Bridging the digital and economic divide

Bold, forward thinking, tech-savvy entrepreneurs are developing and successfully deploying apps that allow marginalised individuals to create a digital profile that makes them visible to the mainstream economy. 

Almost 80 percent of the South African population of 42,4 million people reside in economically marginalised communities (Stats SA, 2005). A marginalised community is defined as a group that is confined to the lower or peripheral edge of society and as such is denied involvement in mainstream economic, political, cultural and social activities. 

Unlike the relatively small percentage of the population that is accessible via digital profiles represented on platforms like LinkedIn, a large majority of these marginalised community members have little or no digital presence and, as a result, very little chance of being ‘found’ by potential employers. The only option available to these ‘digitally invisible’ individuals is for them to commute, at significant personal expense, to a business node to try to secure gainful employment. Even if they are lucky enough to stumble upon a job vacancy, they have very little in the way of a credible CV to present to a potential employer. 

Potential employers on the other hand, whether large businesses or individuals, have precious few mechanisms of sourcing blue collar workers and are often forced to rely on informal reference systems. When they do find a potential employee, there is always an element of risk as there is very little or nothing that represents the potential employee’s abilities and credentials. 

In the recent past, attempts have been made by both the public and private sectors to establish centralised databases of people looking for employment. Whilst some success has been achieved, the distinct lack of access to technology (the currency of individual information) along with a dearth of sustainable business models, has left these initiatives rather lacklustre. 

However, as the old saying goes: ‘adversity creates opportunity’. With the proliferation of smartphone technology in marginalised communities, digitally invisible people now have access to the required technology to become visible through a rapidly growing array of apps available on smartphones. Many bold, forward thinking, tech-savvy entrepreneurs have identified opportunities to build business models whose very core is based on making members visible to the mainstream economy. These entrepreneurs are fast and furiously developing and successfully deploying apps that require members to have a digital profile so that the business community can find and communicate with them, and vice versa. These apps are a huge boon to both sides of the digital divide; members no longer have to waste time and money to physically seek employment, when using the app means the jobs could find them. Employers, on the other hand, spend less time sourcing members and with a credible digital profile they can rely on, the process is less risky. 

Added to this, with both sides of the digital divide being ‘visible’, employers and employees who are guilty of questionable conduct or performance will have nowhere left to hide. By including simple but powerful rating mechanisms which allow employers to ‘rate’ employees and vice versa, non-performance can be weeded out. The power of ratings is demonstrated in the very successful disruptive apps like Airbnb, Bookings.com, Uber and Zapper, all of which rely heavily on users’ opinions via ratings to review services being rendered. 

The commercial sustainability of these business models is the key to bridging the economic and digital divide. Clever use of functionality such as secure payment gateways, premium rates SMS messages, reviews, geolocation and many more, offer the entrepreneur the opportunity to build sustainable business models but more fundamentally, to make a difference. Already a number of clever apps have made an appearance, some examples are; sweepsouth.com, domestly.com and kandua.com, with many more in the wings. ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

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