From apartheid township to tech entrepreneur

Internet access is bringing jobs and opportunities to South Africa's townships. Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Luvuyo Rani
Co-Founder and Managing Director, Silulo Technologies, South Africa
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

How can we unleash the potential of South Africa’s townships? Luvuyo Rani is the co-founder of Silulo Ulutho Technologies, which operates IT stores and training centres in townships and rural communities, creating job opportunities for thousands of unemployed young people. Rani has been recognised as a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur for his work. He talked to us about his upbringing under apartheid, how internet access can transform poor neighbourhoods, and why it is time for Africa to rise.

You grew up in Queenstown, a South African township, under apartheid. How has this experience shaped you as an entrepreneur?

My father was a nurse, and my mother was a domestic worker. When I was a teenager she converted our dining room and lounge into a “shebeen”, a tavern. So I was used to dealing with customers and suppliers from an early age. But under apartheid, black people were not allowed to drink or sell liquor. That was in 1988, 1989, a difficult time for a black woman. The police used to come in and raid us, and they arrested my mother. Fortunately we hid some of the liquor, and her lawyer was able to make the case that it had only been a private party.

It was traumatising for all of us. But what I learned from my mother was resilience. She is my role model. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. She raised my brothers and me against all odds and sent us to university. This struggle shaped me, it gave me a foundation. I started my own business without funding, without support, without mentorship. I started something with nothing.

Entrepreneur Luvuyo Rani (third from left) with graduates of Silulo Ulutho Technologies' IT classes. Image: Luvuyo Rani

How did you do that?

After I graduated, I became a teacher in Khayelitsha township in Cape Town. At the time, the education system was changing, and teachers needed computers to deal with the admin. My brother and I saw the opportunity and started selling refurbished computers out of the boot of my car. We sold them to small saving clubs of six teachers, what we call stokvels. Then we realised there was a need for training, so we offered courses. Before university, I had never even touched a computer! Those early years were very tough, but we persisted.

You started out in 2004 and now employ over 200 people. More than 31,000 students have completed your IT courses, and 80% of them are women. What is your next ambition?

My vision is to expand and deepen the business. We want to open stores in every province in South Africa, and we are also partnering with internet providers such as Vodacom to offer connectivity for people and businesses in the townships. In terms of training, we offer everything from coding courses to classes in soft skills to help young people find employment.

We also recognise that there is a need for us to foster the entrepreneurial growth in townships through technology and are looking to launch Silulo Business Incubation centres, where business owners and unemployed youth can have a township-based centre assisting them to establish their businesses particularly through the use of technology, given that this is our main expertise. As pioneers of technology in the township and rural community, our next growth phase will include us having a dedicated focus on entrepreneurship over and above the Silulo internet cafes and training centres.

South Africa’s townships are often associated with crime and poverty, but you talk about them with huge enthusiasm. Why do you think townships have such potential?

The townships are overpopulated, and they have needs. In Khayelitsha, for example, you have youth unemployment of 50%. The only way for these townships to leapfrog is by accessing the Internet at affordable rates. Connectivity is key.

Companies are realising now that there are a lot of opportunities in our townships. Our townships are where the population is. But to succeed in the townships, you need a social agenda, you need to train and empower people. You can’t just go in and open a branch. If you empower them, you become part of the community. The townships are full of young people with innovative ideas, people who set up their own businesses, coffeeshops, even a museum of crime!

Image: Oxford Internet Institute

How can we help these young people achieve their dreams?

We need role models in the townships, not American or European role models but local success stories that can be showcased and celebrated. When I tell my own story, people feel inspired. They realise that if I can do it, with my background, nothing is stopping them.

What one thing can we all do to help create a shared future in a fractured world?

The key is to give everybody the opportunity to connect and collaborate. Through collaboration, we can use our own work to create a better world. Africa is full of innovative ideas. We don’t need any more handouts, we just need to work together. I see myself as part of the future generation that will realise these ideas. It’s time for Africa to rise and set the agenda for the rest of the world.

Reporting by Sophie Hardach

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