Prestigious award for UCT project


    [Image] More small African companies will be able
    to venture into e-commerce, thus expanding
    their business, thanks to the new toolkit
    developed by UCT.
    (Image: Bankcard Services)

    •  Prof Jean-Paul van Belle
    UCT Department if Information Systems
    +27 21 650 4256

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    Janine Erasmus

    Professor Jean-Paul van Belle of Cape Town University’s Faculty of Commerce has won an international IBM Faculty award for developing an innovative toolkit to enable small businesses to break into e-commerce.

    The project is designed for small, often cash-strapped African organisations that want to add an e-commerce component to their operations.

    The system is cost-effective and simple to use, and will encourage more small businesses to take the leap into the world of online transacting.

    Belgium-born Van Belle, head of the Information Systems department within the commerce faculty, receives a prize of US$21 500 (more than R162 000).

    Thanks to initial funding from NGO ConnectAfrica, Van Belle has already been able to develop a prototype of his information and communication technology (ICT) toolkit. The IBM award will help the professor to further develop and distribute the handy package.

    This resource helps small enterprises set up their e-commerce venture through step-by-step guidance and exposure to IBM programmes aimed at small and medium enterprises and NGOs.

    Companies start with a self-assessment test to determine their readiness, which also allows them to decide which ICT areas to focus on. Once these steps are complete, the toolkit provides resources to help small companies implement their strategy, with checklists, how-to guides, and other material customised for African conditions.

    The toolkit will be available online, and on CD and DVD as well, all at no charge.

    Harnessing technology

    Van Belle hopes to encourage small African businesses to make greater use of ICT applications.

    There are a number of reasons for the slow adoption of modern technology among African operations, he said. These include lack of knowledge resources in an accessible format, dearth of skills, poor internet access, remote locations, institutional barriers, vendor bias against small companies and expensive software.

    “Bridging the knowledge and resource gaps may narrow the digital divide and also indirectly grow local economies through increased productivity,” he said, adding that this would also help larger ICT organisations such as IBM to become more aware of the needs and challenges facing small organisations in the developing world.

    Professor Mike Wormald, acting Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, agreed, saying, “We believe this will not only increase the efficiency and effectiveness of organisations, but also help SMMEs and NGOs to leap over the digital divide using mobile internet access; customer relationship management; digital storytelling; and open source platforms.”

    Encouraging innovation

    The IBM Faculty Awards programme is a worldwide initiative that aims to link researchers from universities in all countries with those working on IBM research projects. It also encourages the development of courseware and curricula that may drive technology development.

    People and organisations cannot nominate themselves – all nominations must be submitted by an IBM employee in the relevant field. Competition for the prize is fierce, with thousands of applicants from all over the world vying for the top spots. Other institutions in the running for an IBM Faculty award included Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    IBM asks all prize winners to place their work into the public domain so that it may be freely accessible to anyone interested.

    Most of the recipients are from the computer science, engineering, education, and information sectors, while others hail from the physics, astronomy, statistics, marketing and management fields.

    The Faculty Awards are part of the technology giant’s academic programme, which includes the IBM Shared University Research Awards, the IBM PhD Fellowship Programme and the IBM Innovation Awards.

    E-commerce growing in Africa

    A December 2009 report issued by internet application development company White Wall Web stated that South Africa was around four years behind the rest of the world in terms of online trading.

    “We’ll probably never completely close this gap but we will continue to follow quite steadily,” said White Wall Web MD Pete Flynn.

    With the steady growth in the number of internet users in the country, as well as improved access to faster bandwidth, South African businesses should now begin to seriously plan their e-commerce strategies.

    As an incentive, Flynn cited internet-based book and music vendor, whose online turnover is more than that of South Africa’s two top retail chains, Pick n Pay and Shoprite, combined.

    In other parts of the continent e-commerce is slowly gaining ground. The Africa Business Source noted in a 2009 article that over the last decade Africa had faced a number of significant obstacles in the development of e-commerce, in technical, social and political spheres.

    Political upheaval, inadequate infrastructure, huge international debt, armed conflicts and health problems are just a few of these stumbling blocks. The article singled out South Africa as the obvious top performer together with certain North African countries, but most of sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind.

    Today there is a growing number of African companies that successfully use e-commerce, and many of them, said the article, offered mobile access to their facilities so customers can get to grips with the concept via a platform they are already comfortable with.

    Department of Information Systems