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Zenzeleni Project Wins Social Innovation Award

Zenzeleni Project Wins Social Innovation Award For Connecting Rural Community

Reimagining how telephone and internet services could be provided to rural South Africa by rural South Africans themselves, the Zenzeleni project at UWC has been named South Africa’s Best Innovation with Social Impact.

For reimagining how telephone and internet services could be provided to rural South Africa by rural South Africans, the Zenzeleni project at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was named South Africa’s Best Innovation with Social Impact at the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) Innovation Bridge Technology Showcase and Matchmaking Event in September 2017.

The award follows on the heels of the project’s finalist place and winning of the community vote – out of 98 submissions from 27 countries – in the Equal Rating Innovation Challenge of the Mozilla Foundation, announced earlier this year.

The awards are feathers in the cap for researchers in the BANG (Bridging Application and Network Gaps) group, 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.

“The project was a way for the community to take responsibility for their own telecommunications, and reduce costs quite consistently,” says Dr Carlos Rey-Moreno, who led the co-founding of Zenzeleni alongside teacher Masibulele Siya. “We wanted people to feel empowered, to organise themselves, to make their own choices - to be able to make a difference in their own lives.”

Zenzeleni started when a group of UWC researchers joined members of Mankosi community in the Eastern Cape, and 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 the spread-out distribution of the system’s wireless radio ‘nodes’, i.e. WiFi 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.

This mesh network functions as a low-energy (and green) alternative to the towering masts or beacons that are the trademark of most telecoms services: The entire system is powered by solar panels installed on the roofs of the host homes.

It is also, Tucker points out, cheap and sustainable.

The service allows for free calls inside the community, to be made from the homes where the nodes are installed. Calls to landline and mobile phones are charged at a fraction of the cost charged by other telecoms operators.

Super cheap data is also now available, costing only about 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.

In addition, community members can also pay to charge their mobile phone batteries at the host homes; again cheaper than existing alternatives.

The most innovative part of the model?

“Income generated through these services remains in the community,” Tucker emphasizes.

Zenzeleni: From Innovation To Impact

The system in Mankosi is managed by a not-for-profit cooperative 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 surrounding communities, thus benefits from Zenzeleni in many ways.

That’s in keeping with the vision of UWC to make a difference in small communities in South Africa, explains 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 Johannesburg grand finale.

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

In fact, the project is proof that simply dumping technology on communities doesn’t always work, according to Tucker. “The question we’ve really 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.”

It’s here that other disciplines can contribute, and make the project truly multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary, believes Tucker.

And, hopefully, they can help make a truly successful project that benefits the University, Mankosi community and other communities that are still cut off from the technological revolution.