Calls to landlines and cellphones are charged at a fraction of the cost charged by other telecoms operators.
Reimagining how, and how affordably, telephone and internet services could be provided to rural South Africa by rural South Africans themselves, the Zenzeleni project at the University of the Western Cape has been named South Africa’s Best Innovation with Social Impact.

Beating out competition from universities and research institutions from around country, the project was awarded the accolade at the Department of Science and Technology(DST) Innovation Bridge Technology Showcase and Matchmaking Event in Joburg in September.

The award follows on the heels of the project's finalist place and winner of the community vote - out of 98 submissions from 27 countries - in the Equal Rating Innovation Challenge of the Mozilla Foundation, the social engagement arm of the open-source Mozilla project, announced earlier this year.

The awards are feathers in the cap for the researchers in a group called Bang (Bridging Application and Network Gaps), based in UWC’s Department of Computer Science, who first proposed the Zenzeleni approach in 2012 and have done the bulk of the research and development for the project since then, explains Professor Bill Tucker.

It’s also recognition of the project’s bold but not-quite-yet-realised ambitions, says Tucker.

Zenzeleni started in 2012 when a group of UWC researchers, led by Dr Carlos Rey-Moreno, together with members of Mankosi community in the Eastern Cape, led by teacher Masibulele Siya, came up with a plan to provide an affordable telecommunications service for the remote rural community.

There, residents often pay a premium for services provided by big-name telecoms providers; it’s not unusual, for example, for middlemen to charge R7 for R5 airtime.

After discussions with the community's tribal authority, it was agreed to set up a mesh network in the area, so called because of its spread-out distribution of the system’s wireless radio “nodes”, ie wi-fi routers.

In Mankosi, the mesh network covers 30km2 and is made up of a dozen routers that are scattered around “safe” homes in the community (there has been no theft).

The routers run open-source firmware and software, like that of the international LibreRouter project, to which UWC’s Bang group contributes.

The system is powered by solar panels installed on the roofs of the host homes.

This mesh network functions as a low-energy alternative to the towering masts or beacons that are the trademark of most telecoms services. Tucker says it’s cheap and sustainable.

The service allows for free calls in the community, from the homes where the nodes are. Calls to landlines and cellphones are charged at a fraction of the cost charged by other telecoms operators.

Super-cheap data is available, costing almost 1/20 of the price charged by mobile network operators in the area. The demand is generated by users buying discounted bundles, and by local businesses as well.

Community members can also pay to charge cellphone batteries at the host homes; again cheaper.

The most innovative part of the model is that income generated through these services “remains in the community”, Tucker says. 

The system in Mankosi is managed by a not-for-profit co-operative created by the community, Zenzeleni Networks Mankosi co-op LTD.

“This co-op is envisioned to be the first in the area, since many other communities can benefit from the knowledge generated and the telecommunications infrastructure deployed so far,” Tucker says.

With this expansion idea, a non-profit company, Zenzeleni Networks NPC, was spun off the research conducted at UWC. 

“This company is working with communities in the area to draw up business plans and provide training, so that people can maximise the benefits and the value from the project on their own terms,” adds Tucker.

The community of Mankosi and surrounds thus benefits from Zenzeleni in many ways. Which is in keeping with the vision of UWC to make a difference in small communities, says Dr Janine Chantson, director of the University’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO).

It was the TTO that entered the project into the Innovation Bridge event and showcased Zenzeleni and two other university projects at the Joburg grand finale.

“Our goal should be more than just earning financial returns on our research,” says Chantson, referring to the university’s aim to build on the intellectual property generated at the institution. “It’s also about impact.”

The project is proof that dumping technology on communities doesn't always work, Tucker says.

“The question we’ve had to grapple with is how to facilitate, within a community, the social issues that enable and/or prohibit uptake. That is still a major challenge, and offers fertile ground for further research.”

Other disciplines can contribute, and make the project multi-, inter- or trans-disciplinary, says Tucker. They can help make a successful project that benefits the university, Mankosi community and other communities that are cut off from the technological revolution or paying exorbitant prices to be part of it.

Morris is a writer at Conversations Squared