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Business implored to prioritise digital inclusion over profits

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Telkom Group CEO designate Serame Taukobong.
Telkom Group CEO designate Serame Taukobong.

South Africa’s ICT and telecoms sectors have been called upon to play a meaningful role in assisting government efforts to reduce poverty and accelerate digital inclusion, especially in rural communities.

Senior executives attending this year’s Telkom South African Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference (SATNAC) urged their peers to re-evaluate their role in poverty reduction and digital inclusion.

They argued that poverty alleviation and increasing rural connectivity should not be undermined by a focus on profits alone.

The plea followed communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni’s call to the two sectors on Monday, urging an expedited approach on development projects that provide universal connectivity in SA.

The minister told conference delegates this week that government is reviewing its plans to ensure all South Africans have access to connectivity at their homes by 2024.

The latest ICASA State of ICT report states that a little over two million South African homes have fixed broadband access, and of these, only 660 000 homes have a fibre connection.

“Access to connectivity has become a basic need. It is as much a basic need as access to water and access to electricity − because it determines access to education, access to health, access to work, which are fundamental for our survival,” the minister said.

Langa Dube, executive director of Tata Consultancy Services SA, said: “We need to think about introducing new KPIs to determine if we are winning the journey of social inclusion. The social innovation and impact part of how we do business needs to be measured in a different way.

“In many situations, the business case might never make sense, but we have to connect people wherever they are, so as to alleviate poverty and introduce a digital culture in South Africa.”

Telkom Group CEO designate Serame Taukobong agreed with Ntshavheni, saying business needs to take a long-term view of what success looks like and not prioritise short-term gains at the expense of society.

“Often you say you want to connect the unconnected; how do you then connect rural markets? Sometimes it's not a profit decision but also a social impact decision, and I think COVID-19 taught us that.”

Vincent Scholtz, CEO of SGT Solutions, said with the increased use of mobile money solutions and even digital health services, there is growing optimism that the ICT sector can deliver on its social impact mandate.

Dube said providing the tools of innovation to communities will lead to greater problem-solving at a local level, which could then be scaled through partnerships with government, business and academia.

He also urged businesses to showcase economic opportunities that can be pursued within the ICT sector, including social media.

“When you talk about digital inclusion and maybe social innovation, these two cannot be separated from the poverty line and improving the lives of people and creating jobs. We generally have enough people using TikTok these days to do a lot of other things. But we hardly have the right culture to be able to leverage that ecosystem to be able to create businesses.”

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