Technology is helping to solve a very real physical problem that millions of South Africans live with – not having an address. The lack of an address means people battle to receive post, open accounts, register for school, even call on an emergency service. 

Now, the South African Post Office is revolutionising service delivery in some of the country’s most remote areas with an innovative geographical information system (GIS) which is giving millions of rural citizens postal addresses for the first time.
Twiggs Xiphu, head of corporate services at the SA Post Office, says the effects of having an address, rather than simply a delivery point, are considerable.
“This system is making a bigger difference than we could ever have imagined in these remote communities,” says Xiphu. “The ability to have a fixed address has spawned numerous business and socio-economic benefits. We are not only fulfilling our mandate, but doing excellent business in the process.”
The system – the brainchild of a mail clerk in Pretoria – allows people without conventional street addresses to be tracked accurately on the GIS, which depicts the exact geographical location of the address. It involves mapping delivery points by identifying their correct location on the earth’s surface.
Each address is assigned a number, which has co-ordinates that are registered on the GIS system so that other stakeholders – like emergency services – can find the address as well.
Maphumulo Village, in the Eastern Cape, was one of the rural areas where the SA Post Office started providing addresses. While some services like basic telephony already existed, tarred roads and electricity are still lacking to this day.
However, having an address has allowed many entrepreneurs to start small businesses, which has lifted the economy of the entire region.
The supplying of addresses is done according to the village, for which a code is supplied – for instance, 01. Next, the tribal boundary or zone is numbered – 02 – and then the house number follows – 01. The physical address would then be 010201, but the number that appears on the house will be 10201.
“The application allows our field agents to use a map view of all address data,” says Xiphu. “They are able to see the address in question, along with the surrounding environment such as street parcels, land parcels, and topography.
"Addresses can be added, modified, or deleted, and reports including the current map display and relevant details can be generated in various formats.”
Household addressing was traditionally done by a range of various bodies, including local government, electricity suppliers, Statistics SA, telephone suppliers and the SA Post Office. The result of these varied databases was that there was a lot of confusion and inconsistency around addresses.
Xiphu says the South African Post Office now has high quality postal address data for most of the country, maintained constantly by a delivery network that visits almost each address location in South Africa every week.
According to 2001 census statistics, South Africa had 11 205 705 households. Of these, only 4 112 336 were street addresses, leaving a variance of 7 093 369 households – 63% of the total households in the country. Those provinces with vast rural areas showed the highest address shortfall.
“It was against this background that the SA Post Office adjusted its strategy to ensure access to postal services for all households, and providing addresses that can be used by other stakeholders,” says Xiphu. “We have focused on address provision in under-serviced areas and disadvantaged communities, and providing physical addresses in rural areas, including farms. The results have exceeded our wildest expectations.”
Today, the SA Post Office delivers more than 5,5-million mail items to nearly 10-million addresses each year. With a network of 2 550 branches and outlets – larger than that of the country’s four largest banks combined – Xiphu says the SA Post Office is well positioned to deliver vital services to the majority of the country’s population, connecting the disadvantaged to the global economy.
The SA Post Office is a sponsor of innovationTOWN, an initiative designed to change the way South Africans think about innovation. It has the backing of some of South Africa’s top innovators and entrepreneurs, including CIDA City Campus, African Bank and the Branson School of Entrepreneurship.