Not Your Usual Tech Nerd

His name may be synonymous with the Kayamandi smart township initiative, but Wesley Diphoko doesn’t hail from Silicon Stellies as we know it. He chats with ELMARI RAUTENBACH about his fascination for technology.

Wesley Diphoko believes that you must fix the physical world before taking a township into the digital era.

HE TURNS THE SCREEN for me to see. It shows a tiny white square held between two fingers.

“It’s the new Ai Pin (above),” Wesley says. “A wearable device developed by two former Apple employees and launched in November last year.”

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of the business innovation and technology magazine Fast Company South Africa.

Although his office is in Cape Town and his head office in New York, he’s Stellenbosch born and bred.

A Wi-Fi router at a shisa nyama, a satellite dish at the local high school, an advertisement for uncapped data outside a suburban home … In Kayamandi, signs of digital progress pop up in the most unlikely places.

Raised by his granny in Kayamandi’s Luyolo Street, he now lives on the other side of Koelenhof Road, in Tweespruit Estate, where he’s recently finished building his family home and where he’s also testing an OS (operating system) for a smart home – it’s a work in progress, he says. “We are moving beyond the smartphone era. We must align ourselves with that future.”

The theme for the Google I/O conference he attended in California last year was ‘Making AI more helpful for everybody’.

“The Ai Pin, for example, doesn’t need typed questions,” he explains. “It sits on your shirt, responds to voice questions and ‘sees’ everything you see. It collects and interprets data and displays replies in laser ink on the palm of your hand. To interact with the display, you use your hand – lifting or tilting your palm or closing your fingers.

“If you have a nut allergy and go out, the Ai Pin will scan a restaurant menu, access your health information and warn you about dishes containing nuts. I was recently in China and saw a lamp you could talk to.

But it only understood Mandarin. The Ai Pin will help you communicate with that lamp by translating your English into Mandarin. I’m optimistic about the future. I believe the more challenges we face, the more solutions we will create. By embracing technology, we can address challenges uniquely South African.”

An idea germinating for a long time and helped by some significant stepping stones in his career, led to Wesley’s ‘manifesto’ in September last year: transforming Kayamandi into the first smart township on the African continent using technology and innovation as empowerment tools.

“The goal is to build a model township powered by technology that can, in time, be duplicated in other townships and rural areas struggling with similar challenges.”

Helping residents acquire digital skills, encouraging young entrepreneurs to innovate, and providing them with hardcore digital skills will, over time, empower his hometown and similar communities. This will enable them to address challenges such as education, healthcare and even local government engagement through technology.

Why certain things happen in the digital space and their impact on society have always interested Wesley. “I write stories based not on theory but on a lived experience of working with tech and in technology companies,” he once told an interviewer.

We meet on a quiet weekday morning at Amazink. Across the road from the theatre restaurant, a dog lies sleeping on the steps of a squat building in yellow and turquoise, a faded Coke logo above its entrance and ‘Experience the world from Kayamandi with fibertime’ in black paint on the wall.

Fibertime is the biggest internet provider here,” Wesley says, collecting his bag from the Uber and indicating a lamp post further down the road.

“See the router at the top? They provide Wi-Fi to 10 homes at a time. Homeowners pay only R100 per month. Almost 95% of Kayamandi is already covered by connectivity.”

He has soft features and wears glasses in black Ray-Ban frames, white sneakers and jeans.

A tab dangling from his leather backpack’s zip is “just a locker, gifted by Google, that came with a device that tracks keys”.

Wesley discovered technology when Stellenbosch University donated computers to Kayamandi High School. Everyone interested could take an introductory course and was encouraged to ‘play’. He realised the power of words in Grade 11 when he was appointed as the township correspondent for the local paper, Eikestadnuus, after attending a media course for school learners and co-founding his school newsletter the year before.

“It was 1998, and I felt responsible for giving a voice to our neglected part of Stellenbosch. I realised I could use my insider experience by sharing stories of achievements and entrepreneurial successes. I started taking notice of the businesses around me and took extra classes in economics offered by a teacher from Paul Roos Gymnasium.

“When it was time to go to university, I opted for the lesser-known BCom degree in business and information systems at UWC, studying how to use technology in business. In my second year, I managed a website for my department, introducing news stories about staff and student achievements and turning a static landing page into a go-to attraction. Before graduating, I was part of a team that ran the university website of the communications department.”

