Meet Smiley, The Man Behind South African Social Enterprise Siyafunda Community Technology Centre

How do you bring previously excluded communities with no access to digital technologies or the internet into the digital economy? For one South African social entrepreneur, the answer lay in an innovative social entrepreneurship franchise model that has already equipped thousands of people with access to and experience in digital technologies.

“Every person has inherent abilities in innovation and creativity, but often lack opportunities to practice and enhance those skills and apply them in a fulfilling career,” says Ahmed Ismael, Founding Director at Siyafunda CTC. “We set out to build a social entrepreneurship model that can be replicated wherever there is a need, especially in the previously disadvantaged and under-served communities in township and rural areas. And with the help and support of our partners, Siyafunda CTC is now a sustainable social enterprise with more than 200 centres countrywide.”

Siyafunda CTC (Community Technology Centres) is a national network of community centres that provide local communities with access to computers, the internet and other digital technologies which enable them to gather information, create, learn and communicate with others while they develop essential digital skills. The centres aim to support and enable community transformation through access to technologies and the internet. To date, more than 200 Siyafunda CTCs have opened nationally since the first one was established in Gauteng in 2006, using a social enterprise model.

Ismael believes Siyafunda’s social enterprise franchise model has also helped it be more sustainable. “For many NGOs, their social impact is limited by grants and funding. By adopting a social enterprise model, we have the flexibility to change and adapt with the input of our community partners to ensure our offering of services and programmes serves the local communities social and economic needs and aspirations as best as possible.”

The man with a dream plan

Ahmed Ismael, better known as “Smiley”, started his ICT career in 1973 when he joined Makro. “I was fascinated by technology and took every opportunity to gain experience and develop new skills,” he explains. “Our management team were passionate about skills development and invested in education for staff and local communities. After a very rewarding and fulfilling 30 years as part of their team, and being a community activist seeing the big need and opportuitty of access to technologies at community grassroots level, I took the valuable skills, knowledge, lessons and experience I gained and left the corporate world to found Siyafunda CTC.

Siyafunda CTC offers accredited digital ICT courses and skills training, as well as business entrepreneurial skills development and training, adult literacy programs, and e-learning facilities. “It’s also important to us to support local businesses as a means of addressing employment and other socio-economic challenges within our communities. Siyafunda CTCs provide hardware and software repair services to local businesses, as well as web design and hosting. The centre also has an “info centre” where communities can access office type services and the internet.

This gives previously excluded communities access to the digital economy.”

Siyafunda CTCs focus on providing access to digital technologies to support community, economic, educational and social development by empowering, educating and connecting communities. “By making digital literacy and access to internet available to everyone, we believe we equip future community leaders with tools they need to participate in the global economy. For many community members, our centres provide their first exposure to a computer and the first time they use technology to research and prepare assignments, access online services or apply for employment.”

Partnerships key to social entrepreneurship success

Ismael says a core part of the success of the Siyafunda CTCs rests with the strong, mutually beneficial relationships built with more than 50 partners from local, provincial and national government, as well as schools, universities, and private and social organisations. “The social enterprise model we have developed is a richly collaborative one that involves the time and energy of partners from the public, private and NGO sectors.”

One of Siyafunda’s founding partnerships is with SAP’s Africa Code Week (ACW), a continent-wide digital literacy and coding skills development initiative that has introduced more than 4.1 million young Africans to basic coding skills since its establishment in 2015. “This year we will again host coding workshops for the school kids and local youth at our CTCs, and will continue to support ACW’s efforts regarding girl empowerment and community capacity building,” says Ismael. The impact of ACW on the school kids and youth in the communities and the interest to understand and de-mystify 4IR STEM necessitated access to these skills at the community’s doorstep and with the support of SAP opened the first Siyafunda 4IR STEM Centre in April this year. The centre gives practical “touch and feel” experiences to coding, robotics, IOT, AI, cybersecurity digital skills.

Their model clearly works. Siyafunda CTC has received numerous industry awards for its innovative model and social impact. Ismael has also been invited to share some insights into Siyafunda CTC at the upcoming Social Enterprise World Forum, which is taking place in Addis Ababa from 23 to 25 October. “We’d like to show other social entrepreneurs and interested parties how a social enterprise franchise model can be applied to solve critical socio-economic challenges within their communities. By showcasing our approach, we also hope to grow our network beyond South Africa’s borders into the rest of Africa and potentially other parts of the world.”






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