PCMLP postdoc Dr Kira Allmann interviewed Sol Luca de Tena, the acting CEO of the Zenzeleni community networks non-for-profit company, about her experiences building a human-centered telecom network. The interview has been published on GenderIT.org.

A man and a woman hold a solar panel on a roof. Image source: Zenzeleni Networks

Zenzeleni network is an entirely community-owned and -operated internet service provider in rural South Africa, with 65 hotspots, 1.2 terabytes of monthly traffic, and an average of 200 devices connecting per day. When researchers from the University of the Western Cape and local activists got together to start the network in 2012, the rural communities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape were isolated and marginalised by generations of systemic exclusion that left them without economic stability, electricity, reliable education or transport services, or internet connectivity. Like many of the nearly 4 billion people who remain unconnected to the internet today, these communities are hard to reach and economically ‘unviable’ for major network operators. In contexts like this, community networks – or, networks owned and run by local communities – present an opportunity to build communications systems tailored to local needs.

Zenzeleni (meaning ‘do it yourself’ in isiXhosa) has emerged as a pioneer among community networks in the global south and an exemplar of the unique challenges and remarkable successes of a cooperatively owned internet service provider. In this interview, Sol Luca de Tena, the acting CEO of the Zenzeleni non-for-profit company, discusses how the network developed its unique business model and the tensions inherent in connecting a local community to a global communications infrastructure. People like Sol are integral to the burgeoning ‘community network movement,’ which unites diverse local community network initiatives together, with the aim of sharing knowledge and advocating for better internet accessibility, including policy that accommodates these small local providers. Sol works to implement that agenda on the ground. Although many communities are rooted in isolating and often immobilizing local contexts, community network advocates like Sol are highly mobile – linguistically, educationally, and economically privileged to move between the local and global domains and bridge these different contexts. In addition to her role with Zenzeleni, Sol is also the vice-chair for the community networks special interest group of the Internet Society and part of the program committee of the Community Network Summit in Africa.

Read the full article here.