South Africa

Maverick Citizen

Project Isizwe connects low-income communities

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash. Coronavirus by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Maverick Citizen spoke to Siobhan Thatcher and Inus Schoonraad of Project Isizwe, a wi-fi solutions non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the Western Cape. The organisation provides wi-fi hotspot connectivity in low-income areas.

Project Isizwe provides wi-fi hotspot connectivity in low-income areas either for free or at a much-reduced rate to ensure that people from the communities have access to the internet. While the organisation is based in Western Cape with four dedicated staff members, it still manages to have a nationwide footprint, except in Limpopo where it intends rolling out after lockdown.

Its first project was in Gauteng in 2013, and provided the City of Tshwane with a free wi-fi plan and then steadily grew from there. At the time of partnering with the City of Tshwane, the then-mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa said that it “formed part of the strategy to build a robust ICT infrastructure to stimulate economic growth, improve the delivery of basic services and bridge the digital divide”.

Recently, the organisation teamed up with Rhenish Primary School in Stellenbosch to ensure that children who were from disadvantaged backgrounds in the school and who did not have access to the internet were able to still get their educational materials. This was facilitated through their “No child left behind” project launched during this time of Covid-19 uncertainty, where people can nominate a school that needs assistance and Project Isizwe makes a determination based on their available resources.

The principal of Rhenish Primary appealed to the school community to contribute towards helping to buy data for these learners in order for their schooling to not be disrupted.

The 15 learners at the school who did not have wi-fi or data access at home were given mobile wi-fi routers that had a preloaded SIM card registered on the school’s learning portal in order to access the learning materials. The SIM card is topped up by the school when it receives a notification of the need for more data.

What does become an issue, however, is just how much internet access or data is required based on the class materials and teaching aids and the cost attached to that. This includes teaching aids such as video downloads for tutorials, and class participation. Some learning materials require immediate feedback from learners similar to the normal classroom setup. Then there is also the research component for class exercises and being able to upload. However, because the school buys data in bulk it works out a lot cheaper than individual purchase of small quantities.

The organisation has been approached by various companies and organisations to create solutions based on their needs. Project Isizwe has worked with mining house Glencore to give its miners free data and provide 10 hotspots in its Witbank feeder communities. It also works with independent power producers (IPPs) such as Sishen Solar in order for the communities within which they operate to derive some benefit from their presence, in this instance free data and access to the internet for the communities of Mapoteng and Deben.

One of the tenets of the organisation’s approach is the minimising of data costs for low-income communities, which traditionally buy low amounts of data at a time but end up paying more. 

Project Isizwe explained that when it comes to data costs the more you buy at once, the cheaper it works out per megabyte. However, this is not always possible in lower-income communities as people have less money and tend to buy smaller data bundles.

So the wi-fi hotspot solution is attractive in low-income communities because it alleviates the expense of having to buy often unaffordable data in order to socialise or do work-related activities.

Project Isizwe also works with smaller organisations like churches who approach them for data solutions for their congregations, or small malls in low-income areas that would like to offer their customers wi-fi while they shop, similar to what is now commonplace at bigger malls in higher-income areas.

The organisation’s “No child left behind” project is open to any school or tertiary institution nominated and in need of assistance. The organisation recognises that it is not possible to have a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, so it works closely with its partners to ensure they understand each one’s specific needs. Basic education teaching and learning needs are likely to be markedly different from those of universities or TVET colleges.

The work of Project Isizwe becomes even more critical at this time as the phasing-in of school opening occurs, as announced by the Department of Basic Education today. While the Grade 7 and 12 classes will be back at school on 7 May, other grades will be back later. This means that schools looking for online teaching alternatives during this time may be able to do so by engaging Project Isizwe as did Rhenish Primary. 

It is vital for people living in low-income areas, during this time of social distancing and the uncertainty of the Covid-19 lockdown, to be able to connect with distant family and loved ones. DM/MC

(Full disclosure: Project Isizwe’s founder, Alan Knott-Craig was the original investor in Daily Maverick.)


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