Somewhat resembling a Barbara Taylor-Bradford novel, spaza shop owner Christina Marule took centre stage with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and co-CEO of SAP AG Bill McDermott at the CeBIT opening ceremony in Hanover, Germany, in March this year.
What made Marule special? She became proof that information and communication technology (ICT) is now about to change the way rural communities do business. The Collaboration at Rural project, of which Marule was an integral part, gave us a taste of a new wave in ICT that, like social media, could become a tsunami rolling out across South Africa, as well as those other African countries with blossoming communication infrastructures.
Collaboration at Rural was a European Union-funded project carried out by SAP, in conjunction with the CSIR. It was replaced at the end of 2009 by the Rustica Project, a follow-up research project made official on 15 March this year. Rustica supports SAP’s research strategy to initiate development of new products and services or enhance current SAP products while aiding the company to understand how ICT can contribute to socio-economic development.
Mobile at rural
The launch at CeBIT of Collaboration at Rural showcased the importance of making participation of rural dwellers in the digital economy possible through understanding their needs and technology adoption patterns. The positive feedback received at CeBIT confirmed SAP’s commitment to continue with the project and creative tangible value for rural communities.
The primary objective of the Rustica Project is to deploy mobile business solutions to small traders in rural areas. At the same time, the project aims to measure the participation of rural dwellers against a strategy capitalising on existing opportunities, one such opportunity being their high level of mobile phone usage.
Heading up the project is SAP Research’s principal researcher Ernest Ngassam. He believes that the successful deployment of an improved eProcurement system will facilitate a virtual buying co-operative for small traders in rural areas. He also says that Rustica is researching the implementation of a microfinancing application based upon a model reflecting the needs of the community.
“Such an application will be used by ‘sociopreneurs’ and thus the community, making collaboration with established financial institutions possible,” he comments. “The development of the Kgautswane Gateway, a web portal for promoting the community’s tourist offerings and also providing an advertising and marketing function, will go a long way towards enabling rural dwellers to participate in the digital economy, making their offerings available and accessible through digital channels.
“Vital to the success of a project like Rustica is the sustainability of digital solutions, which represent a key differentiator in terms of socio-economic development,” Ngassam says. “This underlines the undertaking to conduct impact studies at the time of and post deployment of these proposed mobile business applications.
“We have now completed the socio-economic study and rolled out the first version of a simplified mobile eProcurement system on mobile phones for small traders in rural areas.”
According to Ngassam, the studies revealed the need to establish a sustainable network of sociopreneurs in Mpumalanga. These sociopreneurs will be trained socio-economic service providers capable of rendering a range of identified services, including business, ICT and tourism to the community with a cooperative businessmodel framework. Activities undertaken by these sociopreneurs should result in a sustainable income generation model that can be replicated in other rural and under-served areas.
Simon Matumi and Ishmael Adams, two such sociopreneurs in the Kgautswane community, in Limpopo, were trained on how to use the system. They say that the mobile eProcurement pilot is now being evaluated by small traders participating in the project.
Comments Adams: “Currently the application is running offline and end-users are simulating placement of orders. This is so the research team can capture their needs and make changes to improve the end-product.”
“At the same time,” takes up Matumi, “the team is looking at the best mobile phones for the system.”
Once all the necessary adjustments to user experience and user interface have been made on the selected mobile phones, a live application will be rolled out. End-users will then place orders for delivery with suppliers, real-time.
There are 20 users participating in the first piloting phase. Once Rustica has completed its user experience pilot, 20 more users will be added for the second, live phase.
The project is currently running in what Ngassam calls a ‘Living Laboratory’ context, with its stakeholders – small traders, sociopreneurs, suppliers, service providers, and researchers, all working on a collaborative basis.
There is a management structure within the project to ensure the optimal flow of communication and information exchange. The project’s operational committee handles content-based activities such as tasks and subtasks defined within work packages. Frequent project executive meetings convey progress and a project community forum is also used as a platform where all stakeholders meet and discuss findings, results and achievements, and community issues are raised and addressed.
Once technology requirements have been identified and captured, researchers are guided to develop the prototypes, which are then tested by stakeholders. During the technology acceptance process, end-user feedback is noted and the technology tweaked to meet end-user needs.
The system has moved from the basic text-based SMS solution to have a more graphic user interface (GUI). The new system now maintains a catalogue of products that are identified by their pictures, which makes it easier for the small traders. The ‘mobile wallet’ system will enable traders to perform cashless transactions with suppliers. Traders can also open an account with a supplier and make periodic cash deposits to that account.
Once an order is placed, the supplier invoices the trader and the system debits the account automatically without any physical movement of money. The customer’s account is provisioned periodically, based upon buying behaviour. A micro-financing franchise, mentioned earlier, can be set up in the area to facilitate the concept of cashless transactions and Rustica’s relationship with an external service provider brings to the mix an ATM solution, moving the project towards a cashless eProcurement system.
Ultimately, once the project has proven successful and sustainable, the intention is to replicate the project in other areas, and roll the system into South Africa and other emerging countries. While there is the social responsibility aspect to implementing eProcurement in communities, there is the potential to commercialise the results. New products and services evolving from the project can be rolled out into emerging economies with infrastructure to support the technology.
“We have established that the solutions that have arisen out of Collaboration at Rural and now Rustica are of value to suppliers and entrepreneur traders,” confirms Ngassam. “Rustica-developed solutions will continue to contribute to improving the selling power of suppliers and improve the buying power of small traders as they no longer have to spend money on transportation and manage the risk associated with carrying out their own physical procurement.
“The Rustica solution is also a job-creation instrument for sociopreneurs who have the capability to act as intermediaries in the procurement value chain. Other solutions developed around ICT and tourism services will go a long way in creating sustainable jobs within rural communities,” he concludes.