We talk to Ms Poppy Tshabalala, Managing Executive for Public Enterprise at Vodacom Business, to understand the company’s view and role in this ‘New Normal’
The world will be living in a ‘New Normal’ as long as the Covid-19 pandemic is still with us. What defines the pandemic is distancing ourselves from each other for safety, but humans are social creatures so we still need to stay in touch. Municipalities are not exempted from this challenge; if anything, the pressure on them mounts as more people stay at home and demand better service from their local government. In such an environment, remote communication becomes key, and this is where the role of a leading connectivity and digital provider such as Vodacom is priceless.
We talk to Ms Poppy Tshabalala, Managing Executive for Public Enterprise at Vodacom Business, to understand the company’s view and role in this ‘New Normal’.
Municipal Focus (MF): What role has Vodacom played in supporting municipalities as the ‘delivery arm’ of government?
Poppy Tshabalala (PT): It is important to note that our relationship with the government of South Africa has spanned over a number of years, and as you know, relationships mature over time. In this regard we have accumulated knowledge of what challenges faced government at various levels which have allowed us to develop specific solutions together. Indeed, Local Government has to interact with its citizens, something limited by capacity for physical contact, so Vodacom Business developed a Citizen Engagement Platform.
The platform is designed to automate, enrich and streamline interactions between citizens, government contact centers, field workers and senior officials. Inherent in this solution is using technology for better human interaction – resulting in more efficient service delivery. This has been critical during the pandemic where fewer people were at offices and travel to service centers was limited.
Vodacom Business re-engineered the Gauteng Department’s eAdmission system to include the latest technologies and improve user experience. The system was hosted on Microsoft Azure within the Vodacom Datacenter. Since then, the admissions system has received over 255 000 applications and processed over 1 000 applications per minute during peak times, eliminating the frustrations of “frozen” uploads.
We worked with local government to introduce Smart Metering which enables municipal teams to measure consumption of services such as water and electricity remotely, addresses the challenges of capacity and limitation of interaction during the Covid-19 pandemic. Simultaneously it improves revenue collection, as has been demonstrated at Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality. The Smart Metering solution has been extended to include fleet management – saving the municipalities costs and enhancing the lifespan, value and efficiency of their assets.
The Stock Visibility Solution (SVS), developed by Vodacom Business, is assisting the Department of Health (DoH) to monitor critical supply chain process – and compare centrally purchased volumes of medicine that are available on the shelves of dispensaries. This minimizes medicine shortages in the hospital frontlines where it is needed as stock levels are efficiently managed, taking into account the time-delay inherent in procurement process in the public sector.
The Mpilo app is a smart and interactive mobile communication platform which enabled users to report waiting times in facilities, ambulance response times, safety issues, staff attitudes, and cleanliness of facilities in the Gauteng Department of Health. This app was designed by Vodacom Business and the department to strengthen patient care. Vodacom launched the MySAPS app to support national police efforts and connect communities in a collective effort in the fight against crime. The app enables citizens to search for the nearest police station, submit a tip off and call the crime stop number. The introduction of the app highlights how technology can be used to improve human lives.
So in all that we managed to do, the key ingredient was our long-standing relationship with government.
MF: What are the key challenges that government faced in communication over the last few years and what role did Vodacom play addressing them?
PT: The digital divide between various communities, locations and economic strata, is one of the major challenges facing government, especially at local level. We are proud that the relationship we have built with government over the years has enabled us to understand these complexities affecting municipalities’ ability to deliver service. We therefore have invested heavily in our network infrastructure to ensure that our customers are always connected, even in rural areas.
MF: As more people work from home, in this Covid-19 pandemic environment, communication networks have become crucial. What is Vodacom doing in this space?
PT: The pandemic has affected Vodacom as much as it has affected government. As a business we have to provide a service when our employees are not at the office. Access to connectivity, to data was important. Because of the additional capacity that was built into our RT-15-2021 Contract with government, we were able to provide the extra data and connectivity without any added costs to our partner.
MF: What has been Vodacom’s own experience in navigating the pandemic challenge and how will this experience benefit government?
PT: No doubt the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge to every organisation. Vodacom were in a position to provide these mitigations because we had experienced the same challenges ourselves. The partnership with government, has made it easier to develop and adapt our experiences, learn from each other and develop effective solutions. We have adopted a flexible working approach, which enhanced remote access to work. We have been able to keep government Always Connected to its citizenry, despite the devastating nature of the Covid-19 pandemic to operations, because of the Business Continuity Plans we always build into our service agreements with customers. These plans are specific to the needs of each department or municipality which we have grown to understand and share with our partners over time. We are proud and appreciative of the mutually beneficial relationship we have built with government. The accumulated knowledge over the years has allowed us to develop solutions that cascade down to the individual users, government’s constituency.
MF: Do these plans benefit government only?
PT: Since government now includes Business Continuity in its planning, this assists the citizens of the country. As we learn of government challenges, we develop solutions that benefit all customers. In addressing the digital divide, as highlighted in our relations with government, we identified the need to invest over R2.9 billion in infrastructure that has improved connectivity for all users of the Vodacom network. The national and local economies have benefited from the financial injection through the local suppliers and partners. Although this upgrade continued during the period of the pandemic, we were able to create sustainable local jobs at a time when most industries were shedding jobs. We invested in new technologies as these are key to future developments.
MF: The pressure on communication networks has also increased over this period. How will Vodacom address this, as well as the inherent costs of remote work, learning and service delivery?
PT: The above investment is to make sure we keep our municipalities Always Connected. We have embarked on a transformational journey from a traditional telecoms company to a technology communications company and have invested in the latest network technologies and modern digital IT systems to ensure we connect our customers to a better future. In the education sector where I come from, I noticed how important it is to be able to have good connectivity in an affordable manner in the remotest of areas. The same applies for municipalities. Because of our Business Continuity planning, we are able to increase capacity without increasing costs. We are using newer technologies to minimise these costs – whilst delivering better quality. Here partnerships are important and that is what we have done with some of our main suppliers of technology solutions – and we pass on this benefit to our customers.
MF: How will Vodacom assist municipalities take advantage of this “Internet of things” in the 4IR environment?
PT: Whilst technology plays a role in communication, the human element also plays a vital role. So we see a brighter future for our country and the ability of municipalities to deliver better services when we enhance technology and develop the human capacity to take advantage of it. We are aiming to make the network ‘smarter’ through automation and artificial intelligence. Documentation, billings, readings and other activities of municipalities will no longer rely on an individual writing on paper only, but systems will be able to ‘talk’ to each other. This will improve fault reporting, recording, logging of complaints or issues as well as response times. Municipalities will enhance their revenue collection, whilst saving costs on the other hand.
MF: What has Vodacom done to assist women and mothers in these challenging times?
PT: The phrase ‘Empowering women, empowers a community, thus empowering a nation’ is not just a slogan, it is the reality of life that we have seen over the years. The zero-rated app Vodacom introduced to assist expecting mothers deal with pre-natal health issues, has proven to be such a success that even the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken up the service for its women. We support the SAPS communication so that women can quickly call out for help as they are the most vulnerable. By connecting women we will help ensure health and well-being, build skills and promote entrepreneurship to support women reach their full potential. Women working closer to home, create localised economies that will support local government.
MF: What does the future hold?
PT: Definitely the historical challenges of the digital divide have become more pronounced at these pandemic times, and our Smart Citizen Mobile App and our other new technologies will provide the high level of transparency and accountability needed to provide municipalities with fast reports of damages, leaks or breakdowns, and allow municipalities to react more efficiently. Vodacom is here to provide technological solutions to municipalities so we can take citizens further together.
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