How are APC partners improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our partners, supported by APC subgranting. Murambinda Works is fostering digital inclusion and literacy while building the link between internet access and other fundamental rights, such as education, in Zimbabwe.
Can community networks inspire local talent to innovate and promote meaningful change while facing digital divides? Murambinda Works’ trajectory is a live example that they can. While partnering to build a network infrastructure with local services and internet connection, they managed to keep their roots in the local community alive and shape internet access and ICT solutions to strengthen fundamental rights, such as access to food, health, shelter and education.
Murambinda Works is a Zimbabwe-based non-profit organisation that has been offering communication and ICT office-related services in the region indicated in its name – Murambinda – a growth point area established in the early 80s in Buhera district in Zimbabwe. Locally, growth points are centres subsidised by government for urban development in predominantly rural settings.
The community of Murambinda has been in need of an affordable, cost-effective model that enables as many as possible to be connected. Through the local authority – the district council – they requested improved independent internet services in order to better meet their communication and education needs.
A community network providing affordable internet connection
In this context, Murambinda Works started as a cyber café named Vision Internet, growing into a local hub to promote knowledge, healthcare and development. In 2018 the Internet Society (ISOC) supported the organisation in the building of a 40-kilometer-radius network connecting some of the schools, the nurses’ training school, village farms, government offices and the community at large.
Nowadays, the Murambinda community network connects the district headquarter offices and covers a population of 108,000, providing accessible and affordable internet to underserved communities in Buhera North and West, informs ISOC.
Apart from affordable and reliable internet access, the lack of locally relevant content and platforms contribute to the digital divide. In response, in 2019 Murambinda Works partnered with Tunapanda Institute from Kenya to create a knowledge management platform, which comprises an e-learning platform and a school management platform, to equip local community members with skills and knowledge as local content creators.
Their project was selected to receive a catalytic intervention grant from APC aimed at supporting innovative, sustainable and gender-aware technologies to strengthen a diverse and sustainable community network movement as part of the APC and Rhizomatica project, “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives”.
In its scope, Murambinda Works focused on developing a school management application and building network infrastructure in the area. In a time when fibre infrastructure for internet connectivity was too costly, the organisation purchased a server to enable the Murambinda population to host and access local content services. It also provided funding for the development of the school management system to ease workload among teachers and education officers.
Developing a school management system together
Murambinda Works partnered with the Ministry of Education to complement government efforts in the introduction of e-learning services in schools in 2012. Having an automated school management assistant was one of the requests by the Ministry of Education. Murambinda Works, however, did not just develop the school management application to suit this demand; it went further to develop the system in a way that would also benefit the pupils’ parents and the school staff.
“The development process was quite engaging because we are able to get feedback from the users of the platform," explained Yeukai Dzimbanhete, a teacher and volunteer of the Murambinda Community Network.
By building a participatory process, the application reflected the community's needs. “Parents are directly connected to the school system through mobile apps and SMS systems when they want to access fee statements, children’s reports and school calendars so that they will not miss important school meetings,” explained the organisation.
In relation to teachers and education officers, Murambinda Works project coordinator Joseph Bishi highlighted also that school inspectors expressed how difficult it was to run schools using analogue means. The application is also linked to the education district offices to reduce traveling costs, for example.
“We used to travel all around Buhera to collect school records and it is very demanding. With this application we can get information from all our 216 schools while sitting here. It is cheaper and faster considering fuel and vehicle shortages in our country,” highlighted the Buhera District Schools Inspector, Magwede Nelson.
“This project is a drive which is helping us to move from the analogue age to this digital era,” believes Bishi, who also encouraged other communities in the country and around Africa to join them and partnered on the development of the application.
In the catalytic project, Murambinda Works and Tunapanda Institute documented their best practices, as a way to allow for information sharing within other community networks seeking to implement similar services.
The first community network in Zimbabwe
By fostering digital inclusion and literacy, promoting local ICT solutions and building the link between internet access and other fundamental rights such as education, Murambinda Works is seeding change far beyond the region.
The success of low‐cost community networks initiatives like those made by Murambinda Works in partnership with APC, ISOC and public authorities has been driving national regulators to recognise and support community networks as a necessary approach for digital inclusion in Africa. In May 2021, the Minister of ICT and Courier Services officially launched a Community Information Centre (CIC) and the Murambinda Community Network, which is the first community network in the country.
Whilst the government outlines important steps to create a more enabling regulatory environment, Murambinda Works is willing to share their learnings and knowledge through Zimbabwe Community Network Initiatives with the hope that participatory processes and partnerships will open the doors to scale up in the future.
This piece is a version of information highlighted by Murambinda Works as part of the project "Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives", adapted for the Seeding Change column, which presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of subgrants offered through APC projects. This piece was complemented with information from a story sent by Tinomutenda Midzi, a volunteer from Zimbabwe Community Network Initiatives, to share their reflections from the APC's catalytic interventions grants experience.
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