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Meeting with the Imagineer and Alan Levin

On my recent Cape Town trip - where I was overwhelmed to be back in the traffic of a thriving globalised metropolis and confronted by totally diverse choice vectors - I was very glad to be able to link up with Alan Levin and Kurt Ackermann (a.k.a. the Imagineer). Alan is heading up an ISP outfit called Vanilla and working with Rael Lissoos on bringing really inexpensive communications to the impoverished townships in South Africa. They are doing this in a company called Dabba. I expect to hear a lot more from them. Kurt is a consultant on new economy matters, especially rebranding, startup strategy and long term business forecasts and consultancy. They both have a keen interest in ICT4D and improvement of social conditions for the poor. Kurt also has connections to the Bulungula Incubator.

What did I learn from my conversation? Here are some highlights:
  • Make it local. Successful projects are carried and work through the energy that locals put into them. This simple fact of sustainable development is also mentioned by several development agencies (a good reference for this is S. Batchelor, S. Evangelista, S.Hearn, M. Pierce, S. Sugden, M. Webb. ICT for Development Contributing to the Millennium Development Goals: Lessons Learned from Seventeen infoDev Projects. World Bank, Washington D.C., Nov. 2003). Other approaches such as automation (including software based projects) depending on machines inevitably break down after time. Only structures built on and by the people in an area can have any hope of being truly sustainable. At eKhaya ICT, we hope that long-term chaperoned use of the internet can help build sustainable projects, but we are definitely focusing on specific projects (for now).

    This echoed a conversation I had with Ann Price at Buccanneers, who has been involved with a lot of grass roots development projects in the Eastern Cape and is an acknowledged expert in the field. She maintains that a project should be started to document successful projects - be they in growing organic food for communities or education projects that have made a difference. Communities need to see what successful projects look and feel like and that they are actually run by ordinary community members in other communities.

    Technologically speaking, we did stray around the topic of P2P telecentres for rural areas. I will have to go into more detail about that later (when eKhaya ICT has the technology).

  • Don't depend on government. This was a suggestion that was not new to me. The Dwesa project which I have been involved with at the University of Fort Hare was started without governmental consultation. Since then, of course as the programme has grown and shown great promise, various departments have become interested and have even donated machinery (one computer). Indeed dealing with government and foreign NGOs can tax one's patience and it seems that Alan and Kurt's experiences have led them to espouse tactics of avoidance. In the long run, however, we need total solutions on this continent - solutions which will lead to a culture of increased responsibility and greater social awareness. That can only happen if local ward councillors, relevant government departments and other forms of elected and bureaucratic structures become involved and thus themselves more pro-active. These structures should be dependable, we should be able to count on the people we vote for to make our voices heard in government. However, when running a pragmatic and goal oriented project, I agree with Kurt and Alan that one should minimise risk where it is unacceptable and find ways to achieve goals without government if necessary - while liaising with government as progress is made to widen perspectives.

  • There is nothing like a face to face meeting to help make connections and to promote the exchange of ideas and understanding. That is a great reason to visit buzzing places like Cape Town often. The internet can help and setup such links, but only in specific cultural contexts.

Posted: December 31st 2007 04:25

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