Cape Town, South Africa is a jewel at the bottom of the African continent – a city with tremendous natural beauty, a vibrant economy and a rich history. But that history also bears the scars of slavery, apartheid and other forms of exploitation whose remnants are still manifest today through crime, unemployment and poverty.
To the casual tourist or business traveler, these blights loom around the edges of the city. From the top of Table Mountain, one can see Robben Island, a relic of past struggles where Nelson Mandela and so many other anti-apartheid leaders were held prisoner for decades. Traveling eastward, which few visitors do, one can follow the trail of forced migration and resettlement of non-white populations into “townships,” the vast, crowded and often underdeveloped communities that ring the periphery of Cape Town and other urban centers in South Africa.
Many of the individuals born and raised in these townships still lack access to adequate, affordable education, healthcare and other basic services. As is the case throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, and in many other developing and middle-income markets around the world, their cycle of poverty is exacerbated by insufficient or non-existent power, transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.
For me, USTDA’s work is all about tapping into U.S. knowhow to develop these basic building blocks for inclusive economic growth. One of my most rewarding experiences as USTDA’s Country Manager for Southern Africa has been to see USTDA’s mission come to life in the Cape Town Digital Inclusion Initiative, which is providing free Wi-Fi in underserved areas.
Three years ago, I accompanied USTDA’s Director, Leocadia Zak, to the signing of a grant agreement that would fund a feasibility study to expand municipal internet services to the townships of Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. After Director Zak and Cape Town’s Mayor, Patricia DeLille, signed the grant at the Civic Centre, we visited the city’s Central Library and met community members that used the library’s computers to learn, conduct business and communicate with their loved ones. The City of Cape Town selected decision/analysis partners, a global consulting firm headquartered in Washington DC, to carry out the feasibility study. The study, which was completed last year, provided analyses and recommendations for a comprehensive roadmap to introduce wireless internet technology in the community, including the construction of a Wi-Fi mesh network, the development of internet service provider (ISP) agreements, project milestones and implementation schedules, and public communication and digital literacy campaigns in the townships.
A few months ago, I was back in Cape Town with USTDA’s Director and had the honor of participating in an event to mark the commencement of Wi-Fi services at the Lentegeur Library in the township of Mitchells Plain. We also toured and ran connectivity tests at two additional public hotspots in the surrounding neighborhoods. I was struck by the number of people, especially the number of children, gathered around these hotspots with mobile devices and even more amazed at the thought of how they might use this boundless supply of information to improve their lives and the lives of their families, friends and neighbors.
Playing a part in the Cape Town Digital Inclusion Initiative really drove home for me the value of working together to create mutually beneficial partnerships. In Africa, it is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. It took a global village to make this project possible. From the partnership between USTDA and Cape Town, to the blueprints laid out by decision/analysis partners, as well as the U.S. equipment and services providers that built the network, the ISPs and content providers, and the communities of Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain themselves, everyone contributed to the success of the project and everyone benefits as a result. The individuals that live in these communities benefit from improved access to healthcare, education and other basic services; the City of Cape Town benefits from an empowered population; and the United States benefits from export-led job creation. And who knows what benefits we might all gain from the imagination of a child in Mitchells Plain who now has a world of knowledge in the palm of her hand.