The Telkom Foundation has a long track record of implementing high-impact programming, targeting the most vulnerable communities across South Africa. Its interventions are aimed at improving education by bridging the digital divide in the South African education sector. This is in line with Telkom’s stature as a large telecommunications company, and its commitment to equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The dramatic spread of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted business activities, livelihoods, and food systems in South Africa and the world over. It highlighted the gaping inequalities that continue to characterise South Africa’s socioeconomic landscape and exposed massive weaknesses in the country’s health system.
The twin health and economic shocks resulting from the pandemic necessitated a coordinated response at scale, and the cooperation of decision-makers across all spheres of government, the private sector, and civil society. As a responsible business invested in the wellbeing of the communities in which it operates, Telkom joined in this effort, and remains a key roleplayer in South Africa’s response to Covid-19.
Telkom kick-started its response to the Covid-19 pandemic with the establishment of an emergency R15 million relief fund to support South Africa’s primary healthcare in the fight against Covid-19. From putting in place measures to support increased demand for broadband bandwidth and zero-rating more than 950 websites, to providing sanitisers and donating food parcels, the company demonstrated its commitment to the wellbeing of vulnerable communities across the country. Telkom also developed a track and trace app in partnership with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The system was developed in line with World Health Organization guidelines and global best practice, and was designed to support South Africa’s health response, taking into account the country’s unique circumstances, which include high levels of inequality, poverty and overcrowding.
Transforming basic education through technology
Since its establishment in 1998, the Telkom Foundation has worked to bridge the digital divide in the South African education system. It achieves this through the High School Support Programme (HSSP), an integrated set of interventions targeting learners and teachers at primary- and high-school level. HSSP has reached ten schools and 120 teachers in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng since its launch in 2017.
Interventions implemented through HSSP include supplementary learning, exposing learners to additional classes in subject areas of science, technology, English and maths. The Foundation also runs a coding programme designed to help learners to take a leap into the digital future. To facilitate inclusive development that is responsive to the unique and specific circumstances of its beneficiaries, the Foundation focuses on the socioeconomic and psychosocial development of learners, addressing issues such as transport, nutrition, health, and wellness. The Foundation also provides information and communications technology (ICT) equipment, resources, and infrastructure such as computers, connectivity, and educational content to schools.
Teacher support and leadership development
While learners are at the centre of all activities and interventions, the Foundation realises the importance of teacher support and leadership development. The Foundation supports both teachers and principals by creating opportunities for personal development and peer collaboration as well as supporting the integration of ICT into the classroom through teacher training and change management programmes.
Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic
Following the announcement of a national lockdown in March 2020, the Foundation quickly migrated its education programme online. This entailed zero-rating educational content across hundreds of websites and launching Lightbulb Education, an online platform which offers the CAPS educational curriculum. This rapid move to digital was not without its challenges. The impact of poverty and inequality on the ability of learners to access online educational resources quickly became apparent. Many learners from poor backgrounds were not able to attend classes from home due to lack of appropriate equipment and connectivity. The undue burden of domestic chores placed on girls was also noted. These challenges necessitated fast thinking on the part of the Foundation and culminated in each of the 3 700 learners participating in the programme receiving a mobile device as well as a SIM card to enable them to continue attending class during the national lockdown.
Working in partnership with non-profit organisations such as Childline, Lifeline and Families South Africa (FAMSA), the Foundation was also able to provide psychosocial support to its beneficiaries by deploying counsellors through digital platforms. Where necessary, counsellors also provided psychosocial support and counselling to families. In addition, the Foundation organised webinars that enabled learners to engage and share ideas on topical issues such as the role of technology in education, gender and technology, and so on.
Enhancing online learning through the Lightbulb Education platform
Lightbulb is an educational platform created to respond to the growing need for quality education in South Africa. The platform offers the CAPS curriculum, focusing on maths and science for grade 7–12 learners. The learning is delivered through interactive sessions that learners can access at their convenience. This makes it both scalable and cost-effective. The platform allows teachers to deliver virtual lessons and also enables social workers to communicate directly with learners and provide counselling and other forms of psychosocial support. The platform has reached 7 200 learners since its rollout in March 2020.
Encouraging parental support for improved educational outcomes
The Foundation believes parents have an important role to play in the development of learners. Telkom has powered the Mzali App, a platform created to enable parents to play a bigger role in their children’s education.
The Mzali App is an online platform that engages parents on the wellbeing of their children. The innovation acts as a communication link between schools and parents, offering convenient access to educational resources, school attendance, and individual learner performance. It also facilitates communication with other stakeholders such as the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Telkom Foundation.
Communication between parents, schools and stakeholders such as the DBE was crucial during Covid-19. The Mzali App facilitated this process by sharing information on ways in which parents could adopt ICT solutions and position themselves to support their children’s education during the national lockdown. Stakeholders also communicated critical information on the pandemic itself. In addition, the Mzali App made it possible for learners to interact with their own parents using digital technologies and demonstrate skills like coding and gaming.
The Foundation believes the Covid-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact and drive a new wave of corporate responsibility shaped by a greater focus on bridging the digital divide. Key lessons learnt so far centre on the importance of agility and innovation, the challenges of poverty and inequality (with the gendered impact of the pandemic of particular concern), the role of technology going forward, and the importance of partnerships for lasting change.
Partnerships and social dialogue
Telkom has a rich tradition of social dialogue and a wide network of partnerships built on mutual trust and a shared desire to contribute to the development of South Africa. The Foundation worked with initiatives such as Protec, which supported online education to learners, and SchoolNet, which provided teacher development services. Teams of volunteers were also on hand to distribute devices to learners.
After realising the desperate need in some poor communities, Telkom employees took it upon themselves to increase their contributions via payroll giving, while others provided career guidance to learners or organised initiatives to distribute food parcels to poor communities.
The value of partnerships and social dialogue was highlighted during this period and contributed to the company’s well coordinated and effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
– Sarah Mthintso , Head of Telkom Foundation , www.telkom.co.za