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JOHANNESBURG — Local crime-fighting technology startup Memeza is doing something rather unique. They’ve built low-cost alarm technologies that connect to the South African Police Service (SAPS) and which alerts nearby safety community members. There’s essentially a one-off affordable cost involved with the system plus small monthly data charges. The technology has already shown to reduce crime by up to 100% in one area. Now Memeza has bigger plans after winning a $250,000 prize from global tech giant Google. In this interview, Thuli Mthethwa – who is the CEO of Memeza – tells us more. – Gareth van Zyl
It’s a pleasure to welcome Thuli Mthethwa who is the Chief Executive Officer of an organisation called Memeza, which makes community safety alarms and other technologies that connect directly to the likes of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Thuli, thanks for joining us on the podcast.
Hi Gareth. Thank you very much. Thank you for this opportunity.
Memeza has become one of the winners of the Google Impact Challenge. Can you tell us more about winning this challenge and what being one of the winners has involved exactly?
Winning the Google Challenge means that Memeza is doing the right thing. It means that we are on the right path to solving crime in South Africa. South Africa has become one of the countries known for high crime areas in spite of the many good things that South Africa does and is. We are at a point where people are just tired of crime. People want a working solution and, hence, we think that’s why we won this award. We think people just need a working solution that would get South Africa out of crime. Memeza winning this award means that we are sustainable. It’s an endorsement to Memeza. It means that we will also receive more funding. We will also make more impact in the communities and we see that in the near future, the NDP goal on safety that says that by 2030, people living in South Africa should be free from crime; that women and children should be able to play in the street. We see that as being possible and we think that really working together with the police, Community Policing Forums (CPF), and the whole community, we can definitely have a solution on crime through the Memeza project.
And how much have you won from Google, exactly?
We actually won the highest prize, which is $250,000.
What does that mean for your organisation? How does that help you?
For our whole organisation, it means sustainability. It means for the next year, our 21 employees’ salaries will be covered. We’ll be able to employ one more person inside the company and we’ll employ ten more in the communities that will be driving this project. The community will also be able to employ a project manager in that community. It also means that 8,000 women in that community will receive personal alarms and 300 households – every household of about 5-7 people – will receive community alarms. We see ourselves impacting about 89,000 people in that community and we also see the police being proactive. That means they will know about the crime before it happens and it just makes their work easier, which means that’s how they are able to bring the crime down.
So, can you tell me more about the technology and how it works? You mentioned that you work closely with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and that it connects directly to them. So, is this (for lack of a better example) an ADT – but for everybody?
That is correct Gareth. Basically, Memeza is a technology centred community safety initiative. That means we use technology to bring the police, the community, the policing forum, patrollers, neighbours, and friends to the centre at that point where one is experiencing crime. What we do first is we go to the police station. The police station will identify the vulnerable people who are supposed to receive these community alarm systems. Once they have identified those, we go in and install and once we do the installation, we then link those alarms to the police sectors/cells that touch on those areas 24/7. We’re linked to the station. We’re linked to crime prevention within the police station. We’re linked to CPF. We’re linked to patrollers and anyone that is playing a safety role in that area. Thirdly, what happens is that if a person is being attacked, they press either the remote or the unit itself. What happens is those messages are then broadcast to all those people that were configured in the system so those people will receive messages and at the same time, the alarm system will make a loud noise and also flash lights. That is a way to say, “This is the location of the house that is in distress.” That gets the police quicker to that area and as a result of those people that are configured plus the police; definitely, someone will be able to get there and do something as taught at CPF meetings and stop the crime from happening. That’s how the initiative works.
The police are stretched, so how do they handle a false alarm, for example? Maybe you can explain that.
False alarms are one of those challenges that we are facing with the alarm and we have been working around that. One of the solutions is that because this alarm system is GSM-based; if I’ve done a false alarm, I can still go back and send a message to all those people that have received the panic signal to say, “It’s a false alarm.” We have a way of doing that from the cellphone of the owner that links to this alarm system, so we’ve found a way around that and it’s working very well.
And how much does the system cost for somebody who wants to use it?
Currently, the unit cost is R1,800 and that includes your installation costs. Once you buy the unit in your area, we will make sure that we have a community-trained installer that will then install the unit for R250. So, that R1,800 includes the cost of the unit and the cost of the installation.
I imagine that that’s just a one-off cost because you’re then using the police service from there on?
Yes, definitely. It’s a one-off cost but also Gareth, it’s a GSM, it’s a cellphone. So, every month, you need to top up with your data because it’s also connected to a server. All the panics that are happening are installed in an intelligent data-based system. So, what we always ask is for those that can pay, to help us pay for the monthly SIMs and the monthly data so we ask them to pay around R99. But then, you have the vulnerable homes and these are maybe people who are on a pension or social grants and they cannot afford it. If they have R20, they would rather buy bread. With those, we would then work with network providers to say, “Can they zero-rate for the vulnerable homes?” and that seems to be working very well.
Can you roughly give us an idea of how many people are using the system currently and how many people you’re targeting in future?
Right now, we have about 2,500 people that are using the community home alarm systems. That also includes your no fee-paying schools because we have a problem where technology is installed in schools, especially the no fee-paying schools and immediately, they are stolen. Also, we have a problem where feeding schemes belonging to…food that is supposed to be fed to the school kids is stolen. We also install these units in those schools. We actually have about ten schools where we did that. In one area in the North West, there has been 100% crime prevention. So, we have about 2,500 units installed and we have distributed about 80,000 test alarms.
You said that there’s been 100% crime prevention in certain areas?
Yes, that is correct. The initiative will work very well where you have very active police, a very active CPF, and you have a community that contributes to fighting crime. If you have that, the initiative works 100%.
Finally, what is the next big focus for you from here, after winning this Google challenge?
Gareth, for winning the Google challenge, we want to focus on Soshanguve but because we now work very closely with SAPS, we know the problems that the SAPS have been facing. Even at the national level, we’ve been talking about the 30 police stations in South Africa that were reported during the crime statistics as the police stations having the worst crime rate in South Africa. So, we want to work with national police to focus on those 30 police stations to see that if we can get funding and if we can roll out this project today; in a year or two, can we then look at the stats and see the difference? We believe that if this can happen at those 30 police stations in a year or two, crime will definitely have come down by more than 50%.
Thuli Mthethwa, thank you so much for telling us about your organisation and I wish you the best of luck with it.
Thank you very much, Gareth.