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South African tech entrepreneurs tackle digital divide in townships

Moss Marakalala was 11 when he first used a laptop at an after-school programme in Johannesburg, sparking an interest in technology that inspired him to provide young people like himself from South African townships with digital education.

Today, the 21-year-old runs a production company with his brother and tutors students from townships – deprived, urban areas formed under the apartheid government for people of colour – to become more tech-savvy and enhance their job prospects.

“I feel like tutoring helps me open up a world for others, because IT can create opportunities,” Marakalala said in Johannesburg at the office of Tomorrow Trust, the charity that introduced him to technology and where he now teaches others.

With apps that help detect breast cancer or facilitate business for informal traders, entrepreneurs and charities are striving to ensure the poorest are connected in a country marked by severe power cuts here, expensive internet here and extreme inequality.

The so-called “digital divide” – the gap between those who have access to technology and the internet and those who do not – is of rising concern to tech experts in African nations, which have some of the world’s lowest internet connectivity rates here.

This divide is particularly stark in South African townships, which are typically underdeveloped and neglected areas with high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime.

For many of the country’s poorest citizens, internet access is still a luxury, said Johan Steyn, chair of the artificial intelligence and robotics interest group at the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa.

“We should utilise smart technology platforms to help others achieve a better life, however technology is not the answer by itself,” he said, adding that the government and public also need to address wider social issues such as hunger and crime.

Tech education
The South African Tomorrow Trust charity provides orphans and vulnerable children with educational and psychosocial support, as well as feeding programmes.

In 2019, the charity decided it also had to include digital education.

“It’s only fair that every person in this country has got a fair chance at success, right? Because it would be such an injustice if somebody was not exposed to knowing the basics of computers,” said Taryn Rae, its chief executive officer.

The charity has trained at least 350 students from townships on computer basics, from creating an email address and using the video call platform Zoom to coding and robotics training.

The rollout of its tech programme was perfectly timed.

When the country imposed a COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, hundreds of students were able to keep learning remotely using laptops and data packages supplied by the charity.

“We saw students connecting and helping one another out with tech learning online, it was awesome to see,” said Marakalala, who hails from the Thembisa township near Johannesburg.

About half of these students are now considering jobs in the IT sector, according to Rae. Reuters

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