Connecting communities and changing lives; the story of Zenzeleni Community Networks

Published On: 23 February 2022|

South Africa’s first cooperative-owned Internet Service Provider (ISP) began operating in the Eastern Cape in 2012. Zenzeleni Community Networks  started when a group of University of the Western Cape (UWC) researchers joined members of Mankosi community and came up with a plan to provide an affordable telecommunications service for the remote rural community.

Winner of both social impact and innovation awards, Zenzeleni (which means “do it yourselves” in isiXhosa) is a solar-powered, community-owned Wi-Fi telecommunications network solution.

How the Zenzeleni Networks model came about and its far-reaching impact was presented in a case study by Ms Aisha Mahomed Ali (left), Technology Transfer Manager at UWC, as part of the Train-the-Trainer Workshop of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. The workshop, attended by close to 200 participants from 25 of South Africa’s 26 public universities, was funded by the British Council and facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd — Oxford’s Global Innovation Consultancy.

The ambitious Zenzeleni project is an excellent example of how a multidisciplinary research team at UWC and close engagement with community members can result in solutions that address the needs of communities.

The impoverished Mankosi community (partially photographed below) was identified as an area with poor infrastructure often with unreliable or no access to electricity which resulted in patchy and expensive telecommunications and connectivity.

Aimed at providing affordable internet solutions, those who worked on the Zenzeleni team produced a model that consists today of a non-for-profit company and two cooperatives.

This means the co-operatives are the legal internet service providers and community members select those who run and maintain the network. Any income generated from the much reduced data rates (as little as R25p/m) is invested back into the network and into the community. Solar panels are used to power routers and to offer cellphone charging services for a fee, which too is reinvested back into the community.

The non-profit company supports the co-ops in aspects ranging from sourcing donor funds to training and assisting with legal requirements. It also acts as a catalyst for skills and knowledge development and actively engages the broader telecommunications sector on policy directives to provide affordable telecom solutions to impoverished areas.

Zenzeleni’s journey started thanks to a friendship betwee­n UWC doctoral student, Carlos Rey Moreno, and a local community activist, Masibulele ‘Jay’ Siya. The diagram below summarises the solution that emerged from engagements between the two, which led to the involvement of the University of the Western Cape.  The second diagram below depicts the project timeline from 2012, all the way to 2019.

Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande, who visited Mankosi in 2020, said: “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 populations 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.”

During her case study presentation, Ms Ali said the UWC technology transfer office (TTO) continues to play a supporting and advisory role in the Zenzeleni Networks project and has helped with sourcing funding, business model analysis, legal support, marketing,filing of trademarks and when necessary, mediation and relationship management.

With regard to financial stability, income generation is limited and donor funding is still required to fund the NPC as well as to support hardware and the legal set-up of co-operatives.  Current income is therefore insufficient to sustain the community.  The model is complex, and UWC, together with the communities, continually seek ways to improve and adapt to find long term sustainability.

However, Zenzeleni has made an enormous impact by helping bridge the digital divide. It has also given users an opportunity to both study (which proved critical during the Covid-19 pandemic) and apply for jobs online and continues to change lives.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.