Tech alone cannot create successful townships – Philippi village CEO Bushra Razack

Kayamundi in the Western Cape is set to become the country’s first smart township. Ultimately, it is hoped that Kayamundi would be an innovation lab for townships and rural areas across South Africa and the rest of the continent. Closer to Cape Town lies Philippi, one of the country’s neglected townships where technology has been rolled out to create a community and business hub to empower the local residents. CEO, Bushra Razack told Biznews that a multi-purpose business hub like Philippi Village allowed the smart township concept to be accelerated. But, what she had learnt in the process was that technology was not a silver bullet to create a successful smart township, it needed engagement with the broader community. – Linda van Tilburg

Creating business hubs like Philippi allows smart township acceleration 

I know that the idea behind smart townships is how digital transformation can be accelerated and these can be concrete steps towards addressing socio-economic problems, inequality, creating jobs and addressing issues like poverty. Incorporating the idea of smart townships into the Philippi Village strategies is important because we’re unique in that we’re based in a settlement in one of the most unresourced, neglected townships in the Western Cape, if not in the country. I realise that creating business parks like ours that have multi-purposes allows the smart township approach to be accelerated. Creating spaces, like Philippi village in partnership with communities, and cross-sector partnerships and doing it through co-creating exercises allows a sense of ownership to be created. It creates a safe environment and closes the gap between township entrepreneurs, private and corporate sectors and allows for different partnerships to happen. If we offer training facilities or courses, if we partner with the private sector or local government or small businesses, then we create the environment for smart townships to thrive and we try to explore different ways to use Philippi village to amplify what technology does and the impact it can have.

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Power of the Philippi hub and partners to connect people and ideas

To get the coding space up, we first had to consider cyber and wireless internet access. What does access look like? What does it look like when there’s load shedding? As we started to think about that, natural partners came into our space. I can’t really take credit for the coding because partner organisations came in. Afrolabs is an example and another organisation is called CoderLevel-Up, they helped us think through how to make coding accessible, especially to young people.

What was interesting is the power of the hub. So, when we bring these people together, we start thinking beyond coding. We start going, ok, how can we use technology to amplify what we’re doing in our space? We have a sound studio, we have a bicycle pump track, we have a coffee shop, and we have a community garden. Can we use technology and bicycles to improve mobility or transport or delivery? What skills do we need in-house to be able to do that? How can we start the process of coding? These discussions opened up a few really exciting things. For example, what we’re working on now is a membership card. So, the same people who brought the coding into the space are now setting up our coding solution, and are helping us design QR community membership solutions so that the people in the immediate community have a membership card. It records participation in a dignified way, but it allows us to start connecting people and connecting ideas and usage patterns… The power of our hubs is that it connects people who know better, who know more those who are affected more directly, and suddenly we start co-creating in a way that’s so relevant because the proximity allows us to unpack how technology can be used.

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Focusing on women in the tech space, a solution for e-waste

Some of the organisations in our space focus on women in the tech space. One of our tenants is called ‘Women in Tech’ and they think through issues like diversity, inclusion and equity and they focus on girls and young women. They have a phenomenal presence at Philippi village. It’s growing and they’re exposing young women to so many different opportunities, travel, social networks, up-skilling, and training, and I’m so excited to see how they are brought into the space. What I’m also extremely excited about is our latest tenant; they’re called Close the Gap and they’re an international agency with offices in Belgium, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They look at e-waste. So, they’re setting up a factory in our village space where used IT devices are refurbished. They create new devices for educational, social and even medical projects.

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Lessons from Philippi village in creating smart townships

I think that Philippe Village realises that at the heart of an economy or a township economy are our people. So, what our hub creates is an opportunity to understand what the needs are of a trader or person within a household. Then we started looking at how social, recreational and cultural needs can be met through co-creation and through developing technology or technology opportunities. Technology and digitisation are only as powerful as the hands that it’s in, and what we see is a space that can bring in an informal trader and say, how can this be a tool that doesn’t control you or exploit you and allows you to be involved in the process of digital skills building 

The key to success so far has been ongoing engagement with the local community. I can never overestimate the power of co-creation, community engagement, and constant channels of communication between our different stakeholders and ourselves. It helps reduce friction, fosters better understanding and creates spaces in which solutions can be created and an opportunity for people to take ownership of solutions. So, the ongoing stakeholder identification, stakeholder mapping, and adaptation towards what community actually means and what’s relevant. It allows us to test solutions, including digital ones, and then revisit, adapt, shift, and change quickly in real time.

Opportunities for larger business holders 

Maybe we have to look at what the opportunities are for other stakeholders to bring in services like data provision and wifi. The more we map and understand what our stakeholders are and what shared values are, the more we can take challenges and look at them as opportunities. What are the opportunities for larger businesses or service providers to bring wifi into informal communities like this?

Where does the opportunity lie? What are the risks? Is it safety, and security? Can you use a hub like a village to create a more safe and more secure space to do it? The starting point is always stakeholder engagement. It means we’re looking at the stakeholders which might include our geographic community, larger retailers, service providers, international social enterprises, the private sector, and government, and start understanding where the shared value lies in supporting and improving informal townships. 

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