About a month into my time at Paperight, we hired three outlet managers, Zukisani, Zimkita and Yazeed. Their job was – and in Yazeed’s case, still is – to promote Paperight to photocopy outlets and to support them in their Paperight-related operations.
One day, Zimkita met an old friend by chance while visiting an outlet. His name was Zakes Ncanywa, and he had, until very recently, worked in a Big Pharma company. When Zakes asked Zimkita what she was up to nowadays, she explained that she was working for Paperight, and looking for outlets to sign up. Zakes was on his way back to his hometown of Peddie, in the rural Eastern Cape (a good couple hours’ drive from any major city), to set up an internet café/computer store, to serve what he saw as a huge, untapped demand for technology in the town. He bought old computers in Cape Town, had them refurbished, then brought them back to the Eastern Cape to sell for affordable prices.
We all met in Arthur’s kitchen one afternoon to discuss how we might help him set up a Paperight outlet. There were problems, however: there was no Telkom interchange in Peddie, and where his house was didn’t fall under a 3G coverage zone, so a USB dongle was ineffective. We thought that this would make a great success story if we could make the outlet work. We made tentative plans for me to meet up with him.
In May 2012, I was scheduled to go to Grahamstown to meet with some outlets and see if we could set up a pilot Paperight project at Rhodes University. While I was there I thought I would go through to Peddie to meet with Zakes. He agree to take me on his rounds – selling computers, visiting schools, and the sort – one Wednesday. I borrowed my girlfriend’s car and drove on the windy N2 for an hour and a half until I came to Peddie. Zake’s house was across a still-being-constructed highway, along a network of very confusing dirt roads and over some worryingly steep hills. I arrived at his house a little worse for wear after getting stuck on a steep incline near a field of very skittish sheep. He stayed in large rondawel connected to his mother’s home. Inside was the most eccentric collection of electronics and materials: computer towers stacked ten-high, photocopiers, CRT monitors, and stacks of Paperight matric exam packs.
From there we traveled to a school, Nathaniel Pamla High School, where the teachers seemed overworked but received us relatively warmly. Zakes chatted to them about matric exam packs, and I explained Paperight. I don’t think they really understood what I was explaining – my fault more than theirs, as I was tripping over my words – but they seemed enthusiastic. They wanted to buy a computer from Zakes, too, so Zakes and I travelled back to his house, brought a computer back and set it up for them. They explained they were promised a computer lab from the local government, but it never materialised. He figured that, in the meantime, the school could buy some computers from them.
Afterward we went into Peddie’s small town centre to have a look at some potential premises. I was shouted at by an elderly man for taking photographs inside an arcade. There were many Chinese shops, selling the most bewildering ranges of foreign bric-a-brac. It was a strange experience. Zakes and I we chatted more about technology challenges in the rural Eastern Cape, and then I went back to Grahamstown.
On my return back to Cape Town the following week, I started writing up the experience as a wiki post. I had the idea to pitch the story as a feature on rural technology and entrepreneurship to the Mail & Guardian – and they took it. My piece, which backgrounded Paperight and focused more on deficient ICT infrastructure and Zakes’ own tenacity, was eventually published and made a good impression. So much so that a certain South African weekly magazine plagiarised it, but that’s another story.