This study dealt with the issue of sustainability of ICT4D initiatives being a problem with few success stories (Heeks, 2002, Toyama, 2010). Many of these initiatives were planned and executed in a top-down fashion by large funders and governments, and these failures have stimulated the search for new strategies to achieve long-term sustainability.
One possible approach is to consider the different levels of systems that are involved. The reasons for failure lie inside the scope of a project, within the community itself, and outside the community in the larger socio-economic system which includes the economy. A systems approach with respect to the analysis of the sustainability (or lack thereof) of development initiatives was therefore adopted. The Choice Framework of Dorothea Kleine (2010) was used since it is a systemic approach, developed in the study of ICT4D initiatives, that embraces the complexity of engaging with development paradigms, societal structures and personal agency.
The research was done on a large South African government initiative, the Broadband-for-All (BB4All), community-based wireless mesh network project which aimed to provide a cost-effective way of enabling reliable broadband connectivity in rural areas. The project had two key aspects, the provision of a large-scale demonstrator of a wireless mesh network (WMN) as a broadband solution and the establishment of a Village Operator (VO) model to support access to and increase the use of the technology. The teachers and learners in more than 170 schools were the primary customers. Young people from local communities were trained as VOs to become local entrepreneurs (micro-enterprises) responsible for operating and supporting the BB4All service in their assigned cluster of schools and respective communities.
The research focus was the sustainability of the VOs. The Choice Framework was used to provide a context for the research regarding the role played by social resources (social capital) in contributing to the sustainability of the VO micro-enterprises. In-depth interviews were held with all but one of the 15 VOs in order to develop an understanding of their social capital and the influence thereof on them as entrepreneurs. The importance and usefulness of social capital in supporting sustainability at VO and initiative level was analysed. Three major themes emerged that were analysed in detail, namely, the role of social capital, community service and social entrepreneurship, as well as the development of networks of innovation.
At a theoretical level, the research reflected on implications of the findings for the role of social capital in the Choice Framework. At a practical level, considerations for using a social capital perspective in order to improve the conceptualisation, design, implementation and transfer of ICT4D initiatives for sustainability were developed.