A quiet revolution

A group of scientists in Pretoria wants to use technology to change South African society. Judging by the results so far, they might succeed.
1 March 2011
Photo: Suzanne GellLaurens Cloete, Meraka, believes investment in ICT research can transform South Africa.

There’s a quiet revolution being plotted in Pretoria. A group of local scientists is working to fundamentally change South African society. And information and communications technology (ICT) is providing the tools for the revolution.

Laurens Cloete, acting executive director at the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) Meraka Institute, is convinced that the strategic research, development and application of ICT can not only help South Africa become a more equitable and just nation, but also provide the springboard for the country to participate in the global knowledge economy.

Effective investment in ICT research, development and application can trigger both substantial social development and powerful economic growth, he argues. To achieve these goals, Cloete contends, South Africa must beef up its local research, extend and strengthen its research infrastructure, and train and develop more top-flight researchers. “We can be a participant in the global knowledge economy or just an observer – the choice is ours,” he says.

Cloete’s views are more than just an ideological manifesto. He and fellow scientists at the CSIR Meraka Institute have been working to implement their three-pronged development strategy for five years. Cloete believes the institute is an important catalyst for social and economic transformation in South Africa.

Global view

Meraka has quickly grown to become the largest ICT research facility in the country. It has its sights on becoming a leading ICT research facility among the world’s developing nations.

Since its formation by the CSIR in 2005, Meraka has:

★ Grown its staff from 60 to 240 researchers;

★ Initiated research projects in sectors such as wireless communications, human language technology and remote sensing;

★ Rolled out several projects that use ICT to improve commerce, health care or education in impoverished communities. These include the Digital Doorways community computing project that has installed more than 200 remote computing kiosks in rural communities throughout the country as well as the wireless mesh network that provides internet connectivity to 180 schools in Mpumalanga and will soon be implemented in Limpopo and the Northern Cape;

★ Worked with the Department of Science & Technology (DST) to substantially upgrade South Africa’s research infrastructure. Improvements to the country’s cyber infrastructure include the formation in 2007 of the Centre for High Performance Computing in Cape Town (and the subsequent installation of large Sun and IBM cluster supercomputers) as well as the expansion and upgrade of the 10Gbps South African National Research Network that links universities and research facilities throughout the country (including the South African Large Telescope (SALT) and MeerKAT astronomy facilities);

★ Established ties with other ICT research facilities elsewhere in the world. Meraka is working with Norway’s SINTEF-ICT as well as VTT in Finland and TNO in the Netherlands on wireless broadband technologies. It also has ties with CSIRO and NICTA in Australia and NICPI in Mozambique and iHub in Kenya.

★ Collaborated with multinational ICT vendors to conduct research into the application of technology in developing nations. Meraka worked with Google on its voice search technology and has long-term projects with Nokia and SAP Research that address wireless communications and automated business systems; and

★ Partnered several local universities to increase the number of students engaged in post-graduate ICT education. More than 60 PhD and Masters students are working at Meraka as part of its ‘studentship’ programme while completing their university studies. The institute is also supporting a further 24 of its researchers to upgrade their academic qualifications.

While Meraka’s achievements are encouraging, it still has a long way to go to achieve its goals of stimulating both significant social and economic development. South Africa’s annual spend on ICT research (around R320 million), its associated infrastructure and its volume of computer science and engineering graduates remain paltry compared to many of its economic partners.

There is no doubt that specific communities are benefiting from Meraka’s development projects and gaining access to computing and communication facilities. However, there is, as yet, little sign of any broadbased social upliftment emerging as a result of the strategic research and development of ICT. Furthermore, the economic benefit South Africa derives from ICT remains predominantly the result of the application and use of imported products and services.

Unique problems

Investment in ICT research must grow by three to four times the current levels.
Laurens Cloete, Meraka
Cloete acknowledges that imported technology will continue to provide the ICT platform for South Africa’s economic and social development.

“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. But it is important to recognise that South Africa has some unique problems that are not going to be addressed by market forces. We need to develop technologies to tackle these problems, especially in areas such as the delivery of broadband services to rural areas,” says Cloete.

He adds that the ability of ICT research to trigger economic growth shouldn’t be underestimated.

“It requires relatively limited capital investment and South Africa is well placed to develop globally competitive technology that builds on local strengths,” says Cloete.

Meraka derives its name from the Sesotho term for common grazing land and is meant to indicate mutual sharing and prosperity.

Its technology is already being applied elsewhere in the world. The Digital Doorways technology, for example, has been adopted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for use in Lesotho, Ethiopia, the Solomon Islands and Australia. Plans are underway to manufacture the remote computing kiosks in Uganda.

If ICT research is to trigger substantial social and economic development in South Africa, investment in such research must grow by three to four times the current levels, claims Cloete. This would put the annual research spend at well over R1 billion.

Meraka enjoys strong support from government. It receives a large slice of the annual Parliamentary grant awarded to the CSIR (which topped R510 million in 2010) as well as project-specific funding from the departments of Science & Technology, Trade & Industry, Arts & Culture, Basic Education, and Communications. In addition to financial support, the DST also provides staff and expertise in several collaborative projects it runs with Meraka. These include the Unit for Technology Development, set up with German software giant SAP, and the three-year South Africa-Finland Knowledge Partnership on ICT formed with the Government of Finland in 2009. In addition to backing from the Finnish government, Meraka has also garnered financial support from the governments of France and South Korea as well as the European Union and World Bank agency infoDev.

Little industry support

Cloete is tight-lipped about the amount of financial backing Meraka receives from its local and international backers. It is clear, nonetheless, that support from the local ICT industry is lacklustre. It is significant that Meraka’s main private sector partnerships, with Nokia, SAP and Google, involve multinationals. Both Nokia and SAP plan to extend and expand their projects with Meraka.

Cloete acknowledges that Meraka must rally the support of local ICT vendors and service suppliers if it is to achieve its goals.

“Most South African ICT companies have traditionally been resellers or integrators of imported technology,” claims Cloete. “Local research has been neglected.”

To win the support of the South African ICT industry, Meraka must do more than hope for a change in mindset from local suppliers. The research institute needs to shed its image as a staid government agency. Cutting bureaucracy, speeding up response times and strongly marketing its skills and services are likely to improve relations with local ICT firms. Maintaining a balance between being an agency for social change and a business ally will not be easy.

Meraka has recently been restructured. It is no longer one of several research centres around the country but has become an operating unit within the CSIR. Time will tell whether this results in Meraka becoming stronger and more effective or slower and more cumbersome.

In the meantime, Cloete and his team of quiet revolutionaries at Meraka are getting on with their mission to change South Africa.