Silulo Ulutho and the 17-year struggle to close digital divide in townships
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THE Information Technology skills challenge has been with South Africa for a long time now. Seventeen years ago, it inspired a teacher, Luvuyo Rani, to form Silulo Ulutho Technologies with his brother, Lonwabo Rani.
When Silulo was started, townships and rural areas had poor access to technology training centres. Teachers in townships were also in need of computer resources. All of these factors inspired the Silulo Ulutho founders to establish on September 26, 2004, what has now become a company with a presence beyond Cape Town.
Silulo has focused on the real needs of the township and rural communities. For some users of Silulo, the need was as basic as typing skills. For others, the need was to access a local service instead of travelling a long distance to access computer services.
This focus on the ignored part of society has resulted in Silulo becoming instrumental in enabling people to access jobs. For most jobs today, computer literacy is a requirement, and Silulo has closed this gap for many townships and rural community members in need of jobs.
Today, Silulo is more than just a computer training centre. As the need for digital services has become central in society, the township technology hub has pivoted to become a space for opportunities. It has now become an environment through which township entrepreneurs access information and services.
It is also a channel through which people access information about job opportunities. As most people struggle with internet access, Silulo has become an answer whenever digital services are required in townships and rural areas.
The existence of a business such as Silulo is a clear indicator of the nature of technological challenges in South Africa. Currently, there's a big push towards Fourth Industrial Revolution skills. However, according to Luvuyo, there’s still a huge need for basic technology skills. In addition to that, connectivity challenges in South Africa have created a need for a business such as Silulo to exist.
People in need of internet connectivity rely on Silulo to have quality access to digital services. Silulo understands the true nature of the digital divide challenge in South Africa. The company has been working on this challenge for the past 17 years, and according to one of its founders, the challenge is still significant enough that they are planning further expansions.
Silulo has also become a franchise business. Anyone with close to a million rand can now buy into the Silulo model and enable a community to have access to critical digital services, where the need is great.
In this way, they enable local entrepreneurs to form part of this social enterprise at the centre of solving one of South Africa’s tech challenges.
As a result of focusing on these impactful areas, Silulo has been recognised globally for making a difference. The World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab, through the Schwab Foundation, has recognised Luvuyo with the 2016 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year award. He was also featured in Forbes Magazine’s March issue in 2014.
Today, Silulo has 46 centres across the country. So far, they have enabled more than 5 000 South Africans to have access to jobs, education and entrepreneurship opportunities, and they are planning to enable more people to have access to these opportunities through their upcoming membership programme.
They are a powerful example of how South Africa should approach technology solutions offerings. Instead of focusing on high-end services and offering solutions that are not designed for local communities, there’s a need for solutions that take into account local conditions and circumstances.
In South Africa, there’s a huge market that is not served by local tech companies.
This is what leads to the digital divide, even though there’s a growing local tech start-up ecosystem. Most local tech companies are developing solutions for a minority and high-end market.
If South Africa is to close the digital divide gap, there’s a need to learn from what Silulo has done to address local tech challenges. It has taken Silulo more than a decade to work on this challenge, and the issues are still there.
This means that the scope for growth for this local company is huge. Other local tech companies also need to pay attention to the unaddressed needs of society and develop solutions that are relevant to local conditions.