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Community Networks 21 February 2017

1st Summit on Community Networks in Africa Report

12th January 2017
Author: Dr. Carlos Rey-Moreno

There is a lot of discussion lately about how to connect the next billion to the Internet, but, what if the solution comes by supporting people to create their own networks and connect by themselves? This is the reason behind the growing interest in Community Networks: telecommunications infrastructure built by people to meet their own communication needs. However, when it comes to name the main actors involved in this space, very few will refer to anyone coming from Africa. That is because very little was known about what is happening in the continent.

That was the main reason behind ISOC sponsoring the 1st Summit on Community Networks in Africa, which took place on the 22nd November 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya. This way, ISOC could learn first hand the experiences of those directly involved in building and maintaining community networks in the continent, so it could support the movement in the future.

The event, which was organized by the Internet Society and Carlos Rey-Moreno (UWC), took place within the African Conference on Computer Human Interaction (AfriCHI2016). It gathered ten representatives of community networks operating in eight African countries selected from the map of this type of initiatives in the continent created earlier in the year. The community network representatives shared their experiences to an audience of more than fifty participants that share a common interest on the topic.

Among the audience, H.R.M. Chief Chikanta, from Zambia, was one of the most active participants given his direct involvement in Macha Works, one of the oldest and most successful implementations of a community network in the continent. The involvement of members of traditional authority structures from initial stages of these initiatives was one of the characteristics across most of the presentations.

These presentations comprised the first part of the summit.

The presentations highlighted that different approaches and models are being used throughout the continent to adapt to the different circumstances that each community is facing. For instance, one aspect that came out very strongly from all presentations was the importance of knowing the local context to identify correctly the communication needs and to respect local ways of life and social norms. Other common threads among presentations were that most services were provided in a (open) public access fashion, either via hotspots or publicly-accessible computer rooms; and that Internetbased services, although desired, were not provided in many of initiatives where intranet services met most local communication needs.

In many of the initiatives, the services provided go beyond those provided using the telecommunication infrastructure. The revenue collected by providing ICT services allows, for instance, to maintain a foster home, to provide microcredits to community members, to support agricultural programs and, in most cases, to provide training, not only on ICT usage, but on innovation and entrepreneurship as well. Thus, in Africa, a community network is not just telecommunications infrastructure built by the people, it is a tool to improve what a community is already doing, by contributing to a local ecosystem that enhances the daily lives of those living in the community.

A deep sense of commitment towards the development of their respective community was evident such that when asked about which training could the Internet Society provide them to support their work, most of them mentioned the need for other community members to receive ICT training, to enable them maximize the benefit of using the services offered by the infrastructure.

The lack of ICT skills in the community is only one of the challenges that these initiatives face. The unreliable, expensive or inexistent electrical grid forces most of them to use solar panels and batteries to power their infrastructure. The gender gap was also very evident, from the presenters to the participation in the community networks themselves. Some good practices were shared, but more needs to be done in this regard. The limits of voluntarism were also explored, as, although there was a consensus that vision should always come first, some form of compensation would encourage locals to participate more actively. Thus, the different business models used in each of the initiatives to cover their operational expenditure were also discussed.

In summary, the summit provided an entry point to better understand the context in which community networks in Africa started and evolved, which issues they are facing and how they are solving them. Throughout the continent there are several initiatives that are setting up their telecommunication networks to move “from dependency to self-reliance” so that communities can stand on their own. Having them together in the same space was very inspirational not only for them, who got to know each other and to explore ways of collaborating in the future; but also for the Internet Society, who got first hand exposure on the realities these initiatives are facing and how to support them. Thus, the summit set the beginning of what will be an even brighter future for those communities who want to set up or improve their own telecommunications infrastructure.

Back to First Summit on Community Networks in Africa page

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