Three brave steps

Only three things are needed to stimulate the Western Cape's ICT sector, but the political will is lacking.
Read time 3min 40sec

Only three things have to be done to stimulate the Western Cape's ICT sector, but they will require foresight, determination, and the buy-in of a provincial government that is all but paralysed due to political turmoil.

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop conducted by the Western Cape government to engage businesses on what they need to ensure the ICT sector in the province is stimulated. This is part of the Micro Economic Development Strategy - a policy document that looks at the provincial economy, its strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

The Western Cape, unlike many of our other major provinces, has no reserves of natural resources, its manufacturing base is relatively small, and two of its historically important sectors, namely agriculture and textiles, are in decline.

ICT has somewhat come to the rescue. Small IT firms have proved that innovation can stimulate economic activity and bring a fair amount of wealth into the province. Then the call centre part of the business process outsourcing industry has shown amazing growth, with about 25 000 jobs created in less than a decade.

Beyond the obvious

A rough approximation gives an idea of the importance of IT and call centres to the provincial economy, as combined they employ about 50 000 people (a roughly 50/50 split) directly throughout the year. Agriculture and tourism also employ about the same number of staff; however, this is seasonal employment and so the wages earned are not guaranteed.

So the provincial government appreciates the importance and potential of the ICT sector as a whole and it is looking to find a way to capitalise on this. However, this must be achieved by adhering to the political and social imperatives of broadening the participation in the sector to include historically disadvantaged persons, meet the national economic strategy of the sector being export-oriented and, thirdly, the sector must show statistically that it can employ even more people.

During the workshop, the question was asked: "What can government do?" The obvious answer, supplied by the facilitator, was participate in trade shows, encourage foreign trade missions to visit and other ideas that, to be frank, are nothing new and have been tried with various degrees of success and failure.

What can government do for you?

If something is not done about linking the schools, then we are in danger of always having a generation being left behind.

Paul Vecchiatto, Cape Town correspondent, ITWeb

If the provincial government is really serious about developing the ICT sector, it needs to do only three things.

First, it must develop a strict policy of buying as much of its IT services from within the province as possible. This will lead to a foundation for many of the small businesses to create the base from which to export their software and services.

Second, the provincial government must lobby central government to really liberalise the telecommunications sector. This will not only help bring down telecommunications costs, but will allow the myriad small companies playing in this space to grow, develop and create employment.

Finally, a strong statement of intent should be made that by a certain date (say 2014) every one of the Western Cape's 1 500 schools will have a fibre-optic cable link of a certain capacity. The logic here is very simple.

Some of the funding can come from the Extended Public Works Programme that seeks to soak up some of the unemployed, and companies can be encouraged to participate. The cables from the schools can be linked to the big pipes that Broadband Infraco and other players are laying, or the province can lay its own main cables. Some of the costs can be defrayed by leasing spare capacity.

If something is not done about linking the schools, then we are in danger of always having a generation being left behind. The world is moving fast and children need to learn keyboard, computing and Internet skills at school and not as part of their tertiary education, because, by then it will be too late.

Only three steps are needed to achieve ICT greatness, but unfortunately I do not think the Western Cape government has the political will or the strength of character to achieve it.

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