security

Burglars beware: tech pioneers aim to make south Africa's townships safer – The Guardian


Ntsako Mgiba was sleeping at his aunt’s place in eMalahleni (previously known as Witbank) in Mpumalanga province when thieves broke in and stole hundreds of pounds worth of laptops, smartphones and other tech. The next morning Mgiba followed the burglars’ footprints – theirs was not the only home to be targeted. The police filed a report that afternoon, but any hope of tracking them down had gone.

Crime is a fact of life across South Africa. But while richer residents have access to one of the world’s largest private security industries – there are 2.57 security personnel for every police officer – poorer communities like that in eMalahleni, a town that leads the country in house break-ins, are left to fend for themselves. “In the townships you have burglar bars, dogs and lapsed alarm contracts,” says Mgiba, explaining that a couple of big security firms have tried and failed to enter the market.

Mgiba, who at the time of the break-in in 2016 was studying engineering at the University of Cape Town, got to thinking about the problem. “Not having an alarm system was one thing,” he says. “But we weren’t connected to our communities either.”

When his aunt phoned weeks later to say that the thieves had returned to steal even more, the nagging thought became an all-consuming passion for Mgiba and his flatmate, finance student Ntandoyenkosi Shezi. (Both have since graduated.)

They quickly discovered that there were no devices on the market for places where electricity is intermittent, wifi is often nonexistent and many homes don’t even have addresses. “Townships have always been an afterthought,” says Mgiba. “So we decided to build something from scratch.”

Jonga – the innovative township community alarm system launched by Mgiba and Shezi earlier this year – combines a wireless motion sensor with a six-month battery life and a 100-decibel siren with an Android app that sends text messages to five pre-selected contacts when the alarm is triggered. Instead of relying on expensive armed response providers, Jonga relies on the townships’ closeknit communities, while integration with the Namola security app enables a link to emergency services.

“I don’t know what Namola’s secret sauce is,” laughs Mgiba. “But the police actually respond to their calls.”

Nokululeko Msibi is one of the company’s first subscribers. She installed the system in her shop in Mpumalanga . “The alarm is great,” she says. “We feel protected and it’s affordable.” The device costs 500 rand (£22.50) and there is an 80 rand (£3.60) monthly fee. “I am definitely going to put Jonga in my house too,” she says – a move that will increase her monthly subscription by less than a pound.

As well as having a motion sensor and siren, the alarm connects to an app that sends messages to pre-selected contacts when triggered.



As well as having a motion sensor and siren, the alarm connects to an app that sends messages to pre-selected contacts when triggered. Photograph: Jonga

Jonga, which means “to look” in Xhosa, launched just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. One of the world’s strictest lockdowns forced Mgiba and Shezi to pivot their strategy. “Instead of going door to door we are now partnering with organisations and doing community rollouts.” Coca-Cola has installed Jonga devices in its Bizniz in a Box shipping containers nationwide and NGOs have offered to sponsor units in communities.

Beyond Covid-19, Jonga’s bigger challenge is scaling up the product across places where violent crime and theft have become endemic. Seed investor Mark Forrester, who has a stake in another tech-based security solution, is impressed by the pair’s “bullish business naivety” combined with their degrees and their experiences of township life, a big plus in finding a creative solution to a problem that has confounded many a business veteran, he says.

“Community is the social fabric of the townships,” says Forrester. “Smart, low-cost, Africa-centric tech can empower these communities.”

While the flatmates have their sights set on the whole continent of Africa and beyond, they know this is all a long way off. That said, says Forrester, they have a “very big and impactful future” provided they can remain “laser-focused on the needs, cultural nuances and price sensitivity of people in emerging markets”.



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