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This article was originally published by APC member organisation CITAD.

Internet connectivity is becoming part and parcel of humans’ lives all over the globe, but the story in underdeveloped countries, most especially those living on the African continent, is different and not encouraging. Millions of people in Africa are finding it difficult to access the internet and even in places where these networks exist, internet access is inefficient and costly. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how fragile humans are and their dependence on the services that the internet provides.

Reports have indicated that less than 50% of the Nigerian population is connected or can access the internet. Of this 50%, many do not have the resources to own smartphones or computers that give opportunities to access these services. Owning such devices is difficult due to the high level of poverty ravaging the majority of the country’s population. To ensure more people are being connected to internet services in Nigeria, the government, through its communications agencies such as the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Information Technology Development Agencies (NITDA), has implemented programmes such as Universal Service Provision Fund and provided free computers and internet services to some communities and academic institutions in the country.

Non-profit organisations such as the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) that focus on information and communications technology (ICT) to empower citizens have initiated many programmes that will liberate Nigerian people from this digital “darkness”. CITAD also aims to support the country as it becomes one of the developed nations in terms of internet connectivity and other areas of human development. The internet gives people ample opportunities in their academic pursuits, businesses and in the healthcare sector, among others.  

To ensure no one is left behind in the process, in 2016 CITAD launched the Digital Livelihood program, which centred on training women on digital technology and digital entrepreneurship. The training was made available to communities in northern Nigeria with a focus on Abuja rural communities, Kano and Bauchi States, and later on Jigawa State. The program has achieved tremendous success as the lives of hundreds of young girls and women have been changed and transformed. Many of the trained girls have now become digital entrepreneurs, with skills on graphic design,  web design, online marketing and others. In an interview in one of the Nigerian newspapers, one of the beneficiaries, Sadiya Danyaro, stated that the training “has drastically changed her life and made her to become an employer rather than a job seeker. She also described the training as the turning point of discovering her passion and dream.”

Before the commencement of the community networks project in Nigeria, supported by the UK Government’s Digital Access Programme through the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), CITAD had set up seven computer centres in two states in Nigeria. These computer centres aimed to provide internet access to underserved and neglected communities. The communities are Tungan Ashere, Dakwa Community, Pasepa, Gaube and Leleyi Gwari, Abuja communities, Jama’are and Itas-Gadau in Bauchi State. The peak of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need and necessity of connecting everyone with affordable and efficient internet connections. The community network project was launched by APC with the support of FCDO in three continents; Africa, Asia and Latin America, and championed by CITAD in Nigeria. Community networks are telecommunications infrastructure deployed and operated by local groups to meet their own communication needs. These also include communications infrastructure, designed and erected to be managed for use by local communities. These communication needs can be voice, data and others. Community networks can also be a point of convergence for communities to come together to address their common community problems.

This initiative is aimed at enhancing the capacity of communities to design, deploy and manage community networks to meet their communication needs while at the same time engaging regulators and other relevant policy makers to enact relevant laws and provide support that could enhance the flourishing of community networks in the country. Due to resource constraints, CITAD piloted some sites in seven communities across three states, namely Jama’are and Itas in Bauchi State, Kafanchan in Kaduna State and four sites in rural community of Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Tungen Ashere, Dakwa Community, Pasepa and Leleyi Gwari). Some of the activities carried out by CITAD under this project include: training of community champions in these communities on the need for setting up community networks; training strategies to engage representatives more effectively; forming community network advisory committees that consists of individuals from civil society organisations, the ICT sector, government and members of the communities; engaging various levels of government units  including NCC and NITDA and the House of Representatives; and championing discussions on designing policies on community networks in Nigeria.  

With persistent engagement and advocacy visits by CITAD, progress on setting up community networks in Nigeria has been made. The Nigerian government, through the House Committee on ICT, has drafted a bill which contains provisions on community networks. Itas and Jama’are local governments, both in Bauchi States, have also donated a piece of land each to CITAD to build community network centres in their communities. The NCC has planned follow-up meetings with CITAD and has given indications that it will develop a policy to guide the development of community networks in the country.