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Author's profile photo Susan Galer

Free Isn’t Sustainable: South Africa’s Entrepreneurs Find a Force Multiplier in Communities

/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/smallsiyafunda_569274.jpgSince I began writing about the Siyafunda Community Technology Centres (CTC), this group’s accomplishments in training and educating people in South Africa have been nothing short of spectacular. I recently talked with founding director, Ahmed Ismael, for an update on 2014 activities, and a look ahead to next year. What I find most groundbreaking about this organization is its cascading impact across the country.

Siyafunda CTC has opened almost 100 community knowledge centres, created 300 employment opportunities for centre management, and developed 15 social entrepreneurs. By training hundreds of thousands of community members that include people of all ages, the Centres have become much more than a standalone resource. Ismael described how the vision is unfolding as a force multiplier for opportunities.

“It’s not enough to just set up a centre. Sustainability is crucial.” said Ismael. “We’re focused on helping managers run and manage the Centres following the business principles of the social enterprise model.  We initially provide the train-the-trainer program and the education, and then tell the Centres to charge affordable rates covering operational expenses. The money generated sustains the Centre while more people can be educated. The notion of free goods and services is not sustainable. You can only create value and commitment when something is paid for.”

It’s a remarkable model for exponential growth. According to Ismael, the Centres field numerous support requests from community organizations, schools, and government agencies, and now have close to 80 community partners. One is with the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy, to provide both facilities set-up and computer training for students within the institution.

Siyafunda CTC is equally committed to expansion in rural South Africa where access to modern technology is a challenge. There are now four centres operating in the Free State province, and two weeks ago the Rea Ruta ICT Lab opened, introducing computer learning to children aged four to 12 through gamification.

“Adding computer training to the regular curriculum with gaming technology has been very positive in increasing math and science literacy for these young children,” said Ismael. “It’s a new way of learning that’s fun as they navigate 3D virtual learning environments, scoring points and getting rewards.”  

For older students at the Centres, training extends beyond the technology. The Centres also build soft skills to help instill a strong work ethic along with practical training like how to ace a job interview. Many students take advantage of simulated virtual interviews practicing a variety of scenarios to gain confidence before entering the actual workforce. This is especially crucial for those who haven’t been exposed to a professional business environment.

Looking ahead to 2015, Ismael said the Centres, which have become a source for research on training and education, will use SAP Business All-in-One ERP software in the cloud to provide real-time data to governmental and other agencies. The Centres will also use the software to analyze their own data for impact monitoring and other research purposes. As a designated SAP education partner, the Centres will continue to offer accredited training in SAP software, opening up additional opportunities for employment. For applicants unable to secure one of the limited spots at an institution of higher learning, the Centres offer access to MOOCs through the Regenesys program, providing students with online access to a higher education.

It can be difficult for most of us to fathom the disadvantaged circumstances many people face in parts of South Africa. By empowering people from all walks of life with technology and business acumen, Siyafunda CTC is trail-blazing the way communities can create for themselves a more sustainable future.

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