Digital mapping: The forgotten communities of South Africa

  • Chimera Prime and nClude set out on a digital journey to map rural communities in Africa.
  • The application enables mapping households and providing virtual addresses to their residents.
  • Excluded communities have now access to essential services as calling an ambulance, receiving mail or voting.

The United Nations estimates that about four billion people live in places that have no street names, no house numbers – in fact, nothing that constitutes a proper address". People who do not have a physical address lack access to essential services such as rapid emergency response to policing and medical needs, receiving post, applying for credit or registering to vote.

Impact starts on the ground

nClude an impact startup based in South Africa - is more than aware of the dire consequences this can have on the social, economic, and political participation of residents in these unmapped areas. Siyanda Mthethwa, nClude Founder, has a personal attachment to the cause, as he was raised by his grandmother in Gingindlovu, a town in Uthungulu District Municipality in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Photo of young Siyanda Mthethwa with his grandmother.Photo of young Siyanda with his grandmother

I have always regarded Gingindlovu as my home. Its people and the entire village brought me up. There is an African proverb that says: In an African village, every child is my child. I have always felt that this was true. Everyone looked out for me. I truly feel that I owe my village and its people an immense amount of debt. Their fighting spirit and resilience despite all adversity and poverty is the fire that keeps me going - says Siyanda Mthethwa.

Every pilot needs a wingman

Siyanda and the nClude team wanted to develop a digital solution that would have a positive impact on developing countries and rural communities. They endeavoured to launch and implement a successful pilot project in Siyanda’s home village Gingindlovu. nClude reached out to Chimera Prime to build a digital mapping app that would locate and create addresses for households, clinics and other buildings.

Photo of Siyanda Mthethwa and Krystian Sulek in South Africa rural areasSiyanda Mthethwa and Krystian Sulek in South Africa rural area

With the pilot location and a skilful development partner selected, Siyanda and Krystian Sulek, CEO of Chimera Prime, traveled to South Africa to meet the local people, receive permissions from local authorities and get a better insight into the situation. They have met with local community representatives, the GIS (geographic information system) experts, service delivery departments, the Department of Health, police, and private businessmen to understand the challenges.

Facing the challenges

When you are looking to implement a project as big as this one, you need to have your heart in the right place. Mapping projects like this have been tried before with limited success, so how do you make it work? There were several challenges to overcome before the pilot test could begin.

Challenge 1: Piloting and pioneering is more about local culture and people than about the technology. At the unknown territory the partnership between Chimera and nClude needed to be very fluid and flexible in order to accommodate the different cultures, communities, and businesses while working towards the common goal.

Challenge 2: Many companies tend to build products they believe are needed without ever talking with end-users. However, Chimera believes in building products people really need. This meant the solution had to be planned and developed with the help of locals in order to fully understand their actual issues and needs. Thus, Chimera spoke with local representatives to discuss the problems facing people from rural areas. But this brought yet another challenge: building trust within the community. To help instil such a connection, the official name for the volunteer group became Thuma Thina which means “send us”. It symbolises a call for young people to come together and work towards a common goal.

Challenge 3: The app had to be scalable after a successful pilot launch. Chimera used programming methodology known as SCRUM to enable the team to produce a solution in a very short time span and stay focused on building an app based on feedback from the client. Enabling developers and designers to work directly with the end-users gave them more ownership of the project and a personal understanding of their needs. It also meant the app was developed faster and far more efficiently, than if was to be produced by a large organisation.

Designing the solution

The team brainstormed many options to solve the challenges they faced. In the end, the solution envisioned by Chimera was to create a few simple apps that could be used by almost anyone. Before development of the final product, a clickable prototype was built to validate the assumptions. This helped the team to save a lot of time on corrections later on. It was also the easiest way to communicate the idea to nClude and other parties, and ensured everyone was on the same page.

The first application was designed to get a good base of people that had the skills to do the mapping. It’s a simple app where people can register themselves as persons interested in helping with the mapping. Then, they would take a test to see if they have enough skills and knowledge to do it. The second application where the actual mapping takes places. It’s the one Thuma Thina teams use to go from house to house to gather information and add location data to the map.

The pilot

The pilot program began on August 1, 2018. It involved daily conversations with small local groups in order to directly discuss the product and make sure it would actually solve the problem.

Thuma Thina ambassadors installing address on the houseThuma Thina ambassadors installing an address on a rural house

Communication proved to be the most critical component of the partnership. nClude and Chimera Prime were in constant communication, and provided all technical assistance needed on the field. Chimera team worked tirelessly around the clock to deliver the applications, and make changes and improvements during the pilot.

Thuma Thina team also needed direct trainings from Chimera. Siyanda started with a workshop for everyone who was involved in the mapping to show them how the applications work. Pointing out that the quality of the data is the most important and explaining how to talk with people. Most of the team members had never worked in a way that is common for most startups; and didn’t understand technology very well.

After the workshop the team started mapping. A lot of issues popped up - from not being able to take proper photos to problems with launching the application on low cost devices. Another issue was that the app had to be really intuitive to use, and testers found out that the first iteration wasn’t simple enough. Chimera quickly resolved this case, and the tech team was in regular communication with the team on the ground to fix bugs and issues immediately. After two to three days everything was more stable.

Results and benefits

nClude’s Thuma Thina ambassadors turned out to be very capable and competent in acquiring data and using the application. Rural youth in South Africa have harnessed the power of technology and the utilisation of smartphones. Project's ambassadors met with kindness and positive feedback from community members what created an open environment that enabled the project to run smoothly. Posting on nClude’s Facebook, Siyanda celebrated the completion of the project:

In just 30 days, our youthful Thuma Thina rural address project mapped and addressed our whole entire rural ward of 2000 households, making it the only mapped and addressed rural ward in South Africa. Now almost 100% of our village citizens are on the grid and have an address, meaning they can call and ambulance or police directly to their address, register to vote, apply for credit and prove their residency. All this was done and achieved by local youth and in turn has also created two permanent jobs. A big thank you to our partners and technical team Chimera Prime who developed our digital solution.

Screenshot of the map preview with ca. 1560 houses mapped during the pilot phaseMap preview with 1560 houses mapped during the pilot phase

Having an address has enabled rural households in the project to access emergency services, post, and most importantly, receive essential government infrastructural benefits like water, electricity, and toilets. Other community oriented institutions like schools, kindergartens and clinics will be able to be exposed to international donors.

According to nClude founder Siyanda Mthethwa: "It was very tense at times, however Chimera Prime met all the challenges”. The project and the solution as a whole was well received by the community and potential clients. The local municipality of uMlalazi has invited nClude to deliver a proposal and business plan aimed at mapping the whole municipality which comprises of 39,000 rural buildings.

The digital mapping project has already led to founding Kuloola - the first grocery delivery service in South Africa. You can find out more about this story on our website.


For more information on using new technologies for human impact you may want to visit our public sector and digital transformation pages.  

Written by
Krystian Sułek
Chief Executive Officer at Chimera Prime

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