Picture: 123RF/Ruslan Zagidullin
Picture: 123RF/Ruslan Zagidullin

Rural SA is not generally top of mind when it comes to matters of technological innovation and digital advancement. But an increasing level of connectivity in the more remote parts of the country brings with it new opportunities for economically marginalised communities — and the broader economy too.

"There is a proven link between increased internet access and economic growth," says Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy, checked referring to a 2016 World Bank study that which found that a 10 percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration could boost the GDP of a developing economy by 1.38%.

Local companies are already taking advantage of digital innovation and the age of the "internet of things" in rural areas. Durban-based Cattle Watch, for example, fits livestock with collars or ear tags, allowing owners to monitor their herds in real time.

It took Zolani Gwiliza and his co-director, Mark Mongameli Ngwenya, seven years of self-funded research to get the platform off the ground properly last year. Since then, they’ve registered about 5,000 cattle on their system — a number they hope to grow to 30,000 by the end of the year.

"Our technology allows farmers to track, locate, monitor and automatically count their livestock remotely from anywhere in the world," says Gwiliza. "You can be in Joburg and see all your animals in KwaZulu-Natal [KZN]."

The system monitors the tagged livestock, sending information about behaviour, location and movement to the owner’s mobile phone. Should unusual behaviour be detected — an animal moving out of a designated area, or "geo-fenced" location, for example — a report is delivered to the owner’s cellphone, and a drone can be sent to the scene.

It’s a potentially valuable service: cattle worth R1.2bn were stolen in SA in 2017/2018, according to analysis outfit Crime Stats SA – a 7.4% rise in stock theft.

Gwiliza says the Eastern Cape, KZN and the Free State — the provinces in which his company operates at present — are the hardest hit.

We have to bridge the digital divide and, as government, we want everyone to be included in the internet space
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

Though Cattle Watch has obvious potential in the commercial farming sector, Gwiliza believes the people who need it most are the country’s communal farmers. They have considerably smaller herds, but these often represent the entire wealth of a number of families.

He says local government should aid communal farmers in obtaining access to such technology to protect their wealth. But technological roll-out also requires adequate supporting infrastructure — something cellular service providers are working on. Vodacom, for example, has invested R350m in upgrading its networks in rural areas of the Eastern Cape and is rolling out 300 3G sites in KZN, mostly in rural areas. MTN, for its part, is also looking to unlock value in untapped markets. Late last year it claimed to be the first mobile operator in SA to offer 4G and LTE connectivity over 90% of the country, after it set up its 11,000th LTE site (in Qatywa, in the Eastern Cape).

At the 14th annual ICT summit in East London in November, MTN Eastern Cape general manager Vusi Ndwandwe said 99% of that province has 3G coverage, and close to 90% has 4G coverage.

"Using technology to drive social development is a core tenet of our rural strategy," says MTN chief technology officer Giovanni Chiarelli. "The network sites we build do far more than bring the world together through technology, as they include roads, electricity and other infrastructure improvements that help connect entire communities."

Vodacom’s Kennedy also points to the social benefits of increased connectivity in rural areas. He says the company’s investment has meant school pupils can get access to the internet for the first time, and active job seekers can use their smartphones to apply for positions for free on Vodacom’s online jobs portal.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams tells the FM that enabling economic activity through investing in technology in rural parts of the country is imperative.

"We have to bridge the digital divide and, as government, we want everyone to be included in the internet space," she says.

What it means

Cattle worth R1.2bn were stolen in SA in 2017/2018 — a problem the technology can help solve

She is excited to see young South Africans from less-developed areas designing viable solutions for the problems that plague their communities, such as stock theft. She hopes there will be an uptake of local technology solutions beyond SA’s borders.

Cattle Watch is already in talks with MTN to grow its footprint locally, and it recently partnered with the Botswana Telecommunications Corp to extend its reach to that country.

It’s also working on a plan to produce its technology locally; though it holds the patent in SA, its product is at present made in Belgium. Getting local production right will reduce its delivery time from six weeks and mitigate the rand risk of producing in a eurozone country.

Gwiliza is confident of success.

"We don’t have to go to China to be competitive," he says.

Ndabeni-Abrahams believes large ICT companies need to invest in rural areas to grow their revenues.

But the government also needs to do its bit. She says her department is funding tech-related projects through the industrial development zone in East London, in partnership with the private sector.

For Cattle Watch, such government support has been invaluable.

The company credits the department of communication for its growth, after it funded Cattle Watch’s participation in the 2018 International Telecommunications Union Telecom world conference in Durban. That helped raise interest in the product and led to its commercial launch. The company is also waiting for approval from the department of trade & industry for assistance with the travel costs incurred in building its presence in Botswana.