The stakes were already high; the pandemic just put the squeeze on. And, as we know, it takes enormous pressure to produce diamonds. Which is why, viewed through a particular lens, 2020 has been a year of tremendous digital acceleration.
“We’ve seen people taking a giant leap during this period,” says Kholo Magagane, head of marketing for MTN SA Business.
He believes that 2020’s exceptional circumstances prompted us to recognise the advantages technology offers and the power digital platforms have to positively affect our lives. “We’ve seen, out of this crisis, people opening up to digital transformation, whether they’ve shopped online for the first time or engaged in video conferencing. People are now truly embracing the power of technology.”
This, he says, is one positive thing to have come out of a dire situation: “It has helped us realise that a whole lot of things can be done from the comfort of our homes — and that technology is valuable in that sphere.”
It’s within this context of digital transformation, Magagane says, that MTN SA Business is passionate about establishing businesses. “One of our main drivers is creating a digital space where new businesses can access the economy and people can easily join the start-up world. Because the more people who start up, the more jobs we’ll create.”
Magagane says the dream is to “make the circle bigger” by creating “an enabling environment for more businesses to start and to flourish”.
These are not empty wishes.
One of the ways MTN SA has helped stimulate and propel start-up culture is through its MTN Business App of the Year Awards, designed to encourage expansion within the digital technology sector.
Since 2012, this programme has been an increasingly potent stimulus for empowerment, a real force that is directly helping to expand the circle by creating businesses, job opportunities, and useful services for society.
Apart from being the country’s foremost app-development programme, the awards are a celebration of local talent and out-of-the-box thinkers who drive disruption, innovation and change.
This year’s ninth annual edition of the competition unlocked an app called EasyEquities. “It’s a platform for people to start trading in shares,” Magagane says. “It not only simplifies trading but also allows you to make an investment, irrespective of how little you have left at the end of the month.”
One distinctly SA app is StokFella, which enables stokvels — which have an estimated membership of more than 11-million — to consolidate their activity in a streamlined visual platform.
Magagane says there’s a lot more to the awards than merely recognising excellence. “The main driver is not who wins; it is identifying the thinking around it, examining the business case around it, and figuring out how we can support developers who might need assistance in setting up their businesses”.
The MTN Business App Academy was launched this year to expand the ecosystem that has evolved around the awards. Established to upskill aspiring talent, the academy is an online app-development programme providing tutoring and mentorship by experts.
“It’s for non-techies who want to create tech-based solutions for their ideas,” says Magagane. In other words, it trains people — who have ideas or expertise in a particular field and are looking for ways to translate their innovative ideas into digital solutions — to code. And it mentors them towards achieving their goals.
Aspiring developers participate in a six-week online coding programme, culminating in a 72-hour virtual hackathon, with the objective of developing an app that solves a common social challenge facing SA.
The top three apps are given the chance to grow into fully fledged solutions, with a go-to-market implementation strategy. In other words, making the circle bigger.
No stranger to ground-breaking apps, MTN in 2019 introduced ayoba, essentially a home-grown instant-messaging platform with similar functionality to WhatsApp. It’s been described as “WeChat for Africa” — created for Africa, in Africa.
Like WhatsApp, ayoba is free to use across all networks. What sets ayoba apart is that it allows users to also communicate with others on phones that only have basic features — and with those that don’t have the ayoba app.
While data is required to send messages and files, MTN provides 1GB of free data monthly — that enables anyone to stay in contact with friends and family, even when airtime has run out.
“Ayoba gives you a monthly data allocation so that you can access your basic data services,” Magagane says. “So, you can check the news, check on job-market vacancies, browse general websites between midnight and 5am, and ensure that people are able to keep communicating”.
Additionally, MTN zero-rated two ayoba Covid-19 channels for the sharing of pandemic news and updates. Plus, the network provided free usage of a USSD (data) line for Covid-19 reporting.
At the same time, MTN extended its zero-rated website access beyond universities, education portals and Wikipedia with the launch of MTN OpenTime, and provides a monthly quota for customers to access more than 1,000 public-benefit service sites that include health and employment sites.
“All these developments, whether or not they’re specific to the conditions created by Covid-19, are happening in the interests of expanding SA’s access to the digital world, Magagane says. “Whether we’re helping to create apps, or providing access to apps and other digital services, we’re just proud to see how the country is advancing in the adoption of digital services,” he says. “As a network provider, we create the engine that you’re going to plug into, and we see that as one of the spaces where MTN has great potential to bring the country together.”
* This article was paid for by MTN.