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Dell puts Lab in Diepsloot

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Dell has recently installed a Learning Lab in Diepsloot housing a dozen computer workstations: networked to each other and to the Internet, and self-sustained through solar power.

Among the low-slung roofs of Diepsloot, next to the dust kicked up by playing children and bustling adults, stands a conspicuous metal container. Its past of carrying goods across oceans has been replaced, the roof now adorned with solar panels and windows letting light inside. The container’s massive doors are open, as inviting as its cool and calm colour scheme, and inside rows of computers beckon eager learners to join.

This is the Dell Learning Lab, an ambitious and successful project to bring digital technology wherever it is needed. Using the latest in technology efficiencies, a Learning Lab is home to a dozen computer workstations: networked to each other and to the Internet, and self-sustained through solar power.

But the reason why these Labs have been an incredible success is because they make sense on a local level, starting with the community first.

“I absolutely this solution,” said Natasha Reuben, Head of Transformation at Dell EMC South Africa. “It’s a fantastic way to not put pressure on a school or rural community in terms of electricity, as this solution is off the grid. More importantly, this little container has the potential to do so much. Kids can go in during the day and learn. They can code and play with new technology. In the evening the community has access to it. They can use it to find jobs and research.”

One example Reuben loves is that of an old grandmother, a Gogo, who joined her son at one of the Labs while he updated his CV. She tagged along not so much for the company, but to find new recipes online.  The depth of the kind of access to the internet and help that it brings is what the Learning Labs are setting out to achieve. 

Making Technology Matter

“Technology is forever changing and I think it is important to learn about technology like this,” said Ntale Mametse, a pupil at one of the labs. “It gets you to think about other careers that you didn’t know about before.”

Since launching in 2014, sixteen labs have been launched – some in Kenya and Nigeria, but the majority live across South Africa. Each is carefully chosen: Dell works with partners such as Change The World and Sci-Bono to find communities who want such facilities. It may seem like a given that anyone would approve of a lab, but there is considerably more nuance to such a project. Indeed, this is why many corporate social investment programmes fail: they take a parachute approach, the embodiment of ‘build it and they will come.’

In reality, if there is no sense of ownership from the community, the project inevitably fails. Instead of relying on the flawed determinism that technology will inevitably deliver good, asking what the community needs is crucial. Local organisations, churches and other groups are approached. But the foundation of this is the school where the Lab will be located. If the staff are not co-opted and given the lead on a Lab, it risks becoming a white elephant.

“I love the knowledge that we are gaining here, because it helps me integrate my lessons,” said Mike Masinge, a 19-year veteran teacher from Olifantsfontein. “It helps me teach to the best of my abilities.”

Each Lab is equipped to meet the varied demands and desires of a rising community. A curriculum is designed to help the studies of the pupils, and staff are assessed and trained to take advantage of the Lab’s services. But this goes further: Dell and its partners continuously evaluate the Labs and adjust them. At a high level every lab is scrutinised at least once a quarter, but on the ground it is a weekly and even daily activity.

The Labs are also always connected, enabling Dell administrators to know if there are technical problems. The computer equipment is continually monitored to ensure they are still working, a concept in business technology called ‘managed services.’

Community-Driven Success

But the fundamental success of the project is rooted in community support. It must be seen as having real value, which is why every Lab are available to the larger town beyond the school. Each container is also a wireless hotspot and locals are frequently engaged to see what they need from the container and if they grasp some of its potential. It’s forged a high degree of ownership with each Lab, down to community members guarding their local containers.

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“Most of our learners, if you ask them what is it that they get from the lab, they say they are getting more information, accessing books they don’t have,” said Sihlomo Puzam, one of the parents whose children frequent their local Lab. “It has changed my child’s life so much.”

Technology does not change the world. That is a myth, often told by those who live in the middle of a technology storm. But for those waiting at the edges for that rain to reach them, technology’s true purpose is clear: it’s a means to an end, to create a better life. Empowering people through technology, on their terms, is the key to success.

The Dell Learning Labs are proof of this. By putting the community first and providing technology that makes sense, not just tick a few altruistic boxes, is how real change happens. As new Labs arrive across the country, we all take a step closer towards a united and prosperous future.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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