The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that South African social enterprises are among the world’s best when it comes to harnessing tech for health communications and improving people’s lives on a massive scale. The pandemic has also pushed many non-profits (NPOs) to adopt new technology, with some big tech brands supporting these NPOs with generous donations and offers.
These are some of the findings shared by speakers at the recent Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference. They were addressing delegates at a session on ICT for Development, presented in partnership with the Vodacom Foundation.
South Africa supports WHO
One of the most influential behind-the-scenes South African social enterprises is Praekelt.org. This organisation has not only worked with the Department of Health to develop the Covid-19 Connect WhatsApp line, enabling government to reach out to all South Africans during the pandemic, but has also leveraged its local learnings to support the World Health Organization (WHO), and ten more national governments.
This success story was shared by Praekelt.org’s founder Gustav Praekelt, one of the speakers at the Conference.
“South Africa was in the unique position that it had the only national-scale health line in place (via WhatsApp) as the country went into lockdown,” he said. This was enabled by Praekelt’s 12 years of experience in digital health. One of its most successful collaborations has been working with the South African Department of Health on the MomConnect service. Possibly the largest maternal health programme in the world, this South African invention currently has over one million South African mothers signed up.
Covid-19 Connect is now one of the largest interactive services in South Africa with over eight million subscribers. On any day, hundreds of thousands of users return for up-to-date information. As the pandemic has evolved, the information delivered has evolved too. Only clinical information was offered initially, but the tool has the potential to provide support on matters such as reopening schools safely and aiding small businesses, as South Africa moves to reopen the economy, said Praekelt.
“What is really amazing and gratifying is how we were able to leverage the work we did with the Department of Health in South Africa, to very soon thereafter support the WHO to launch a similar line and make the same information available on a global scale. Ten million people used that HealthAlert service in just over 48 hours.”
In the past six months this service has been translated into 18 languages and has reached over 20 million users. Around half a million people return daily for information and they have sent half a billion WhatsApp messages.
At this stage of the pandemic, the local Covid-19 Connect service has “evolved quite significantly”. More features have been added, such as the Covid-19 Healthcheck. “The key thing is to have a system that you can modify on almost a daily basis to add information and feedback.”
Tech tools for non-profits
In a presentation on ‘Tech tools for development’, Samantha Barnard, deputy director of the Phambano Technology Development Centre NPC, focused on the effects of Covid-19 and the forced adoption of technology by the non-profit sector.
Remote working tools
As the country moved into Level 5 lockdown, NPOs mostly required video conferencing and remote working tools ‒ Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and WhatsApp Calling, in order of popularity.
“The response from the tech donor partners has been phenomenal,” said Barnard. Examples include Zoom giving discounted rates to NPOs, Microsoft Teams providing ten free licences to NPOs, and Google further extending some of its donated plans and discounted rates. Facebook ramped up efforts to keep WhatsApp safe while also creating educational offerings around fake news and best-practice use of WhatsApp groups.
“As it stands at Level 1 lockdown, Microsoft is still offering ten Microsoft 365 Business Premium licences to NPOs in South Africa and giving each NPO user in an organisation 1TB of cloud storage while also affording NPOs access to apps like Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, Yammer and so on,” she said.
Google Workspace (formerly known as G Suite) is also donating cloud storage and the use of collaborative apps to eligible NPOs. “Both integrate really well with other existing apps that you may be using, so it really comes down to user preference.”
Financial management tools
The leader in financial management software, according to Barnard, is Sage Accounting, which has developed an NPO plan that is free for five users within an NPO with less than 19 employees. It includes a payroll plan. Sage Accounting has also added on a heavily discounted tiered option for some of the larger NPOs.
Barnard acknowledged how difficult the transition to cloud-based financial tech tools has been for some NPOs but she assured the NPO audience that this is worthwhile: “I promise you that your long-term sustainability, monitoring and evaluation, fundraising and governance will thank you. The investment that you have made by means of time and capturing information on your cloud-based accounting system will thank you when it is time to submit narrative reports, and attend board meetings, etc.”
There was a huge need during lockdown for NPOs to source funding and Barnard thanked Google for their Google Ad Grants – a $10 000 (US dollar) per month in-kind advertising grant for Google Search.
Barnard highlighted important factors for NPOs to note in order to capitalise on this opportunity: The NPO must have a credible website with a branded domain, the organisation’s vision and mission, information on the board, relevant and up-to-date reports and financials.
“NPOs are encouraged to take the time to complete some free online Google Ad training so that they can use the donation effectively and efficiently,” she said.
Advocating for NPOs
Barnard’s message to philanthropy, government and corporate representatives was to seek to match and meet the impressive contributions made by the tech donors by investing in the current most pressing technology needs of NPOs:
- Consider sponsoring a branded domain for an NPO website;
- Consider covering the website hosting fee for an NPO;
- If you know Google is giving an NPO an opportunity through the Google Ad Grant, consider assisting that NPO to develop a credible website; and
- Invest in NPOs by providing them with capacity training.
Barnard concluded that while SA ICT service providers should be lauded for their response to Covid-19 and the increased provision of zero-rated and discounted data rates for NPOs, “the need is still there, and it is still great”.
“In the future, NPOs are going to have to include data and WiFi costs in their budgets and donors will need to meet NPOs halfway by considering the funding of these kinds of operational costs. The reality is that an NPO cannot fully utilise all of the enabling software donations in the absence of data. There need to be continuous and open conversations between all role players in this regard,” she concluded.
Note to editors:
Gustav Praekelt is the founder of the Africa-based Praekelt Group, a leader in the use of open-source technologies to deliver essential information and inclusive services to millions of people around the world, especially in Africa. His belief in the power of mobile phones to transform lives inspired him to establish Praekelt.org in 2006 – a social enterprise that develops scalable mobile solutions for social good.
Samantha Barnard is the deputy director of Phambano Technology Development Centre NPC. She is passionate about helping non-profit organisations access software donations and discounts. Phambano Technology Development Centre is a purpose driven organisation with the aim of becoming known as the go-to solution for technology capacity building in civil society organisations across Southern Africa. See https://www.phambano.org.za.