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"There was a massive storm during the night, and signals from all operators were off when we woke up. And yet, internet from Zenzeleni is still up and running. Who can still doubt the capacity of community networks to provide universal access?" 

This was the message shared by Carlos Rey-Moreno, coordinator of APC's Local Access Networks project, during the Third Summit on Community Networks in Africa, organised by the Internet Society (ISOC), Zenzeleni Networks NPC and APC. It is a message that captures the strategic potential of community-owned networks, which provide a sustainable solution to address connectivity gaps in urban and rural areas around the world, including Africa, where these gaps are more evident.

To promote the creation and growth of these networks, the Summit, held on 2-7 September, brought community operators and other stakeholders from all around the continent to Lubanzi, a town near Mankosi, a village in rural Eastern Cape. With the help of APC member Zenzeleni Networks NPC (Zenzeleni means “do it yourself” in isiXhosa, Eastern Cape’s most prevalent language), the village of Mankosi came together in 2012 to build and maintain its own telecommunications network and offer affordable communications to people in the area, with the wider aim of creating a model for the sustainable implementation of bottom-up village telcos in rural communities throughout the country.

"The summit went extraordinarily well," Rey-Moreno said. "The fact that it was held in rural South Africa helped build relationships and partnerships among all of us there."

Regarding participation, Rey-Moreno stressed that engagement was the highest he had ever seen in a conference of this kind, and was also significant in terms of bridging the gender divide: "Among the 100 participants, there were more than 30 women, 10 times more than in the last edition of the Summit, and a session fully dedicated to women's involvement in community networks. For around 40 of the participants from surrounding communities, the Summit was their first international conference, or conference of any kind. It was impressive to see their eyes absorbing everything that was happening, and feeling very proud of their neighbours in Mankosi that had attracted people from 20 countries to learn from the way they managed to bring the internet to their side of the world."

The Summit ended with a two-day site visit that included a reception by Mankosi's tribal authorities inside a stretch tent, with locals preparing a home-made meal for all the delegates. "I think this is an event that will carry the community networks movement forward in Africa, and Zenzeleni in particular, a long way into the future," Rey-Moreno concluded. 

Internet Society's summaries of the Third Summit on Community Networks in Africa: 
More about community networks: