Department of Science and Innovation supports South Africa's first rural community-owned Internet service provider

 

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, visited the remote Mankosi Village, 60 km from Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape on Thursday, 5 March to see a local innovation that has changed the lives of the area's rural residents by giving them access to the Internet.

 

Accompanied by the Minister of Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the project has been running successfully with the community having access to affordable solar-powered, Wi-Fi telecommunication networks since 2012.

 

Located in the mountainous region of the Eastern Cape, Mankosi is a small cluster of villages in Ward 26 of the Nyandeni Municipality. It has about 3 500 people, where the average income is about R388 per month. Most of the homes in the villages are not connected to the electricity grid and residents charge their cellphones at local shops. Some community members say they had to choose between buying basic food items and data, which is very expensive, particularly when your income is low.

 

But the Zenzeleni Community Networks project has brought some relief to residents.  The project supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in partnership with University of the Western Cape and implemented by the Technology Innovation Agency, is South-Africa's first cooperative-owned Internet service provider telecommunications network.

 

The project, which includes the Mankosi and Zithule cooperatives, was established using a social innovation model that provides communication networks to underserviced rural communities.  For R25 a user can enjoy unlimited Wi-Fi data valid for 32 days, with download speed of 2 048 Kbps.

 

The initiative is a bottom-up, citizen-driven socio-technical and economic project that aims to create open and neutral telecommunications network based on a common model.  Community networks enable historically disadvantaged communities, many of which are in rural areas, to obtain the technical and related skills to install and manage their own electronic communications and infrastructure.

 

This kind of community network enables historically disadvantaged communities, many of which are in rural areas, to obtain the technical and related skills to install and manage their own electronic communications and infrastructure.

 

Community networks further contribute to the empowerment of the marginalised population by fostering their local economy, creating employment, developing technical and entrepreneurial skills and contributing to the social cohesion of the communities they serve.

 

The Minister said this successful model could be replicated in other rural communities.

 

"By providing affordable connectivity in areas where there was none, or where it is not feasible for large telecommunications companies, community networks contribute to the empowerment of marginalised population by fostering the local economy, creating local employment and small, micro and medium enterprises, and contributing to the social cohesion of the community they serve."

 

Dr Nzimande said that the DSI prioritised innovation at grassroots level and was paying attention to include a vibrant social and community-based innovation system that can draw on the creative potential of all South Africans.

 

"Technical and related skills, including support to install and operate their own communication services and infrastructure, were made available to the Zenzeleni Community Networks project, allowing communities to access a more reliable network at a cheaper price than the current market offerings," said Dr Nzimande.

 

“This is the reason that we are here today, to celebrate this historic achievement with you.”

 

Minister Abrahams concurred, saying that she would like to work of the two departments compliment each other, with the DSI focussing on innovation and her Department concentrating on connectivity.

 

 

The University of the Western Cape played a huge role in sourcing the required technology and also trained the residents. The university's Professor and Chair of Information Systems, Shaun Pather, said that South Africa has one of the lowest levels of household Internet access in the world.

 

"But the digital divide is about more than just universal access – especially in rural South Africa, where infrastructure is scarce and mobile networks can be prohibitively expensive. The digital divide is also about how ICTs facilitate social and economic outcomes amongst the poor. As such our goal in the Zenzeleni project is to catalyse the rural Digital Ecosystem."

 

The professor added that the Zenzeleni project was about developing an innovative community-ownership model.

 

"This initiative addresses the true access gap in rural South Africa, as normal market forces have not addressed the rural divide."

 

To date, Zenzeleni Community Networks has connected three schools, three businesses, two non-government organisations and over 3 000 users.  In the past two months alone, it has registered network traffic of 3 000 gigabytes.

 

A member of the cooperative in Zithulele and traditional leader Nkosi Dudumayo welcomed the change that the project is bringing to the people of the rural Eastern Cape.

 

“Let us not only hear of the Fourth Industrial Revolution only in developed areas such as the Gauteng province. This project has really shown that rural areas such as ours can also benefit from such. This means that our children no longer need to travel to urban areas to access information that will benefit their future,” said Nkosi Dudumayo.

 

This access to information assisted a number of young people in Mankosi and Zithulele to have access to higher education institutions. Through Zenzeleni people like Athini Makhaula, and Phatheka Siya have had access to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme while others like Sinethemba Lukhozi and Monica have earned skills to fix problems on the network whenever necessary.

 

The Department will invest a further R2 million in the project in the next financial year.

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