The innovative ideas of two Cape Town-based teams have seen them being among five semi-finalists in a world-wide challenge to find creative and sustainable ideas to make internet access available to all.
Zenzeleni “Do it for yourselves” Networks (ZN), lead by Dr Carlos Rey-Moreno, is a project of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC’s) computer science department, and Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi, with its Project Isizwe, lead by Tim Human, are the two local teams who made the cut for the final five of the Equal Rating Innovation Challenge.
The Equal Rating Innovation Challenge, hosted by Mozilla, a global non-profit organisation, was launched in October last year in an effort to get more people online.
A call was made for entrepreneurs, designers, researchers, and innovators all over the world to propose creative and scalable ideas that cultivate digital literacy and provide affordable access to the full diversity of the open internet.
A total of 100 proposals from 27 countries were received, and the winning team of this challenge will walk away with $125 000 (about R1.6 million) to develop their project.
For this global challenge, RLabs in Bridgetown was chosen as the venue to make the announcement of the Equal Rating Innovation Challange’s five semifinalists.
Marlon Parker, founder of RLabs, who is one of the five international judges, made the announcement on Tuesday January 17 at the RLabs base in Tarentaal Road.
Mr Parker was joined by Katharina Borchert, Mozilla’s chief innovation officer, and Jochai Ben-Avie, senior global policy manager at Mozilla, who are both based in America.
The two Cape Town teams will go against Free Networks P2P, led by Bruno Vianna, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband, led by Abhay Karandikar, from Mumbai, India; and Freemium Mobile Internet (FMI), led by Steve Song, from Nova Scotia, Canada. Mr Song was born in South Africa. Ms Borchert said getting more people connected to the internet is a complex problem because infrastructure and affordability are among the challenges.
“It’s one thing to talk about it, and another to do something about it. The problem is so complex, that our team at Mozilla decided on this global call for action. We thought this would be a great way to tackle this together,” she said.
Speaking about how the internet can play a role in empowering communities, Ms Borchert said: “One of the things the internet gave me, is that it allowed me to find my own voice. I come from a journalism background, and sometimes editors decide not to publish your story. When I started blogging, however, I could bypass an editor, and connect with a community with similar interests. If you spend a certain amount of time accessing the internet, then the information must be locally relevant to you, like local job listings or training opportunities. Also, it is so important to empower women, and they are half as likely to have access. However, if you give them economic opportunities, what they gain there, goes directly back to their families and their communities.”
Mr Parker founded RLabs with the idea of using technology to bring about positive change and empower communities, and over the years, his model has proven to be effective. RLabs now has an international outreach.
To demonstrate how lives have been transformed, Mr Parker used Eric Coetzee’s story as an example. Mr Coetzee is a graduate of RLabs, who knew very little about the internet when he signed up for the course.
Relating his story, Mr Coetzee said: “A few years ago, when I was still very young, my mother passed away, and I needed to find a way to support myself, as she was no longer there to do that for me. I quickly had to learn to work for what I wanted. In 2014, I did a course on the introduction to the internet. This built a lot of confidence in me. I am a passionate entrepreneur, but I was in darkness because of my lack of knowledge when it came to the internet. RLabs shifted my mind. Now I have opened up an internet cafe in my community, Tafelsig. We do CVs, invitations, and help those with financial struggles with online job searches. Once a week, we also teach the unemployed the skills they need to apply online.”
The five semifinalists will be mentored by Mozilla experts on topics such as policy, business, engineering and design to hone their concepts. They will then take part in a Demo Day to pitch their solutions to the judges on Thursday March 9, in New York City.
The Demo Day will be livestreamed to the website, www.equalrating.com
From Friday March 10 to Thursday March 16, the public will be voting for their favourite team. Each of the five semifinalists will walk away with a cash prize to help them develop their solution. Apart from the $125 000 first prize, the first runner-up wins $75 000, the most novel team wins $30 000, and the two remaining semifinalists gets $10 000 each.