World Development Information Day is observed annually on 24 October to draw attention of worldwide public opinion to development problems and the need to strengthen international cooperation to solve them. Segopotso Moshapo, a researcher at the SAP/Meraka Unit for Technology Development (UTD) is passionate about the potential of information and communications technology (ICT) for people living in developing countries to find ways to solve longstanding problems.
A University of the Witwatersrand graduate in electrical engineering currently studying towards his doctorate, Moshapo is part of the SAP/Meraka UTD group, whose mandate is research into technology for societal benefit. This touches on obvious areas of need in South Africa, such as education and health, and the support required to address these needs.
However, SAP/Meraka UTD has another target in its sights: support for small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) which have the potential to stimulate economic growth, develop people and create jobs. Moshapo’s role is to research latest technologies and topics, and bring them together in viable projects.
The SAP Meraka Unit for Technology Development (UTD) is a unique South African public-private partnership between government (the Department of Science and Technology), a multinational in the field of collaborative business software and the CSIR Meraka Institute. It occupies a singular research, development and innovation spot in South Africa’s information and communications technology (ICT) landscape. The unit focuses on technologies for emerging economies, specifically Internet applications and services.
Wearing a national hat
Even the most brilliantly conceived research project may be doomed to a premature demise without a dependable source of funding. One way to address this is by forming partnerships that may have a better chance of accessing funding streams. “Developing joint research and development projects with European partners has been recognised by the DST as a priority to address and to this end, the European - South African science and and technology advance programme (ESASTAP) was established,” Moshapo explains.
Appointed by DST as a national contact point (NCP) for ICT, Moshapo has voluntarily taken on a national role to support the DST through interactions with ICT researchers. This is done through presentations locally. He also visits Europe. “I take part in the Ideal-ist project that addresses ICT companies and research organisations worldwide wishing to find project partners for participation in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) of the European Commission (2007-2013). Ideal-ist encourages NCPs from all over the world to cooperate and receive training,” he reveals.
Carrying the torch for ICTs
As an NCP, Moshapo believes that he has gained useful insights into research “This is a privileged position, as it allows me the opportunity to look out for unusual aspects related to ICTs.”
He is convinced that ICTs can play a big role in bringing about progress in developing countries. “There is much that has not been realised,” he muses. “Technology breaks barriers in unimaginable ways.”
He cites as an example the rapid developments in the mobile domain, in which smart phones and tablets currently offer myriad possibilities. “My particular interest is to find out what people adopt technologies and how they respond to technology. As an engineer, I am keenly aware of the ingenuity that ‘ordinary people’ display in devising uses for technology.”
Interestingly, Moshapo considers the status of being a developing country as an advantage. “The developed world is in danger of complacency through oversaturation. The developing world is more responsive and better able to adopt the next wave of technology.”
Practical examples demonstrate how this is happening. The developing world is the fastest adopter of mobile technology; demonstrated uses have in turn resulted in global diffusion. “In the developing world, there’s a strong motivation to find new ways to solve longstanding problems. A good example is the use of video conferencing to facilitate administrative justice in Dafur, in cases where the judge is remotely located,” he notes.
Another intriguing example is that of the M-PESA or mobile-based money transfer service offered by Safaricom, which is a Vodafone affiliate. In the absence of an established banking system, 15 million Kenyans are using mobiles and digital currency to transfer funds. “This is real money with real value,” Moshapo points out.
He views these as ‘Aha’ moments – evidence of how people with ingenuity and motivation create opportunities through access to ICTs.
What can ICTs mean for South Africa’s future?
South Africa’s current unemployment level sits at 25%; Moshapo believes that ICT holds the key to significant job creation. “There is currently a seamless integration of undersea cables for intercontinental connectivity, cloud computing and smart phones. This holds limitless opportunities for those with imagination and skills.”
But, he warns, global connectivity can and has already led to the creation of virtual services – often to the detriment of the local economy. In the US, for example, English-language call centres are outsourced to countries offering this service at more affordable rates.
“We have ICT skills at various levels in South Africa,” he notes. “This is the context in which we must learn to offer services.” He believes that higher-level ICT skills make possible advances in lower-level skills.
Taking time out means that Moshapo can pursue his passion for fast sport viewing. Sport − and particularly fast sports – fascinates him. “I enjoy watching cycling and motor sport – anything that happens at speed.” He is married to Phomelelo; they have two-year-old twin daughters, Gaositwe and Mukona, whose discovery of the world and its potential is a delight to their parents.
News contributed by Biffy Van Rooyen, CSIR Strategic Communication and Stakeholder Relations