ADTech: harnessing the power of digital

Finding solutions to challenging situations, be they social or environmental, is the speciality of ADTech, a Stellenbosch-based start-up that puts digital technology to optimum use to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans. Mirandi Nel talks to the company’s founders about making a difference.

Local sustainability champions Wihan Bekker (left) and Jean Pierre du Plessis (right) are putting data and technology to work.

Civil engineer Wihan Bekker (27) is a keen surfer with a burning passion for the environment. Jean Pierre du Plessis (32), an attorney with experience in the banking sector, loves history and has always been interested in finding ways to enrich contemporary society in South Africa by weaving into it the diverse strands of the nation’s various cultures. The two young men met in 2018, introduced by a mutual friend who recognised they had more in common than merely being alumni of Stellenbosch University; both are determined to play a part in making positive change in South Africa and improving the lives of its citizens.

Wihan and Jean Pierre spent many evenings and weekends thinking about how they could turn their vision into reality and by the end of 2019, they had founded African Data Technologies, or ADTech. Its goal? To use data and technology to help create a South Africa that is socially just, economically inclusive and capable of protecting and restoring its environment.

The team’s first impact-focused projects kicked off in the Stellenbosch area in 2020 and included a community-based recycling venture in Klapmuts and the establishment of several vegetable gardens for local food security. As beneficial as these projects were, Jean Pierre and Wihan realised that in order to make a significant difference in people’s lives they would have to be bolder in their approach. And although the ADTech team was gaining valuable experience and insight, it was not on a path to making the kind of transformative impact that Wihan and Jean Pierre had envisaged. It became clear they would not make a dent in South Africa’s social and environmental challenges by running projects on their own.

“We went back to the drawing board and drew inspiration from the book Lean Impact by Ann Mei Chang,” says Jean Pierre. “It teaches you to think big about solving problems in society and to fall in love with the problem you are trying to address rather than with your solution,” adds Wihan.

Their new approach stemmed from the realisation that digital technology – in the form of smartphones and readily available open-source information – is becoming an increasing part of everyday life. This presents an opportunity to provide communities with the tools they need to help themselves, with the bonus that the resulting positive impacts build confidence going forward.

“I must credit Wihan for continuously highlighting the fact that by creating a digital footprint of work, you instantly provide objective proof of positive actions that can be replicated and used to generate support for projects,” says Jean Pierre. “Wihan is the data and technology in ADTech, so I guess I must be the African part,” he adds with a smile.

Let’s get digital

ADTech created a data capturing system to record the delivery of food parcels during lockdown.

With this renewed focus, one of the team’s early projects was to assist Stellenbosch Unite’s relief efforts during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Stellenbosch Unite, a collaboration between Stellenbosch Municipality, Stellenbosch University, Visit Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch Civil Advocacy Network and the Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust, provided social support for vulnerable community members during lockdown and ADTech’s role was to transfer records of delivered food parcels from paper-based to digital. By creating an automated process to capture data, the team vastly improved the efficiency and traceability of Stellenbosch Unite’s relief efforts.

“The collaborative spirit of this initiative is helping establish Stellenbosch as a global leader in running projects that have social impact, especially with the immense knowledge and support of Stellenbosch University,” says Wihan.

ADTech has established working relationships with many of Stellenbosch University’s departments and student organisations, including the African Wildlife Economy Institute and the Maties Citizen’s Science Society. “We have been humbled by the willingness of different departments within the university to offer their time and knowledge to assist with impact projects,” comments Jean Pierre. “In this regard, the assistance and time provided by Dr Shayne Jacobs of the Conservation Ecology Department, who sadly passed away suddenly in 2021, stand out.”

Digital solutions for ecological issues

Wihan and Jean Pierre collected data on the clearing of alien vegetation in the Bottelary Hills Conservancy.

Dr Jacobs’ knowledge and guidance helped the team develop a pilot project tested at Reyneke Organic Wines in 2021 as part of the Bottelary Hills Conservancy’s bid to collect data about the clearing of alien plant species and the restoration of native ecosystems. This work led to the inclusion of ADTech in the Biodiversity Partners Programme, a flagship initiative launched by the French Government’s development agency, Agence Française de Développement. The programme involved 30 Southern African entrepreneurs whose activities focus on biodiversity and the environment and who participated in an intensive knowledge exchange from July to November 2021. It included contributions from Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, further strengthening the global recognition of Stellenbosch as a leading knowledge partner in Africa.

As part of the programme, the ADTech team’s work at Reyneke Wines led Wihan and Jean Pierre to discover a new issue with significant ramifications for fire prevention in the Winelands. During a presentation by the local fire protection association at Bottelary Hills Conservancy’s annual general meeting, they became aware that ensuring the maintenance of firebreaks on farms as required by law was a highly complex challenge for the association. And as climate change exacerbates the frequency and severity of wildfires, it’s a challenge that will only get more demanding.

“We realised the digital frameworks we are developing – by using satellite imagery and other mobile technologies – could greatly improve the planning and maintenance of firebreaks. At the same time they could reduce, by some margin, the risk of wildfires spreading out of control,” says Wihan.

After pitching the plan to Santam, South Africa’s largest insurance company, ADTech developed a groundbreaking pilot project, also involving the Bottelary Hills Conservancy, to ensure the maintenance of firebreaks and significantly decrease the risk of wildfires.

Seedlings were grown for community vegetable gardens.

Think global, act local

Stellenbosch continues to garner attention as an African hub of innovation. For example, the proposed Adam Tas Corridor development – a bold urban-change project stretching 5km along the R310 and R44 from the Cape Sawmills site to Kayamandi and Cloetesville – has sparked the interest of a Belgian IT company of good repute, Cipal Schaubroeck, which provides state-of-the-art IT solutions to city, town and provincial administrations, as well as governmental agencies. Its interest in the Adam Tas Corridor has led to a technology exchange agreement by which it will supply ‘smart city’ digital tools and apps to be tested and developed in the Stellenbosch area.

ADTech is a partner in the agreement and has been tasked with developing the Our City App in Stellenbosch, a smart city app already used in more than 80 towns in Flanders. “Many of the app’s features would be helpful in a smaller community setting, such as a business park or estate. So, we approached the board of the Technopark Special Rating Area (TechstelSRA). Its members told us a tool was needed to provide a single point of contact and digital communication between all the stakeholders of Technopark,” explains Jean Pierre.

And so ADTech, with the assistance of Evesis Software, brought the vision of the board members to life by creating an advanced smart app that connects the Technopark business community and the board.

“We hope to expand the app’s use to other communities within the broader Stellenbosch area and to encourage collaboration and engagement, such as with the municipality and the University of Stellenbosch,” says Francois Smuts, a member of the TechstelSRA board.

The future

“The future is decidedly digital and it is our responsibility to use these technologies to make it more sustainable,” observes Wihan.

He and Jean Pierre understand that Africa will play a crucial role as a global leader in the use of fintech, community savings and digital transactions.

“The pandemic showed us the Stellenbosch community can pull its resources together in a highly collaborative way to solve complex problems,” concludes Jean Pierre.

By harnessing the knowledge of all the different stakeholders in Stellenbosch, the ADTech team’s vision is to create a network of highly transparent and effective African impact investment opportunities, with Stellenbosch as a global leader in this field.