An Interview With Award-Winning Digital Visionary, William Makgaba

When Social Entrepreneurship Challenges The Digital Divide

William Makgaba is a digital, social entrepreneur who identified a need for basic technology and internet access within Limpopo’s rural communities. His story is of a visionary who started a fully-fledged community technology centre with one computer and seven educators. Basic computer skills has been a way out of poverty for at least 60% of those who complete the program at William’s initiative, Vexospark. Access to Vexospark’s programs has no age limit. Where there’s a need that can be met using ICT – Makgaba has found a technologically driven way to meet it. We were honoured to have the opportunity to chat to William about his professional journey into the ICT field and his vision for online education.

“From Gardener to Internet Entrepreneur,” is how one writer has described your journey. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a social entrepreneur?

I’m William Lesetja Makgaba from Mmadiga Ga-Dikgale (Limpopo, Polokwane). I’m the 4th child of a single parent who recently passed away. I started working as a gardener after matriculating in 2003. It was a blessing to be a gardener because my employer (I used to call her Ou Miessies) helped me to obtain an A+ Certificate in 2004 and supported me financially in 2006 when I registered with UNISA.

In 2006, fellow students laughed because I didn’t know how to open or use Microsoft Word. That laughter was an eye opener and motivation for me. I realised that many people from rural communities will struggle after matriculation because of lack of access to ICT.

In 2008 before she (Ou Miesies) passed away, she gave me one PC (System Unit) without a keyboard, mouse or screen. Her last words to me were, “William, go and have a better future.” Then the principal at Kgohlo Primary gave me a keyboard, mouse, computer screen and some computer lessons. That was the beginning of Vexospark.

What is Vexospark?

Vexospark is made up of two words:  “Vexo” meaning “shake” and “Spark” as in “light.” I looked at the scarcity of computer literacy in rural communities and saw Vexospark as a way of shaking things up and bringing ICT to those communities.
 
Tell us more about the challenges faced by rural communities and how Vexospark is playing a part in tackling those challenges.

 
The main challenges include the fact that the use of ICT is limited to urban/rich people. The evolution of ICT and the slow implementation and roll-out of ICT’s are also very real challenges. People in marginalised communities are being left out of processes which affect their lives due to this lack of access.

Solutions:

- Vexospark is using ICT’s to develop marginalised communities into socially participating societies that have access to opportunities and information.
- We have a program called Edustation to help learners in the foundation phase to learn maths, life skills, numeracy and literature using computers.
- The Mindset Learn program for Grade 10 – 12 learners provides access to all learning areas, using computers.
- Through the She Will Connect Project, woman in rural areas can connect to each other and the world via the internet. This program offers online wildlife courses like anti-poaching, wildlife photography and game ranging.
- Our centres allow UNISA learners to access the internet free of charge.

You were recently awarded the 2014 Youth Emerging Social Entrepreneur Award by the University of Johannesburg. What has that award meant to you in terms of what you hope to achieve?

YESEA was the best achievement for me and Vexospark. It showed me that Vexospark is indeed making a stand against rural poverty through Information and Communication Technology (ICT). It’s also derived benefits for the rural communities we work with. The University of Johannesburg is now offering a Socio-Economic Development Online course for some NGOs and NPOs in Limpopo. The future of Vexospark is very simple: Quality and Equal Education. The only way to achieve this is through ICT. Online Education (education programs, online courses etc) is the only way out of poverty.
  
What are the most important characteristics of a successful and effective computer training centre?
 
Success is determined by the centre’s ability to close the internet gender gap. It’s about connecting women to each other as well as to economic opportunities. By changing the lives of women, we also benefit families. That is the reason why Vexospark is working with Intel on the “She Will Connect Project.”

What predictions do you have for the future of digital and digital education in South Africa?

- More communities getting connected to opportunities and information.
- Skills development.
- Greater social inclusion.
- More communities being able to engage with business and government.
- Poverty reduction due to greater access to information and opportunities.
- The enhancement of e-learning and m-learning (Quality and Equal Education).
- The ability to participate in the community and beyond.
- The ability of individuals to share their own stories and those of their communities.

Any other comments?
 
Digital Education is changing lives across the planet. It will boost rural communities’ education standards and potential, increase students’ sense of empowerment and contribute to greater GDP and market opportunities.
 
This article is featured in the Heavy Chef  Review magazine - Education Edition. Download it here.

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