Regional Focus – Gwakwani, Limpopo

By Raine St.Claire

Known as the Great North, Limpopo province is celebrated for its rich history, abundant natural wonders, and diverse culture. It is a land of ancient and prehistoric secrets, Modjadji–the fabled Rain Queen, the Stone Age and Iron age relics of Makapansgat Valley and the treasures of Mapungubwe that date back to time immemorial. With a population of 93 795, 99.4% are black Africans, and 52% depend on grants and remittances as their main income. To address the challenges, there is a need for job creation interventions and economic opportunities. Investing in education and skills development must be coupled with programmes creating employment to uplift the community in Limpopo.

And that is what happened back in 2014 in the remote Limpopo village of Gwakwani. Home to 100 people, the village had no basic amenities, unreliable cell phone reception, and no access to the internet. When the School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) heard about the lack of infrastructure they offered to help. This was in line with the school’s ethos that “research that does not make a difference does not matter,” says Cornay Keefer, the School of Electrical Engineering’s project manager.

South Africa’s First Smart Rural Village

This is a story of innovative thinking, strategic resourcing, partnerships, achieving development goals, technological innovations and a rural village that was put on the map for the first time. As a young man, Godfrey Nefolovhodwe walked a 38 km round trip to get to high school every day, a journey that took about three hours each way. His journey started in the dark and ended almost in darkness. When Godfrey, now 35, attended school, Gwakwani had no infrastructure. Only one person had a formal job and funds for essentials like diesel for the borehole pump and paraffin for lamps were scarce.

Almost a decade on since the transdisciplinary partnership between the UJs School of Electrical Engineering, the village chief, the local council, Schneider Electric and Sigfox was established, children who had never seen a light now learn English through television at the crèche, school-going children complete homework under bright lights and the solar bakery employs 8 full-time workers.

Sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the technology implemented, while not at the forefront of the 4IR, is impactful, and has introduced transformative changes to provide running water, electricity, access to education and job creation. A few years ago, these technological advancements were nonexistent. Fortune favours the innovative The changes that have been introduced in the area over the past ten years are remarkable. In particular, they speak to achieving the goals of building resilient infrastructure, which includes not only access to electricity but also increasing access to information and communications technology.

The UJ team initiated essential improvements, replacing the diesel borehole pump with a solar-powered one and installing a network of taps, tanks, solar lights, and streetlights. The quest for holistic advancement extended to economic empowerment in Gwakwani which marked the beginning of positive changes. The remote location which limited income generation, education and unemployment, prompted the electrical engineering team to introduce solar technology.

This brought about a solar bakery, providing a regular supply of bread and creating employment opportunities for eight trained local bakers. A communal drip irrigation system allowed residents to cultivate vegetables, and solar-powered facilities, including a crèche with Gwakwani’s first television, improved the overall quality of life. Rural, remote, and innovative “Everything we have installed in Gwakwani can be monitored remotely,” Cornay explains. This allows for real-time tracking of village infrastructure, including water tank levels, cold storage temperatures, and borehole pump issues.

Today, Godfrey is Cornay’s man on the ground. During his training in Gwakwani and two years at UJ’s Johannesburg campuses, he gained various technical skills. “I’ve learned how to work with electronics well,” he says. “If there’s a fault in the bakery, I have the knowledge and skills to fix it.” The remote monitoring solutions, made possible through an Internet of Things (IoT) network in partnership with global communications provider Sigfox, introduced a system that does not rely on cell phone signals, which, until early 2020, was nonexistent in the village. Instead, it uses ultra-narrow band radio technology to enable a variety of monitoring sensors that are defined by their long battery life, low cost, low connectivity fee, high network capacity, and long-range communication capabilities.

A smart village, a sustainable future “I think what’s interesting is that we’re using basic 4IR systems in an area that has never had access to any form of technology before,” says Professor Suné von Solms, associate professor at the School of Electrical Engineering. The result is a smart IoT village that operates without municipal infrastructure and meets the social and economic needs of its residents – not only in the short term but on an ongoing basis. “Being able to monitor what’s happening in Gwakwani using 4IR technologies makes this project sustainable,” says the head of UJ’s School of Electrical Engineering, Professor Johan Meyer. “And that’s what we’re after: its long-term success.”


Gwakwani and Beyond 

In recent months, the establishment of a community development trust through the Industrial Development Corporation marks a significant step forward. With a promised R5 million, this trust sets the stage for implementing a comprehensive community development plan benefiting multiple villages in the area. With running water, lights and economic activity, Gwakwani is starting to look and feel more and more like a small town. “It feels like we’re almost on the map,” Godfrey says, “and education, technological innovations and in this rural village made it all possible. 

The advancements deployed to address urgent needs represent just the beginning of a broader transformative journey that shows that though education, 4IR, innovative thinking, strategic resourcing and partnerships, achieving development goals will go a long way in improving lives.

Source: TheConversation | universityofjohannesburg |StatsSA

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