to open a franchise store in their community. “They have big ideas, but low self esteem,” said Babalwa. “We had to give them hope and build them up with the information and knowledge they need to be successful.”
James, a master trainer, left his IT career when he discovered Siyafunda, and opened a CKC in Orange Farm, a former township with close to 1 million people, rife with poverty and unemployment. “We are creating vibrant communities through technology and CKCs,” said James. “People who would not even have hope. We actually connect them. We empower people.”
When Orange Farm ran a promotion for a free computer course, Isiah Tsubane, a 55-year-old salesman with no computer experience, signed up. He started his own business, reselling SIM cards, as a sales agent for a cell phone operator, using the CKC infrastructure. At the Orange Farm CKC, adults develop basic skills and earn certifications that open the door to local switchboard operator and data jobs, and small business opportunities.
Moses Thabiso Motaung manages the Ratanda CKC in Heidelberg, South Africa. It was established in a former telecenter with a local drug treatment program through the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA). Siyafunda provided SANCA with training and partner support to revamp the center’s curriculum and create a sustainable business plan. Now, the center operates on usage fees and provides affordable job training in technology, entrepreneurship, and journalism. At least two new businesses have formed in the rural community around it: a catering company and an online retailing business run by Lefu Isaac Ngoepe, who employs 4 people in his beading business, selling beaded shoes and accessories online. A recent survey of CKC patrons found that 38 percent of those who searched for a job reported success.
Puleng Moyaha started volunteering in 2007 and eventually became a master trainer. Now, she helps to found and grow new CKCs. “It was for the love of my community and the work it is doing,” she explains. “It is giving people a chance in life and planting a seed that there is hope. It is making a difference in each life that they can become anything they want to become.” She describes a woman in a wheelchair who came to the center because she could not find work. She took a 3-month course at the Siyafunda CKC Thokoza FabLab and opened her own Internet café.
“Now, she provides for herself and her family, and employs others,” said Puleng. “Everybody has a dream. I encourage them to follow their dreams and not abandon them. We are there for the community to help educate and sustain members to be able to face the world with confidence.”
“I love my job,” said Alfie. He recalls his work in the struggle to liberate South Africa from apartheid. Though the laws have changed, there is still work to be done to end poverty and bring everyone into the economy. “What we are doing is freeing people. It’s breaking down barriers and getting them out of the downward spiral of poverty.”