BY Anneleigh Jacobsen 5 MINUTE READ

“It’s kind of like reviving a nostalgia
for something that we never fully experienced, actually. We know about
it from movies and from hearing our parents talk, but not many of us have lived as adults in a context where you know your neighbours…” William Rupert Mellor trails off and his business partner and old school friend, Bruce Good, nods earnestly and takes over the train of thought. “Growing up, I would catch a ride to school with the neighbour over the road, but these days we’ve become so insular—it’s reached the stage where you only meet your neighbours from your block of flats when you have a fire drill.”

Having spent time abroad (Mellor in London and Good in New York) and each having started his own successful and ongoing endeavour along the way, they reconnected back in Cape Town and the idea for OurHood—a digitally based, private platform where people can connect with their neighbourhoods—was sparked when they realised the massive trend toward buying local, street-market shopping, home- grown trading, and sharing was as strong in South Africa as anywhere else. And that the need to be able to talk to people within one’s community was possibly even greater here, where security concerns and crime rates mean neighbours could really use a way of instantly sharing news and information.

Being able to communicate with your neighbourhood also means it’s easier to build a community. “That old sense of ‘neighbourliness’ is what we’re looking for, what we’re trying to foster through technology,” says Good, “and our whole view is that if you connect people, you can do more together than alone.” By allowing people to do more together at a neighbourhood level, they believe they can help build a “stronger, safer South Africa”.

They started OurHood as a new venture in August 2013 with a basic mobile responsive website that was self-funded and did a soft launch in May 2014, which did so well that they attracted angel funding from a team based in London and led by another South African.

“And at that stage,” says Mellor, “the elephant in the room was always the app—it had to be done, and soon!” So a portion of the investment funds went to developing the app on both iOS and Android platforms simultaneously, to make it as accessible as possible in the local market.

Originally, the development was outsourced, but the business now has five in-house engineers doing development full-time. “Development is endless; there are always new possibilities, new ideas,” says Mellor. “So now we have a team in-house and we’re launching new things on the app all the time—like, at the moment, we’re developing a peer- review directory where your neighbours can rate local plumbers and doctors and things like that.” Good jokes: “Kind of like TripAdvisor for plumbers.”

But what they don’t joke about at all is the privacy and security of their application and users. Every person who applies to become part of an OurHood neighbourhood is verified to ensure he or she actually lives in that area and is part of the community there: the person either sends in a utility bill, or OurHood mails out a physical postcard to his/ her home with a unique, handwritten code to be input on the website to complete verification. One has to be part of the neighbourhood to be part of, well, OurHood.

This verification not only means people feel safer sharing and engaging within the app, but also that the efficacy of features such as notifications about security warnings, road closures and even loadshedding are highly targeted and get to the right people at the right time. And if you’ve ever tried to decode the loadshedding timetable online, you’ll know how useful that is!

“It’s amazing how fast it’s grown,” Mellor says enthusiastically. “We used to joke about how cool it would be if we ever saw someone needing a ladder and someone else lending them one—and then not too long ago, suddenly it happened: ‘There’s a guy in Sandton who needs a ladder!’ We were thrilled!”

Good adds, “Seeing people starting to talk to each other, starting to make this idea we had really come alive, becomes obsessive. We now have over 900 live neighbourhoods, and there are over 5 000 forum posts a month—we’re utterly addicted to watching it grow and work.”

From a trial ‘Hood in Green Point, and then Camps Bay, the idea suddenly exploded in Johannesburg. “Sandton had arrived!” says Mellor, laughing. “And from then on, all our growth has been organic: Neighbourhoods are requested by users, and we’re building new ones at the rate of about 10 a day at the moment. We even have active neighbourhoods in Namibia, Botswana and Kenya.”

Good says, “We’ve just had our first serious enquiry from a business in London which wants to launch it there, too. The excitement of seeing a business you started grow so fast, and then to have interest from Europe and the UK, is incredible.”

OurHood functions as a mobile centre-point for a community and also forms key partnerships with community organisations such as neighbourhood watches and ratepayers’ associations which can be part of the ‘Hood at no cost—giving them a highly effective way to talk to their members, and helping add even more value to their services.

The app has sections such as a Noticeboard for posting notices about incidents, traffic, lost dogs and cats, and the fact that someone two houses down is looking for a ladder. “I actually sold my dishwasher on OurHood,” says Good, “to a guy who lives in the next block of flats! So much easier than finding what you want on Gumtree, and then realising you need to drive 45 minutes to Table View because you live in Town.”

There is also a What’s On section for events, and a Local Deals section where the adverts reside. As a business, you can buy space to promote your product or new store, or even a locals-only deal, and target exactly the right people. From a user point of view, the ads are not invasive: You can choose to view them, when and where and if you want to. Down the line, it may also be possible to place orders for products and book services straight from the app—not only streamlining tedious chores, but possibly even easing tentative consumers into online shopping.

And while the business model that sits behind the app is driven by advertising, the huge groundswell of interest across the country and beyond has created a type of franchise model that allows people who want to bring the app to their own ‘Hood not only to gain all the benefits the app brings, but also to create a business opportunity for themselves. “We have a lady in Protea, up in Soweto, who has just started a neighbourhood up there, and we also have such partners in other areas in Joburg, Durban and Knysna,” says Good. A neighbourhood, it seems, really does need a neighbour to be at the heart of it—driving local advertising and engagement within the communities they live in and love.

Having spent two years developing great local partnerships and really deep tech to support them, the genuine belief in the idea of good neighbourhoods and neighbourliness is hard to miss, and bodes well for a future where tech brings us all back out into the sunlight to meet our neighbours.