Creating a Digital – Yet Rural – Africa

Editor’s Note: This article has been published as part of S&S’s partnership with Brightest Young Minds (BYM), a 17-year-old non-profit company that aims to identify, connect and mobilize Africa’s most innovative young people.  


South Africa is a country largely recognised as having a dichotomy of economies. On one hand, it is often touted as being the gateway to Africa, containing Sandton (Johannesburg), the continent’s richest square mile. On the other hand, it is a place where 9.2% of the population are still without access to clean running water and 14.6% lack access to electricity. Coupled with these staggering statistics is the high cost of mobile data – a seemingly ubiquitous consumable in the modern world – which studies have shown results in 50% of rural South Africans not using the Internet. In fact, it has been shown that South Africans pay some of the highest prices globally for mobile data, almost guaranteeing low usage in rural communities where budgets are already spread thin with the cost of household necessities. However, all is not as hopeless as it seems for the 6,000-person remote community of Mankosi in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

Situated 60 kilometres from the nearest city, Mankosi is a community beset by the unemployment that is rife throughout the rest of the country. This translates to an inherent need for financially-sustainable solutions to the many problems facing the community. Enter the Zenzeleni Networks Project, a unique Internet Service Provider (ISP) in South Africa’s market owing to its registered not-for-profit element which works directly with the community and co-operatives therein to deliver its services. This model has proven to be successful in both the developed and developing contexts of global economics, with successful initiatives seen in Spain, Mexico and Zambia.

Zenzeleni, which translates to “do it yourself” from isiXhosa (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), is a project that envisions the community of Mankosi as not looking for a hand-out, but rather for a hand-up – and it has started off in the best way. In 2012, a senior researcher from the University of the Western Cape proposed a plan for a mesh networking infrastructure to community leaders in Mankosi to get the community involved, as the plan was to have the community members take ownership of running the network. With this plan accepted by the elders in Mankosi, the team got to work.

As the community runs all aspects of the project themselves, all revenues stay in the community, with the co-operatives and residents themselves responsible for making decisions as to how to spend the money they receive. This, for example, has resulted in the issuing of small-scale loans for residents to set up small businesses. While current revenues are relatively low when compared to the corporate ISPs in the country, they are expected to grow to levels where the co-operatives will be able to hire individuals to maintain the growing network. Critical to this revenue growth, especially in these early stages, is the licence exemption provided by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). This exemption allows Zenzeleni to offer its services and run its infrastructure without adding fees, meaning that the major expenses incurred come from purchasing the backhaul Internet connectivity, which Zenzeleni is able to get at wholesale prices. All this translates into lower costs for the community, with free local calls and calls to other networks 50% of the normal price – and data costing just one tenth of other ISPs’ price. Zenzeleni really is making being connected a service that all can enjoy.

Beyond the increased connectivity this project creates is an innovative approach to the problem of not being connected to an electric grid. All nodes within the mesh network are solar powered, thereby creating an effective and environmentally-friendly solution, while also creating locations for Zenzeleni customers to power their devices – such as cell phones – and the houses that host the nodes within the community.

It seems that Brand South Africa’s slogan of “Inspiring new ways” is a lived experience in Mankosi. Only time will tell if this new and innovative way of thinking in this rural Eastern Cape community can be replicated in other parts of the country. At present, though, not only is Zenzeleni helping to connect more people and communities to the Internet, it is enabling them to physically use the services simply because they can afford to do so.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on January 25, 2018


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