Cape Town – In the mountainous Eastern Cape, Mankosi is a small cluster of villages in Ward 26 of the Nyandeni Municipality.
With a population of about 3 500 people, the average income is about R388 per month.
Most homes are not connected to the electricity grid and residents have to charge their cellphones at local shops.
But the Zenzeleni Community Networks project has brought some relief. Supported by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in partnership with the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and implemented by the Technology Innovation Agency, the project is South Africa’s first cooperative-owned internet service provider telecommunications network.
The project has been running successfully, with residents having access to affordable solar-powered wi-fi telecommunication networks since 2012.
For R25 a user can enjoy unlimited Wi-Fi data valid for 32 days, with a download speed of 2 048 Kbps.
Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Dr Blade Nzimande visited the remote village on Thursday, accompanied by Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Nzimande said the 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 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,” Nzimande said.
Abrahams said she would like the work of the two departments to complement each other, with her department concentrating on connectivity.
UWC played a role in sourcing the required technology and also trained the residents.
The university’s chairperson of Information Systems, Shaun Pather, said South Africa had one of the lowest levels of household internet access in the world.
“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 among the poor.”
To date, Zenzeleni Community Networks has connected three schools, three businesses, two non-government organisations and more than 3 000 users.
A member of the cooperative in Zithulele and traditional leader, Nkosi Dudumayo, welcomed the change the project was bringing.
“Let us not only hear of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in developed areas such as Gauteng. This project has really shown that rural areas such as ours can also benefit,” said Dudumayo.
DSI will invest a further R2 million in the project in the next financial year.