As part of the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project being implemented by APC in partnership with Rhizomatica, Solomon Okot Nono from BOSCO Uganda, a member organisation in the project’s peer learning community, recently visited the Zenzeleni community network in South Africa with the support of a community networks travel exchange grant. In this blog post, Solomon shares his reflections on the valuable mutual learning made posible by this exchange.
It was my first time to travel on a long-distance flight. It was a nice experience to see the beautiful view of Johannesburg and experience winter for the first time in my life in Mthatha. Reaching Mthatha airport, we were welcomed by Sol, who later drove us through Mthatha to Mankosi where the Zenzeleni community network is located.
Zenzeleni cooperative members gave us a very warm welcoming environment with Mama Gladys Cigcau taking the lead, along with Jay, Pateka, David Nkozi, Lekesan Mazazana and others members. I realised that as Africans we share a lot in common, like they own grass thatch houses, cattle, goats, although their sheep look a bit different from the ones we have in our region.
The cooperatives also plan to buy tents to be rented out to support income generation since there are many community events in their areas. It is something that some of the youth ICT centers that BOSCO Uganda has connected is doing; that is, the Acan Dano ICT site in Oyam District, Northern Uganda.
Their internet network from Walter Sizulu University located in Mthatha through their Education and Research Network (TENET) to the villages in Mankosi is great, using point-to-point wireless connection. What I liked was the fact that they are using the same type of Ubiquiti network radios with good speed that we also use for our backbone connection at BOSCO Uganda. When viewing the equipment that they use, I was excited to see the ones that I normally use at BOSCO Uganda, like LiteBeam for backbone and RocketDish for point-to-point, but also, through the Pathfinder grant that Zenzeleni received from APC, they are in the process of upgrading the backbone links using MikroTik metal wireless point-to-point radios which will give them better throughput and limit interference from other communication devices within their areas of operation.
Network radios on the tower and houses being used by Zenzeleni community network.
It is amazing how the cooperative members run the network by selling vouchers and also encouraging their children to learn the technical installations to support the sustainability of the network. With a very organised leadership structure, I credit the contribution and involvement of women like Mama Gladys Cigcau, Pateka and others who are working so hard to bring more women into the cooperative and also encouraging them to use the internet. The members hold monthly meetings to plan on which direction they should move forward and get funds. The network helps the members to connect to one another and their children to know the world.
The network also helps the cooperative’s members to grow their businesses and attract interest.
Zenzeleni has a qualified technician who helps in building their network and who comes from the community; that is Jay. With Sol supporting the resource mobilisation and management, the fact that Jay comes from the community makes it easy for him to explain the technology in the local language so that the elders of the cooperative and the community can easily understand.
I was inspired by the use of smartphones among the members of the cooperative, which have greatly motivated them to use the internet more; the use of a WhatsApp group for communicating with the clients is something that BOSCO Uganda can adopt to ease communication with clients. I was also inspired by the commitment of the elderly people within the cooperatives, who are taking on the challenge to use the internet in a productive way and encouraging the young ones to join them in growing the network coverage.