Transforming Africa / Sustainable Smart Villages in Africa

Introduction: In many ways we already live in smart cities, because we have fibre connectivity, e-billing and some service delivery via mobile phones. However, this is in the cities: villages and communities are on the wrong side of the digital divide. They might be able to access services via mobile technology in a limited fashion, but a real smart community needs substantial investment in support infrastructure and connectivity.

A definition of a smart city is an innovative city or community that uses information and communication technology (ICT) to deliver services and quality of life. In reality, there are unprecedented changes in urbanisation meaning the smart city concept should rather be used to transform urban life and create a digital society. Even though digitalisation is a feature of life in many places, there are still a number of elements preventing people from enjoying its benefits.

Sbu: One problem is we are trying to balance traditional operating systems with technology. Government usually works in silos; not only in its structure, but also its mindset. It will be difficult to change things; not only mindsets, but most cities already have existing infrastructure that will be disrupted if digital technologies are introduced. Also, as cities move to digital systems, it is about collecting data: where people live; how they live; what they spend and where they move. This means the higher the digitisation, the greater the threat to personal safety.

However, it is possible to use technology to enhance security such as encrypted techniques like blockchain. Essentially, one must balance the quality of life offered by digitalisation with privacy. One of the first tasks is educating citizens about the benefits of a smart city, while getting away from the perception a smart city is a “Big Brother”. In most cases implementing the smart city concept is not socially inclusive; it tends not to include the affluent or technologically advanced sectors of society. 

Bongani: South Africa is not unique in its urban/rural distribution and, before we look at infrastructure, we must look at urban migration. In cities, one can use 4G and 5G, but in rural areas one should look at a broader range of technologies, such as satellite that can bring connectivity to rural areas.

The technology exists, but we don’t only look at technology; we must also look at co-operative models. We can look at combinations of satellite, towers, fibre and the like, but it is vital to consider costs. Connectivity must be affordable for someone getting a social grant.


Justin: A word of caution – even though smart cities depend on a broad range of support, the fundamentals of smart cities are the same as any city: electricity, roads, sewage, refuse collections and so on. Before looking at smart cities or villages, it is crucial that these foundations are properly laid. 

These tasks are the responsibility of the private and public sector. When infrastructure is installed, it must be done to absorb the technology, so when electricity cables are laid, fibre must be installed simultaneously. This is easier when working in expanding cities, but the deepest need is in the rural areas, not the cities. There are various stakeholders to include and all must to primed and informed. 

Bongani: In rural areas, people must travel far to access services. Already there are apps that can bring services to people and eradicate the need for travel or standing in queues. However, there is room to expand – like paying social grants directly into mobile wallets. There is an app on which you organise funerals. This gained traction especially after Covid-19. Anyone who has organised a funeral can attest to the cost and work involved. An app that does the work for you is useful. 

Hence, if a community can operate on digital services, it cuts down on fuel and travelling costs. With the growth of e-commerce, the same principles can apply to smart services for municipalities. Of course, as mentioned, this increases the risks to privacy.

Justin: We can draw an analogy between our recovery from Covid-19 and the post-war recovery of countries after the two World Wars. A large part of the growth and recovery was massive infrastructure projects to kickstart economies and allow large numbers of people to return to normal life.

South Africa has significant opportunities for large capital investment projects that can combine the best of infrastructure development and the best of technology. 


Bongani: There is a significant digital divide in South Africa. The minister has asked mobile tech companies to provide households with a threshold amount of free data and there is a business case to be made for that. South Africa is not known (to have) cheap data and this contributes toward the divide. 

Sbu: Cyber security is the big issue. How do we protect our communities? As we implement more digitalisation, we expand the threat levels. As we build smart cities and villages, we acquire more data. This is necessary for services (and) government needs to understand the behaviour of citizens. This raises questions of privacy.

Not only are there threats to personal information, but to the operation of infrastructure linked to the grid also operating through the internet. We have seen pipelines and power grids can be vulnerable to cyber terrorism threats. 

Justin: It is clear smart cities and communities are obliged to protect citizens and this is a massive responsibility. If you are introducing anyone to a smart city, you are introducing them to risk. 

Bongani: There are two billion internet of things (IoT) devices globally and South Africa has 32 mega-developments in the pipeline. These will require bulk water services and service delivery and will accommodate around 10000 households. That’s a lot of data: there will be addresses, banking information, personal information and sites of critical infrastructure. The numbers stack up. 

What happens if that gets hacked? Hackers don’t sleep; they want that data. If it was hacked, water stops flowing; bank accounts are compromised. We need to look at a new social compact between government and service providers and communities. We need to start with a framework that protects that information.