Zenzeleni (translated as “do it yourself” in isiXhosa) is a community owned internet service provider, or ISP, based in rural South Africa which offers an affordable avenue to quality internet services. Zenzeleni holds that, as the internet becomes increasingly indispensable for the full enjoyment of human rights—among them the right to freedom of expression, to seek and receive information, and to civic participation—digital equity provides a path to legal and developmental equality. First established in Mankosi, one of the country’s most impoverished communities, where residents were previously spending an average of 22 percent of their income on privately run communication technologies, the organization maintains that unfeasibly high connectivity fees place an undue burden upon the community’s fundamental rights. They are organized as a series of cooperative enterprises, the legal internet service providers, which are in turn managed by a unifying non-profit. Zenzeleni aims to significantly cut telecommunications costs, promote social entrepreneurship and community discourse, and provide scalable solutions to ultimately bridge the digital divide.
Theory of Change
Community owned internet service providers are a cost-effective avenue for increasing connectivity in rural and developing communities. This in turn promotes social entrepreneurship and public discourse, decreases the digital divide, and expands upon the internet as a public forum and human rights multiplier.
Community owned, governed, and operated, Zenzeleni provides services at a fraction of the cost—roughly 20 times cheaper—when compared to large telecommunication companies whose national models often make rural connectivity prohibitively expensive. Any income generated from its reduced data rates is reinvested back into the network. Solar panels, designed and installed by the organization, are generally used to power the routers themselves as well as to offer cell phone charging services at a small fee (also reinvested back into the cooperative). The umbrella non-profit, Zenzeleni NPC, supports communities in seeding new cooperatives, guiding them through the legal and technical steps to begin to operate an ISP. It also supports existing cooperatives through peer mentoring, skills training, and advocacy, both nationally and internationally.
To date, Zenzeleni has provided internet services to over 3,500 people and counting. They have received support from prominent organizations like Internet Society and the Association for Progressive Communications, were finalists in the Mozilla Equal Rating Challenge, and ultimately received the South African national award for Best Innovation with Social Impact. In September 2018, they became the focus of the global community after hosting the Third African Summit on Community Networks.