Community networks dominated the corridors of conversation on affordable access at the 2022 Africa Internet Governance Forum which happened in Lilongwe, Malawi from 19 July, to 21 July. The theme of the Africa IGF was “Digital Inclusion and Trust in Africa”. This Africa’s IGF hosted a two days digital policy symposium for members of parliament (MPs) and saw the launch of the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) with Honorable Neema Lugangira, a member of parliament from Tanzania, as founder and Chairman.
Community networks are quickly gaining traction as a complementary solution to reaching the underserved communities in Africa where commercial telecommunications operators have for very long not seen any economic viability. But while the movement towards this self-organized and decentralized bottom-up approach, built and operated by citizens, is gaining momentum, a lot of advocacy efforts are still needed to get governments to understand the model, how it works, and the support needed in terms of policy creation to propagate them.
Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) in collaboration with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) held 2 sessions at the Africa IGF, coordinated by the Africa Regional Coordinator and the Africa Policy Coordinator from the Local Access Initiative (LocNet):
- Towards an enabling policy and regulatory environment for community networks in Africa, which focused on policy and regulation needed to support the seeding of new community networks and supporting the sustainability of existing ones.
- Building capacity towards sustainability of community networks, which focused on the implementation of National schools and Communities of Practice (CoP) by APC as learning platforms for existing and emerging community networks.
APC also hosted a feminist luncheon as a side event to discuss gender issues around digital inclusion in Africa which brought together women from the community networks space, and telecommunications space, and was graced by Anriette Esterhuysen the former executive director of APC who is a human rights defender and computer networking pioneer from South Africa.
Conversations dominating most sessions on affordable access made several recommendations in support of the community networks movement:
- Infrastructure sharing. Community networks have a better chance of negotiating for infrastructure sharing with National telecommunications than with commercial telecommunications companies. If the conversation were to be shifted to involve commercial telecommunications companies, then a lot of capacity building needs to happen for them to understand community networks not as competitors but as complementary models in reaching the last mile, and the range of possibilities for collaborations. Since community networks understand better the communities in which they operate, they have greater capacity in understanding how to catalyze this access to improve the socio-economic status of the community which trickles down to the general economy.
- Relevant content for the communities. For this digital access to be useful, community networks ought to promote the creation of relevant applications and local libraries around the social-economic activities of the community. Local educational content needs to be made accessible and created in line with the local curriculum. Local libraries can be made accessible in the resource centers or community intranet and can come in the form of podcasts or community radio created by the community and for the community.
- Government investment. Behind any policy creation is political goodwill. How do we get governments in Africa invested in the process of digital penetration to underserved communities through not just policy creation but have them invested in the provision of electricity, affordable access to digital equipment, and providing broadband connectivity funds to schools. how can the governments facilitate infrastructure sharing especially by allowing the use of idle towers owned especially by national telecommunications companies by community networks? How do we get the governments invested but without politicizing the process which threatens their sustainability? Africa should embrace ownership of digital inclusion in reaching digitally marginalized communities and not leave the initiative to foreign organizations, making community networks dependent on grants.
- Creating visibility on community networks works. More data needs to be made public on the work being done by communities in Africa in bridging the digital gap as well as the digital gap still existing for purposes of advocacy and capacity building, especially with stakeholders; the number of schools with no access to the internet or the high price of bandwidth making it unaffordable to most people in rural and informal areas in urban areas. Macro and meso organizations need to work with micro organizations in collecting these statistics in their respective communities.
- Collaborations with local governments. The initiative by APC to build capacity within community networks through the implementation of national schools can create continuity through efforts with the local government and the ministries of education. The curriculum created by the National schools can be adopted in an existing local skills development program or one can be created in collaboration with the local government to sustain and maintain skilled ICT labor needed to run these community networks by the community themselves.
- Capacity building around the term “non-profit” while most community networks are under meso organizations which are registered as non-profit organizations, the term seems to be causing discomfort for stakeholders like regulators who feel being non-profit means community networks will continuously become dependable with no economic value. This same confusion is happening amongst community networks who perceive being non-profit means they cannot be a revenue model which keeps them from working on a business model, leaving their sustainability vulnerable to foreign aid. Capacity building around business models of community networks needs to happen so that stakeholders and especially regulators can understand the self-sustenance of these models requires a lot of support in having cost-efficient structures. In the same breath, community networks need to understand being “non-profit” does not hinder them from making a profit, rather profit generated needs to trickle back to the community in further enhancing their connectivity or building projects that will help strengthen their socio-economic status.
Micro, Meso and Macro levels of community networks
Community networks rely on three levels of organization to prosper; Micro, meso, and macro.
A micro organization refers to the community. The community’s knowledge and guidance are essential for a community network concept to be adapted and are essential in the collection and verification of data on the digital gap in that community.
A Meso organization is a bridge organization that helps to accompany communities or grassroots organizations to build the community network that the community envisions. They function as a catalyst or support, usually bringing knowledge, skills, or partnerships to the community, enabling them to understand the potential opportunities presented by the community network.
A macro organization influences the operations and feasibility of a community network. It is made up of the public administration, telecommunications industry, technical community, academia, civil society organizations, and any other groups that influence how the community network integrates into the telecommunications sector. Macro-level institutions may partner with the community network, either through the meso or micro levels.
The movement is gaining momentum, but there is work to be done in clearing the mist of the core purpose, ownership and needs of community networks especially to the different stakeholders. Beyond advocacy efforts is policy and regulation to catalyze emergence and sustainability of community networks towards narrowing the digital divide in Africa and bringing ICT to the center of development.
This is a series of our publications on Community Networks.
Ms. Catherine Kyalo is the KICTANet Africa Regional Coordinator for Community Networks under the APC-LOCNET initiative. She is passionate about community welfare and enjoys yoga to rejuvenate. LinkedIn | Twitter