The village that built its own wi-fi network – BBC Africa

The village that built its own wi-fi network – BBC Africa


The middle of nowhere has been keeping a secret. And we’re off to find out what it is
and how it can change Africa. South Africa has one of the highest internet
penetration rates on the continent. But despite that, people who live in remote
places like this say they don’t use the Internet. Two of the biggest barriers,
according to research: affordability and accessibility. Mankosi is made up of 12 villages. Home to over 6,000 people. And until late last year there was no electricity
here. Running water is still a luxury. But they have a cheap and stable wi-fi network. They built and registered their own internet
service provider. I’m wondering if I can buy a voucher. Yes, you can buy a voucher. How much does it cost? 25 rand ($1.70; £1.30). Only 25 rand, it lasts a whole month. Mama Sigcau is one of the elders who convinced
other villagers that the internet would bring development here. She’s one of a handful who sell vouchers
that gives residents and visitors uncapped wi-fi for under $2 a month. Did you you know what wi-fi was before it
came here? No, no, we didn’t know. We didn’t know anything about wi-fi. It is when it came and connected and then we see this is something
that gives us a better life. And at school people do their homework, everything. Even though I don’t have TV,
I can see news, everything. South Africa’s data prices are still among
the most expensive on the continent. According to the latest research, out of Africa’s
six leading economies one gigabyte of data would cost you seven times more here than
in Egypt. That’s three times more expensive than in
Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana. So why is Mankosi wi-fi so cheap? Seven years ago researchers from the University
of the Western Cape, with the help of the community, built a mesh network here. It’s a cheap, low-energy system using scattered
node devices rather than a central mast or beacon that’s used by traditional telecoms
networks. These nodes communicate with each other. An important feature is that it’s solar
powered. So, we are at the home of one of the headmen
of the villages that make up Mankosi. This is known as Ncgobo and once a month community
members meet here as part of the co-operative. It functions much like a business. And this is the board meeting. Except it’s owned, operated and maintained
by villagers. They collect the money made from
selling wi-fi vouchers. This is funnelled into community
projects. The name of the network is Zenzeleni. It means ‘do it yourself’. And 33-year-old Zuko Tshitshi is the embodiment
of the slogan. Previously unemployed and unskilled, he’s
now the resident technician. Looks like there’s a problem with our connection
here. The village built this mast themselves at a fraction of what telecommunications companies quoted. At the beginning when this dream came to our
village I thought it’s impossible, you know. We can’t make a network because we never
studied the network. It’s impossible. But as the time goes, I saw this was going
to be real, that’s why I put my effort trying to learn everything technically. My dream has come true now. I like to prove people wrong. When I see the kids using the internet they
know the internet they are using was made by the people they know,
from here in the same village. It’s like… I’m a God to them. We want to know where they buy the internet, we want to know what they are doing with the internet. While Zuko maintains the infrastructure
others are trying to understand how the internet is used. These researchers are doing a survey. Professor William Tucker oversees the project. We are interested in seeing the different
usage patterns because we want to learn what are the barriers to people adopting the technology and what are the things they are actually using it for. One of the biggest barriers is access to devices
that support the network. We are searching for the cause of globalisation. At this local school students make use of
smartphones. We are about 60km from Mankosi in an area
called Zithulele and this village is the latest one to get online. How difficult it is to balance the traditional
way of life with bringing advancement in the form of wi-fi or this network? Yeah, yeah it’s not easy. Retaining traditional community values and
combining it with advanced technology, to me that’s what a rural community network
is. It’s like this meeting of two worlds. The youth will come and do things that we
can’t even think of. I think it’s amazing. Community networks like this one could be
a way to connect Africa to the global village. Driven by the innovation and energy of the
youth – the people of Mankosi say this is just the start for Zenzeleni. This is my dream now. It is inside my heart now, I can’t run from
this now anymore.

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