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There’s no such thing as ‘township tech’

The term “township tech” takes away from the fact that innovation coming out of here is part of the much bigger local and global solution for the industry. Picture: UnSplash

The term “township tech” takes away from the fact that innovation coming out of here is part of the much bigger local and global solution for the industry. Picture: UnSplash

Published Jun 5, 2022

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A few years ago, a technology incubator in Cape Town decided to establish a version of itself in a township based on pressure to advance transformation in the technology sector and potential to access funding.

This incubator became just another entrepreneurship programme and office space for all kinds of businesses and less about advancing technology in a township environment.

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Lately, it has (together with other so called tech startup organisations), coined the term “township tech”, to potentially access funding targeted for tech projects designed to serve township communities.

How do you even begin to term a part of tech as just tech for a certain sector of society? It is disrespectful to single out tech-solving township challenges as “township tech” as if it's different from solving the same issues for the country, continent and the world.

Here’s why such a term is problematic.

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Firstly, it limits the ability of a startup labelled as township tech to grow and access funding from investors. Which investor in his right mind will invest seriously in a startup that is labelled “township tech”?

Whoever coined this may have done so with good intentions, but unfortunately the unintended consequences will not do justice to young people in townships solving real challenges in society.

The truth of the matter is that there’s no such thing called township tech in the same way that there’s no “yuppie tech”.

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What we have are edu tech, health tech, fintech startups that are solving education, health and financial challenges in the township environment.

A health or education challenge in a township may have minor differences with a similar challenge elsewhere, but it is still a health or education issue. To categorise health solutions with a health tech label irrespective of where they occur is the correct way.

Economic development practitioners should be careful of marginalising people and entrepreneurs around historical terms in the interest of accessing short term funding.

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Technological innovations coming out of townships should be categorised correctly to receive global recognition and support. Local townships should be considered hotbeds of innovation.

Many in the startup ecosystem have ignored townships and instead focused on corporate business challenges to solve. This approach is limiting the quality of innovation coming out of South Africa.

If this part of the world is to be truly innovative, it will have to solve local challenges that may also be present in other parts of the world. This is not just a challenge for startups, it is a challenge for universities with tech startup programmes designed to turn research into commercially viable startups and products.

The University of Stellenbosch is a great example in this regard. Is there any reason why Stellenbosch University LaunchLab is not integrating itself into local townships to develop technology solutions with local communities? University of Johannesburg has done this via a programme led by Dr Thami Mazwai, with a Soweto-based campus focused on entrepreneurship. More academic institutions should follow this fine example of being engaged institutions that are solving local challenges.

In Stellenbosch there are communities in Kayamandi, Idas Valley and Cloetesville that can benefit from local tech startups that can develop tech and solve local challenges. Ideally, these tech startups should come from local communities and supported by local institutions such as the university, local government and more importantly businesses.

This approach will not only enable South Africa to develop cutting edge solutions but innovations that will make the world a better place.

Kenya showed the world what it means to solve a local banking challenge through the development of a fintech solution, M-Pesa. This solution, although inspired by Kenya challenges, became a solution that could be applied in other parts of the world.

Instead of just labelling tech solutions coming out of townships as township tech we should embrace townships and innovations that will come out of these environments.

As a starting point, it’s time we start remaking a single township in South Africa to become an example of what it takes to use technology to solve challenges in society. This township can serve as a lab for tech innovations not just for townships but for society as a whole.

This process will require some form of participation by local universities, municipalities and business. Once this is accomplished it can then be replicated to other townships and communities.

This would be a meaningful way of embracing townships through technology, instead of just branding some startups as “township tech” for short term benefits.

* Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of FastCompany (SA) magazine.

He hosts weekly TwitterSpaces on technology and innovation, you can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

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