Smart townships: The key to a thriving South African economy … put on hold

A ground-breaking South African project to position South Africa’s townships as the Smart Megacities of the Global South is on hold while new funding is sought. It makes me want to weep …

Under the leadership of Emma Kaye, the Cape Digital Foundation’s project, which started as a local government initiative to increase the uptake of digital technology in townships of the Western Cape, grew into a project to position and enable townships as smart cities.

The foundation was constituted in 2015 by the Western Cape’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism and Neotel (now Liquid Telecom) tasked with firing up the uptake of digital technology in the Western Cape.

The idea was that the province’s residents could be equipped with the tools and resources to survive and thrive in the highly competitive and rapidly digitising world, particularly in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Leave no one behind, you know the rule Photo: Greg Hillyard

Emma was appointed Executive Director of CDF in April 2017. She was an obvious fit for the challenge, thanks to previous success building businesses that deliver proven social impact.

Informed by her involvement in the global conversation around how Megacities in the Global North (defined as fast-growing cities with a population of 10 million-plus) must become Smart Cities for their citizens to be a part of the 4IR, Emma recognised that it was critical that a different narrative be adopted for the Global South.

She argued that Megacities in the more sparsely populated Global South should not be defined by northern parameters (cities with more than 10 million citizens), but rather should somehow be measured in a way that reflects the fastest growing communities, the townships.

“It stands to reason that if we redefine our townships as ‘Megacities in the Global South’
we need to enable them as Smart Townships,” says Emma.
“The vast majority of South Africa’s population
live in townships and the fact is that if we do not enable and scale Smart Townships
the large majority of the population will be left out of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The crux of Smart Township thinking is that technology can no longer be seen as a vertical business sector, but rather as a practical, horizontal necessity across all spheres of business and society. To have any real economic, social and cultural value and impact on communities, technology must be universally, easily accessible.

The foundation created the first database of local businesses in the community. Business listings include descriptions and a Google location pin, a game-changer in a setting where street addresses are rare

At the start of 2018, the CDF set about building a digital ecosystem at a ‘whole community’ level. Imizamo Yethu (IY), a township in Hout Bay, was selected for its Smart Township proof of concept initiative.

IY, where an estimated 140,00 people live on just 18 hectares of land, has well-delineated boundaries, which makes accurate data collection and reporting possible. (

CDF identified five fundamental pillars as essential to the development of Smart Townships:

  • Digital infrastructure
  • Affordable connectivity
  • Digital skills
  • Local content
  • Data collection

The Foundation partnered with TooMuchWifi to ensure reliable digital infrastructure and affordable connectivity.

TooMuchWifi rolled out more than 119 Wifi Access Points into the small community of Imizamo Yethu

The rollout of wifi into IY was citizen-led. TooMuchWifi ensured that the community were involved at every step and that money flowed back into the community.

During the course of the project, TooMuchWifi rolled out more than 119 Access Points into the small community of IY (in comparison to provincial public Wifi of 178 Access Points throughout the Western Cape). In addition, a total of R17.5million was retained within the community, rather than being ‘lost’ in the form of higher data fees to mobile networks.  

The Foundation partnered with the University of the Western Cape for digital skills training within Imizamo Yethu with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises and women.

By the people, for the people: Photographer
Owen Xubuzane. Photo by Anton Cronje

In terms of local content, CDF launched a hyper-local news portal, IYtv, in October 2018. The portal, was free to IY residents who bought (reasonably priced) data from TooMuchWifi. By February 2019, IYtv had a staff of five local people and its own studio. These citizen journalists uploaded local stories daily. These stories were told by the community, for the community.

The IYtv portal included an educational section, where community members could access study materials for subjects such as maths and science as well as animated content for younger children.

To realise the final pillar for success, data collection, IYtv built the first database of local businesses in the community. Business listings included descriptions, contact info and a Google location pin, a game-changer in this setting where there are few street names, much less house/business/building numbers.

By the end of 2018, CDF’s Smart Township concept was a resounding success and the CDF stood poised to replicate the initiative across the Western Cape. Sadly, at this critical moment on the journey to unlocking the potential of a digitally connected society among citizens in the Western Cape, CDF was forced to close its doors.

It is clear, and not just to those who observed CDF’s success, that Smart Townships are South Africa’s vibrant economic hubs of the future. To maximise the benefits of the 4ID, it is critical that the work of CDF on the development of Smart Townships be continued.

By providing affordable connectivity and digital skills to township entrepreneurs and small business owners, Emma Kaye and CDF started to lay the ground for the next wave of digital disruption to come from within the informal market in South Africa.

Emma, South Africa’s leading expert in Smart Cities/Townships, will continue to use her vision and experience to link communities with technology and opportunities that maximises social change. She is currently looking for partners to supercharge the next chapter of social development.

Siobhan Cassidy

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