ICT startup bridges South Africa’s internet divide

Updated on 6 May 2014

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ICT startup bridges South Africa's internet divide


“It has always been my dream to bridge the digital divide,” says Thabo Malebadi, CEO of internet startup e-Mbizo Solutions; and that is exactly what he’s been doing.

e-Mbizo, based in Sandton, Johannesburg, aims to provide free and accessible internet to communities and schools in townships and rural areas, for social, developmental and educational purposes.

The 35-year-old entrepreneur started e-Mbizo in 2001 at the age of 22. This was after identifying the need for more cost-effective IT-based solutions, especially in the rural, previously disadvantaged communities.

e-Mbizo is run by Malebadi (pictured below), along with his father Joseph Malebadi and partner Chris Reynolds. Malebadi studied IT at the Tshwane University of Technology and business management through Unisa. His father, an electrical engineer, serves as chairman and provides strategic input and marketing, while Reynolds, who has funded a large part of the infrastructure costs so far, serves as chief financial officer.

e-Mbizo was initially based in the Innovation Hub in Pretoria and has since seen exponential growth. According to Malebadi, there is an average of 3,000 unique devices on the network daily, and about 60,000 people connect to the network every month.

“In every opportunity that we as entrepreneurs identify, it is due to the challenge facing our fellow mankind within the communities we come from”

The township Wi-Fi mission

When Malebadi started on his mission to bring uncapped and affordable internet Wi-Fi to the townships, he was driven by a desire to make a difference in people’s lives by using what he knew best – technology. “I chose IT as a business venture because it provided me with the opportunity to be inventive, and I love innovation,” he adds.

He decided to start his pilot project in the township of Tembisa and surrounding areas, after seeing how little South Africa’s telecommunications networks had done to service these areas.

“You still find places in the townships and rural areas, where you cannot get any form of signal reception. It was right there and then that I decided that something needed to be done.”

e-Mbizo provides around 35 schools in Tembisa with free internet. As a result of this project, they have established a partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which will see e-Mbizo providing connectivity to an additional 220 schools in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. This will bring a total of 250 schools in under-serviced township and rural communities into the network.

“Today’s entrepreneurs are tasked with the responsibility to come up with solutions that are sustainable in all aspects – environmentally, economically and socially viable”

The role of entrepreneurs in the community

Malebadi says e-Mbizo is looking at setting up strategic partnerships with companies that have a similar focus on education. “We can’t leave education in the hands of government alone. Education is the responsibility of everybody,” he says.

“I think it is every man and woman’s responsibility to think of solutions for the world’s challenges, but the role of the entrepreneur is far beyond that,” says Malebadi, who believes the task of an entrepreneur has evolved over the years. “It is no longer like it was in the industrial age, where solutions to challenges facing mankind were invented to drive profits.

“Today’s entrepreneurs are tasked with the responsibility to come up with solutions that are sustainable in all aspects – environmentally, economically and socially viable,” he says.

“I believe that every opportunity that we as entrepreneurs identify, is due to challenges facing our fellow mankind within the communities we come from.

“Some challenges might be to a particular group and other challenges are universal and affect every human being worldwide. These “gaps” identified by entrepreneurs are the lifelines to entrepreneurship.”

e-Mbizo has plans to roll out its services in Soweto, Katlehong, Vosloorus, Thokoza and Alexandra in the Gauteng province. Altogether, the network can have a direct impact on, and influence the livelihood of 3.5 million people in under-served communities by the end of 2014.

Malebadi says e-Mbizo also works with entrepreneurs on the ground to provide skills development, sales and technical support for customers. e-Mbizo has established a partnership with the Gauteng East Rand region’s Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality’s economic development department that aims to uplift the community and establish sustainable business models from which entrepreneurs can benefit.

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