From then on, Wesley has always worked at the intersection of technology, media and communications across organisations, writing about what he knows. He’s even looking into buying a small electric vehicle.

“I was part of GoMetro when it was still a start-up developing an app that gives commuters access to train information. It’s now a global company working on an electric minibus taxi project in Stellenbosch with several entities within the university’s Faculty of Engineering and other partners.

“Importantly – and excitingly – this development makes public transport part of the 4th industrial revolution, which represents a profound change in how we live, work and relate to one another.”

Fibertime is the biggest internet provider and the brainchild of local entrepreneur Tinyiko (TK) Khoza, who partnered with Alan Knott-Craig and Rich Henn of PayGoZo to create the company. Routers in the signature turquoise and yellow sit at the top of posts throughout the township and provide Wi-Fi to 10 homes at a time. Connectivity enables small businesses to transact and provide Wi-Fi to their customers.

Wesley believes Kayamandi’s ready access to Stellenbosch University, venture capitalists and the start-up ecosystem gives it a unique advantage to fast-track its transformation into a smart township. “Some of the most remarkable technologies to come from South Africa and Africa started here: Techno Park, SnapScan, Mxit, d6 Communicator for schools, (education), Namola (safety) and Capitec Bank.” (This is the subject of Silicon Stellies, the book he’s writing; he hopes it will be published this year.)

“So we invite all technology and innovation partners, professionals and organisations to participate and to test and implement their technology solutions under the Smart Township banner. This will allow them to assess what implementing their tech solution in townships will mean and help to build the model smart township.”

However, more critical than Stellenbosch’s tech sector’s buy-in is that of Kayamandi itself. “How can people relate to a virtual world or a ‘smart home’ if they don’t have jobs, struggle to get to the nearest clinic or

school or still live in a shack? You start with the basics. Digital literacy is first: how do you deal with data issues, digital safety and the invasion of personal privacy? You appoint a council of community members to set engagement rules for digital companies and oversee digital experiences in the township. You ensure digital justice.

“Ten years ago, I started Kaya Labs, recognised by the World Design Capital 2014. The idea was inspired by the MOOCs (massive open online courses) of the late 2000s. We expose young people to design, technology and business learning material from leading academic institutions, such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford, by making the content available online on the Kaya Labs platform or offline, using a container as a lab.” This idea later evolved into tech labs inside companies, which allow graduates to operate in the real world and innovate. “Independent Media was one of the first to embrace the concept, leading to my technology information column, The Infonomist, in Business Report and, on the strength of that, a spot on SAfm and Umhlobo Wenene talking about the fake versus the real in new tech.

“These days, I use the community platform Lunttu to drive engagement, teach hardcore technology skills to young people and inspire community members to think out of the box by asking what their dream is for Kayamandi for the next 10 years.

“Lunttu is also earmarked as a community operating system, one element being an OS for houses. Once completed, it can be installed in any house, converting it into a smart home, where all the electronic devices are controlled remotely by smartphone or computer.

Wesley encourages people to post content on Lunttu in their home language. “Artificial intelligence feeds off online content; too little is available in our indigenous languages.”

So for all you know, next time you ‘meet’ that talking lamp in China, you can speak to it in isiXhosa.


Name of the granny who raised you and your three younger siblings

Minah Mzileni

Most inspiring businessperson you’ve interviewed

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia – I still think he built one of the best platforms online.

Wesley with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, whom he interviewed in 2018 when Wikipedia hosted its first Africa conference in Cape Town to discuss improving the diversity of knowledge represented on Wikipedia.

Most useful app on your phone or watch

Health app – during Covid-19 I became obsessed with counting my steps.

Coolest gift you’ve ever received

Maybe it’s my standard of what’s cool, but it was a Lego set for my kids. It’s special because the person still remembered that I had little ones after we had travelled together to their headquarters abroad. Lego sets are some of the best educational tools. (Wesley’s Bontle and Tau are eight and five years old.) However, I have recently been offered a gift of a digital watch, the Huawei Watch GT4. It works on Android and iOS devices and is ‘cool’ not because of its looks, but as a technology that works across different operating systems. Apple watches (iOS-powered) don’t work with Android mobile phones, and vice versa. I can use this watch with my iPhone, Samsung and Huawei smartphones.