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The man behind Sputla Wi-Fi

Alan Knott-Craig is a successful entrepreneur and best-selling author, chairman of HeroTel, a wireless broadband provider, and founder of Project Isizwe, an NGO rolling out free WiFi in poor communities. Originally from Pretoria, he studied at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (formerly UPE) and qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2002 and has subsequently invested or funded 21 companies in the tech industry. Alan was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009. Forbes listed him as one of the top 10 young African millionaires to watch. He was also included in 100 Choiseul Africa", a list of top 100 young African business leaders in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and nominated as the 2015 ICT Personality of the Year by ITWeb. He is also a founding shareholder of Daily Maverick.

Kgosientso Ramokgopa has been an innovative, gutsy and hard-working mayor of Tshwane. South Africa needs more leaders of his ilk.

Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

In a country like South Africa, with our myriad challenges of poverty, healthcare and education, we need to do things differently.

If we are to ensure a bright future for our children, our leaders need to innovate. They need to find new ways to tackle old problems and have the guts to experiment. We need leaders who are willing to take risks, who will embark on transformative ventures.

Remember the days before the Gautrain? Everyone complained about traffic but no one did anything to solve the problem.

It took the political courage of Premier Sam Shilowa and MEC Paul Mashatile to push through a project which was widely ridiculed as a waste of money and a white elephant.

Today millions of people use the Gautrain. Thousands of cars are off the roads. The lives of the people of Gauteng have been radically improved. All because they had leaders with intelligence and courage.

Kgosientso Ramokgopa is this kind of leader. Nicknamed Sputla, he is a civil engineer who gave up a promising career as a footballer in order to be a public servant.

Elected Executive Mayor of the City of Tshwane in November 2010, Ramokgopa immediately brought energy and vision to the City, launching ambitious programs such as Tshepo 10,000 (creating jobs for 10,000 unemployed youths), privatising unused municipal land, upgrading the main arterial township roads, and Re A Ga Tshwane (a landmark program to formalize informal settlements).

In spite of his support for these initiatives, Ramokgopa understood that the government cannot solve the most pressing needs of its citizens. Rather the government must create a platform that enables and empowers citizens to solve their own problems.

And so the seed for Tshwane Free Wi-Fi was planted. Internet access as a utility, akin to water, roads, sanitation and electricity.

It is widely accepted that the Internet is our generation’s most powerful tool to tackle unequal access to jobs, education and information. Combined with its proven positive impact on economic development, it is no wonder it has been declared a basic human right by the United Nations.

And yet, for most South Africans the internet is inaccessibly expensive. A seven-second YouTube HD video will cost R150 at current prepaid data rates. For the average South African family this is far too much money, and so the majority of our people stand behind a fence watching whilst the privileged access the internet without restraint.

Why should those with the most to gain from the internet be the very ones who cannot get online?

In the words of Ramokgopa: “Internet access should not be for the privileged few, but available to all South Africans, regardless of income.”

This is not an original dream. What is original is to find a political leader that ignores the naysayers and makes his dream a reality.

And so Tshwane devised a strategy whereby every citizen would one day be within walking distance of public free wi-fi. Under Ramokgopa’s direction and working with Project Isizwe, the city began deploying high-speed public free wi-fi zones outside schools, libraries, community centres and parks in the townships of Soshanguve, Mamelodi, Atteridgeville and Ga Rankuwa.

Since launching in November 2013, Tshwane Free Wi-Fi has installed 780 sites, connected over 1.8 million devices and brought free wi-fi to within walking distance of 23,7% of households. With average speeds of over 10MB/sec and a daily cap of 500MB, Tshwane Free Wi-Fi is arguably more attractive than many paid-for alternatives.

So popular is the service that the youth of Tshwane refer to it as Sputla Wi-Fi, with crowds of youngsters milling around the free WiFi zones at all times of the day, downloading textbooks, doing online research, watching wi-fi TV local news, and starting online businesses.

Again, the City was forced to innovate to ensure that the free wi-fi network was financially sustainable. Instead of attempting to connect every single household to the Internet using fibre, copper or 3G, it rather broke the city into 1km grids, planning a network that ensured every citizen was within walking distance of free wi-fi.

The result was an annual cost of less than 1% of the city’s budget, well within the multiplier predicated by the World Bank: GDP grows by 1.28% for every 10% of broadband penetration.

By experimenting, innovating and iterating, the City of Tshwane has found a way to bring free wi-fi to all citizens in a financially sustainable manner. Even more impressively, the city has moved fast.

In less than three years the city created the largest municipal free wi-fi network in Africa. How did it manage to achieve such speed?

The answer is “trust”. I was introduced to Ramokgopa in mid-2013. The meeting was simple: He explained his dream of Tshwane bringing free Internet to all its citizens, and I explained how it could be made possible.

I made a promise to prove it via an initial deployment of five free wi-fi zones. He promised that if the City approved, then they would scale free wi-fi zones across the City.

I kept my promise, he kept his promise, and the rest is history.

Not only has Tshwane Free WiFi touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens, it has triggered a wave of municipal free wi-fi projects across the country, the most recent being Mangaung Free Wi-Fi, launched on 28 July 2016.

Tshwane Free Wi-Fi has garnered international recognition, winning the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s global award for Most Innovative City or Government Program to bridge the Digital Divide.

The project is a truly transformative government initiative that all South Africans can be proud of, and all because a political leader had the vision and the courage to try something new, and the integrity to keep his promises.

Ramokgopa has an enviable legacy as he prepares to leave his position as executive mayor after 3 August.

He is a humble and hard-working public servant, popular with the youth, private sector and civil servants. Tshwane’s ranking as the leading city for economic growth in the past six years is testament to his competence as a technocrat.

His greatest legacy will be his innovative projects such as Tshwane Free Wi-Fi. He has forged a model for successful public private partnerships: think big, start small, move fast.

If entrepreneurs want to work closer with the government, we need to be willing to take risks. Prove our wares before demanding payment. Make a promise, keep the promise. Help our public leaders help their communities.

That’s how you build trust, and trust is the oil that makes the system work. The more trust we have between the public sector and private sector, the faster we can move and the sooner our rainbow nation can achieve its enormous potential.

We also need to get behind visionary political leaders like Kgosientso Ramokgopa.

He has made mistakes, just like all of us. But unlike most of us, he has had the courage to get off the sidelines and try to make a difference in the only arena that moves the needle: public service

Warren Buffett says that a leader of a company should have energy, intelligence and integrity. Without the last the others don’t matter. Winston Churchill says that most important character trait is courage.

Ramokgopa has it all.

He has energy. He has intelligence. He has integrity. He has courage. He cares for his community.

Most impressively, he tackles inequality by boosting economic development rather than adopting discredited Marxist-Leninist policies.

He has proven himself willing to serve the people, both in form and substance.

Tshwane is lucky to have had him as a public servant, and he has given me renewed hope in the political future of our beautiful country. DM

Alan Knott-Craig Jr. is the founder of Project Isizwe.


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