START Net Project aims to change the lives of many in South Africa
-by Jasmine Harris, Intern, Office of International Affairs
The Sustainability and Technology for the Advancement of Rural Tourism Network (START Net) is an innovative project led by Dr. Duarte Morais, Associate Professor in the department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. Dr. Morais recently began working at NC State University in August of 2010, coming to us from Penn State University. His work focuses on increasing indigenous knowledge and poverty mitigation through tourism development. The central goal of the START Net project is to “strengthen the rural livelihoods and well-being through tourism entrepreneurship and cell phone-enabled social networks.” A team of NC State faculty and students traveled to South Africa to work with the University of Pretoria and the locals of South African communities to put this plan into full effect.
The project is funded by an Seed Grant program initiated by NC State and the University of Pretoria. It has been awarded to faculty members at both institutions to begin collaborative research programs, and is an outstanding experience both for both the team from NC State and correspondents from Pretoria. The NC State team consisted of Dr. Morais, Dr. Fay Payton, doctoral student Kate Martin and undergraduate students Asia Murphy (FER) and Jonathan Payne (PRTM). The team also brought over a cell phone engineer from Penn State, and they all worked with a team of five from Pretoria. The students were granted research grants to participate in the project.
The first couple of months in South Africa for START Net consisted of one-on-one research with the communities in which the teams conducted interviews and held conversations with the locals to get a since of their livelihoods which would help them in determining in what ways they can innovate usage of technology for improvement in their lives. A lot of these interviews became very personable as locals discussed with the NC State team of faculty and students issues within their community such as AIDS and discrimination. The locals were very open to discussing the way they live with the team. When asking them what they liked and disliked about their lives, Dr. Morais mentioned that the locals thought that their lives were pretty good and they were happy. “They live in these primitive, basic shacks with carbonated metal, siding that you could see through to the outside, with limited healthcare and limited education, but yet they still say that their life is pretty good. They help each other. We have so much and we’re always complaining, but these folks have so little and they are happy with what they have.”
The team would visit the townships outside of the city, where non-whites were forced to go after a certain time of the day, to talk to the locals about their lives and how tourism could help them. While visiting the townships they would encounter some tourists, but there was no interaction between the tourists and the people that stayed in the communities. “Western tourists would past right by poor communities and these tourists were hungry for meaningful interaction with the rural people, but tourism companies prevent that by wanting to capture every dime the tourists spend,” Dr. Morais said. The people in the communities do not know how to advertise themselves to these tourists, with little to know internet access and possible literacy issues.
The NC State START Net team met with telecommunications and tourism planning companies at Pretoria to discuss the plan for helping these communities. Because most people in the rural communities use cell phones whether it is to keep in touch with family or other reasons, the plan was to collect data on their cell phone usage, in which they could use their cell phones to market themselves and make money off of the tourism industry. It would create tourism services that will let consumers interact and buy things directly from the locals instead of going through a tourism business, so that they too will benefit from this industry. This will be done by creating an “eBay style” system or reservation system.
The recent visits to South Africa were definitely inspiring for the team, especially the students. Dr. Morais stated, “It was very meaningful for me to see the students interviewing and engaging with the people. They were great at capturing the topic and genuinely interested in the information we were looking for. Their contributions really helped. I plan to involve students again in these kinds of things.”