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Community Networks 9 August 2021

Reimagining the Summit on Community Networks in Africa during the COVID-19 Pandemic

2020 Theme: The Path Towards Building Community Networks in Africa

Webinar Series Report

With almost half the world’s population offline and left out, there has been one clear lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to affordable Internet connectivity and digital technologies are no longer a luxury—though they remain a major challenge.

Community networks (CNs) are complementary models for the provision of affordable Internet access, especially in underserved and rural areas. These networks are built by, with, and for communities. They offer a holistic approach to inclusion by delivering digital tools and platforms in education and health, and they promote local economies.

Since 2016, community network operators, allies, partners, policymakers, and regulators in Africa have gathered for an annual summit with common goals. They want to learn, network, and share knowledge and experiences about connecting communities to affordable and sustainable Internet. In 2019, the summit was held in Dodoma, Tanzania under the theme “Towards Resilient Community Networks.” In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the summit had to pivot to a monthly series of five webinars. It aimed to promote the creation and growth of community networks in Africa, increase collaboration between community network operators, and offer learning and engagement opportunities with stakeholders under the theme “The Path towards Building Community Networks in Africa.”

Organized by the Internet Society, in partnership with Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the webinar series, which ran from September 2020 to February 2021, was held every last Wednesday of the month. To keep it more interactive, each session used a different format, such as panel discussions, workshops, and interactive virtual spaces. The combined sessions attracted over 300 participants from over 10 countries. Each session had an average of 90 participants, including approximately 10 panelists, presenters, and organizers.

The first webinar, “The Path Towards Growing Community Networks in Africa,” brought together a panel of experts from Nigeria (Fantsuam Foundation Community Network), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (Pamoja Net – La Différence Community Network), and South Africa (Mamaila Community Network). The panel was composed of community networks that were at different stages of development. Fantsuam Foundation is the oldest of all the networks, with over 10 years of existence. Pamoja Net – La Différence, founded in 2014, has six years of experience, while Mamaila has just two.

The discussion included experiences on how to start and operate community networks. Technology, governance models, challenges, key learnings, and recommendations that can contribute to growing the community network movement in Africa were also part of the conversation.

One highlight was the role established community networks play in mentoring and supporting new ones via peer-to-peer exchanges. This can happen both online and offline. One recommendation called for policymakers and regulators to recognize community networks to encourage their growth on the continent.

The second webinar, “For, With, and By the Community,” was held in October and focused on community engagement strategies and ownership. The panel was composed of community network professionals from South Africa (Zenzeleni Networks), Namibia (GrootAhub Community Network), and Tanzania (Kondoa Community Network).

They shared their experiences from years of leading inclusive engagement: engaging community stakeholders, getting local buy in, and promoting local ownership. The session made it clear that community engagement is a continuous process—the community needs to evolve over time. This helps build community trust and enhances strong and lasting relationships with everyone involved.

The third webinar, “Public Funding for Community Networks,” focused on leveraging alternative public funding sources for community networks. It drew experiences and best practices from Lesotho, Ghana, South Africa, and regional research from other African countries on how to effectively harness, mature, and manage public funds to connect more unconnected communities.

One of these funds, the Universal Service Access Funds (USAF), is set up to expand connectivity to underserved areas. The funds are raised from contributions made by mobile network operators and other telecommunications providers. However, the panelists said that in many African countries these funds are underutilized. One barrier is a lack of awareness among community networks on how to engage with USAF managers. Similarly, the community networks model is still new or unknown to USAF fund managers and in policy and regulatory spaces. The panel recommended awareness raising about community networks to USAF fund managers and advocating for the creation of policy and regulatory frameworks that can make the funds accessible to community networks.

The fourth webinar, “Sustainable Models for Community Networks,” explored different sustainable models and approaches for a successful community network. Presenters from the Tunapanda Community Network (Kenya), Zenzeleni Community Network (South Africa), Pamoja Net Community Network (DRC), and Pathardi Community Network (India) touched on different aspects of establishing and managing a community network: economic and finance, human resources, ownership, governance, and social considerations.

The discussion also included running costs for an effective and sustainable community network, sustainable business models, critical technical operations, and other interconnected components. During the breakout session, one participant shared that costs of backhaul bandwidth can be minimized via infrastructure sharing rules and wholesale pricing. Other possible alternatives to access to affordable bandwidth could be through partnerships with organizations such as National Research and Education Networks (NRENs).

The fifth session of the Virtual Summit on Community Networks in Africa, “Inside an African Community Network,” was a virtual site visit. It took a deep dive inside the operations of two African community networks: BOSCO Uganda, located in Northern Uganda, and Pamoja Net in Eastern DRC. They presented videos that showed their respective technical operations, business models, and governance structures.

BOSCO Uganda supports its staff and maintains the network with revenue generated from providing solar power solutions and community network access services. Pamoja Net runs its operations from Internet service subscriptions from local businesses like hotel services and coffee farmers on Idjwi Island.

Lessons Learned

The Virtual Summit on Community Networks in Africa demonstrated a powerful lesson. Community network operators, champions, and supporters need in-person and virtual spaces where they can learn from each other, collaborate, and mobilize for the growth of community networks in Africa. There also needs to be an enabling policy and regulatory environment to foster the growth of community networks. Thriving, sustainable community networks depend on engaged communities, strong business models, committed partners, and solid technological, regulatory, and legal foundations. The annual Summit on Community Networks in Africa is a positive step to bring them all together.

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