CIO at NSFAS, Modibedi Oliphant, believes it’s time to give back

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For Modibedi, digital transformation and changing lives go hand in hand.

Like many state entities, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has its challenges. However, as CIO, Modibedi Oliphant believes its digital transformation is a tangible way to build up the next generation of professionals.

Funded primarily by the Department of Higher Education and Training, NSFAS provides bursaries to South African undergraduate students from poor and working-class families. As a software development student who benefitted from TEFSA financial aid, Modibedi understands all too well the importance of accessible education.

“I'm a beneficiary of the tertiary education fund of South Africa (TEFSA), the old NSFAS, myself, and I believe that the more professionals South Africa has, the better our country and continent become,” says Modibedi.

A (digital) transformational agenda

Modibedi joined NSFAS as change CIO, expected to transform NSFAS’s technical landscape. He developed a digital strategy to overhaul the existing technology systems because they were obsolete and problematic. Built and procured when NSFAS was a loan business, they were no longer appropriate for what the entity had become: a bursary business.

“After Fees Must Fall, NSFAS had to change how it operated, and its systems weren’t practical considering the business processes in place,” he explains. “When I joined as the head of information and technology, I proposed a transformational agenda.”

According to Modibedi, his proposition went through multiple iterations, but it was eventually approved by the board. Central to his strategy is transforming the entity’s entire digital layer, underpinned by a central common database, starting from when a student leaves matric and applies for funding.

“The first touchpoint used to be a physical form, then a web-based portal, so we started the overhaul there,” says Modibedi. “I have a small team of developers. They needed to maintain the current system, but we brought in an external software development house to build the new system. This way, the internal team gives them context and clarity with parallel workflows.”

“This is South African data and it’s valuable”

Modibedi says his team is building a new data layer that will be centrally accessed and integrated with other institutions. For example, higher education institutions will be able to connect with NSFAS, as well as the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Revenue Service and so forth. “Up to now, data has been exchanged through flat files; we want to change that. From Wits University to a TVET in Limpopo, they’ll all be integrated.”

Modibedi adds that this process will involve data cleansing so that what is shared and accessed is trusted and secure. KYC (know your customer) authentication and biometrics will authenticate a student’s digital identity against their physical identity, and their data will be protected using multiple layers of security.

“We want to use an encrypted blockchain vault,” says Modibedi. “We also want Sars, Home Affairs, and other relevant stakeholders’ data to be super secured. This is South African data and it’s valuable. We must protect it because data determines an organisation’s competitive edge or weakness.”

A holistic solution beyond tuition fees

Modibedi says his flagship project is called Project Orion, which is essentially a super app. Once complete, students can do everything on the platform: they’ll see their balances, apply for student accommodation, or organise career guidance. According to Modibedi, some value-adds aren’t necessarily directly related to student funding, but NSFAS can leverage them through technology. “We’re going to provide a holistic solution for students beyond the tuition fee,” he adds.

Project Orion has three phases, and the first is to provide an online portal with a digital twin of the NSFAS app. Modibedi says that almost one million students already use the portal, and universities now can send NSFAS their data. Within this project, there are several focus areas of development, including building system functionality so that when a student applies for funding, they can also identify a residence of their choice, all within the same platform. According to Modibedi, this will help with student accommodation management and allow accommodation to be accredited.

“Inputs must justify the output,” says Modibedi. “Students can’t live next door to a tavern, for example. The NSFAS student accommodation remains a thorny issue that needs to be resolved asap. However, building and adopting this Airbnb-like NSFAS platform is a step towards better regulation and standards for student accommodation in South Africa.”

Modibedi says that his small team has made progress in a relatively short time. Under his leadership, NSFAS is now a native cloud entity with a data team and a robust cybersecurity. Eight sub-systems were created in less than four months, and his team is on track to develop an end-to-end, 4IR-enabled digital solution.

“It’s time for me to give back with the experience I’ve acquired,” concludes Modibedi. “As CIO at NSFAS, I’m solving multiple problems: business processes, security, governance, data, and brand-repositioning. I’m passionate, and I believe this goes beyond just me as a CIO. This entity can change students’ lives – it changed mine.”

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