Failure Story: Microsoft's Digital Villages

For this week's assignment we were asked to research and define a failure story in the realm of tcch initiatives in Africa. I found a project that Microsoft attempted back in 1997 when Bill Gates visited the township of Soweto in South Africa.  This township was ridden with Apartheid and extreme poverty.  He promised to provide the first free-access "digital village" to the community that would be housed in the Chiawelo Community Center providing all individuals in the town access to "the information age". The initiative was orchestrated by Microsoft and sponsored by local computer companies and a US development organization.

Here is a press release about the project.

Unfortunately, as outlined in the article South Africa: Why Have All the Rural Tech Projects Failed? from 2013, the project failed for a couple of reasons:

  1. No arrangement for maintenance and operation of the project: the sponsors stopped funding the activities and the digital village did not function after this point
  2. Lack of resources: no reliable electricity and network
  3. failure to include the local community in planning: lack sufficiently skilled teachers

Even though this project was a failure, Microsoft did have some success stories in other areas in South Africa as outlined in this journal article.  Perhaps they learned from the above experience and had a better implementation than the one deployed in Soweto.

Here was Microsoft's initial proposal for the project:

Microsoft in the community
Digital Villages aims and objectives

The objectives of the programme are as follows:

·          To make technology accessible to communities of SA.

·          To build a future resource pool of technologically trained students for future recruitment.

·          To assist in demystifying technology in communities, especially among the learners and teachers.

·          To provide personal computer skills.

·          To enable traditionally disadvantaged communities to generate formal sector employment.

·          To connect disadvantaged communities to the global communication network.

·          To enable people to market skills and products.

·          To support local businesses actively as service providers.

·          To develop measurable and attainable goals for the company and benefiting communities.

·          To liaise and corporate with other sections of Microsoft to ensure participation and to support business goals.


·          To use our existing digital villages in terms of the development stage and imperative needs of many communities in South Africa, and in line with the present and future needs of the various business units within Microsoft and our partners.

·          These replicable models are a vital aspect of the project as any new innovations can be tried and tested in them.

·          To exploit the opportunities that are present in terms of the developmental stage and imperative needs of many communities in South Africa, and in line with the present and future needs of the various business units within Microsoft and the business partners.


Community involvement and the establishment of committees

Once a suitable centre has been identified, the community will be approached and will be engaged in the necessary negotiations and briefings regarding the project.

A committee comprising the partners and the community will be established.  The community members will be trained and prepared for the take-over once they are ready and the business partners have completed their term as per agreement.

An agreement will be drafted to spell out the roles and responsibilities of the business partners and the community members.  This should be done to safeguard the relationship in case problems and misunderstandings may develop.

Future funding of the Digital Village will be discussed and properly planned.



Microsoft will approach its business partners to donate hardware.  Joint venture programmes will be encouraged to ensure that there is hardware available for the project.

Joint venture initiatives are also encouraged for other contributions that will see to the success of the project, eg. administrative costs, training and the future planning for the centre.



The proposed centre has to have:

·          An automated telephone line (preferably an ISDN line for the Internet).

·          Electricity.

·          Secured premises.

·          An Internet Service Provider.


Project sustainability

The established committee will be trained and assisted to prepare for the self sufficiency of the centre.  The students will be encouraged to form Computer Clubs and make a contribution towards the usage of the centre.  Adults will be expected to contribute a minimal amount of money to be registered as members of the centre.

The committee will be assisted to open a banking account where these contributions will be deposited.

A Trust Fund will be established to allow the committee to raise funds on behalf of the centre.

The viability of a particular centre will be evaluated on an agreed and regular basis, and will be subject to the continued interest of all parties.


Benefits to companies

·          To prepare and train a future workforce by offering technology education facilities to learners.

·          Through publicity, for the companies to be perceived as responsible citizens.

·          To establish relationship with National and Provincial governments regarding projects and their implementation.

·          To establish relationship with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and communities.


Press and publicity

·          To ensure sufficient publicity is arranged for project launches and ensure that partners are fully involved and acknowledged.

·          Arrange publicity during project milestones.

·          Announce any special activities and achievements on projects.

·          Inform communities and stakeholders of the closing down of projects at the end of project.

·          Compile annual reports and list all partners and names of the digital villages they supported including success stories.


Evaluation and measurement of success

Annual evaluation will be conducted and recommendations made for further improvement of the centers.

Relevant stakeholders will be identified and participation invited where applicable.

The project will be considered successful in communities where evidence of commitment, achievement, organisation and structure are present.

The support of the community will be assessed through the number of paid up memberships, number of regular attendants and the trainees per courses offered at the centre.