Community Networks are community-based electronic network services, provided at little or no cost to users.

In essence, community networks establish a new technological infrastructure that augments and restructures the existing social infrastructure of the community.

The essence of community networks is more than the infrastructure.

It’s giving communities power to self-determination, to build/adapt/use technologies that reflect their values, needs and priorities. In African countries where community networks exist, the idea is introduced by either a local or external champion who then gets buy-in from some members of a community.

They then take up the role of creating awareness and adding more community members on board. For instance, PamojaNET in DRC was initiated by an organization called La Difference at the request of the Idjwi King/Mwami. Zenzeleni’s roots are a collaboration between university researchers and local community members while BOSCO Uganda is under the trusteeship of the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu.

In all instances, there is usually support from local authorities. For example, Zenzeleni works together with the headmen from Mankosi and Zithulele villages (local tribal authorities) and in DRC PamojaNET works together with the Mwami/King in Idjwi. This sense of community ownership has seen local community members and local authorities play a key role in mobilization and advocacy at local, national and regional levels.

This grows into a collaboration with existing social/economic groups such as cooperatives or non-profit organisations that may not necessarily have started offering internet or intranet services.

The reality is that in many of these communities there may not exist skills to operate and manage the network initially. However, we have great examples from countries such as Nigeria with Fanstuam Foundation starting training programs for youth in the community to learn network operations skills.

Others include DRC PamojaNET, BOSCO Uganda, Murambinda in Zimbabwe, Tunapanda in Kenya, Zenzeleni and SOWUG in South Africa where community networks are building local capacities to deploy and operate community networks.

Community networks, communications infrastructure deployed and operated by citizens to meet their own communication needs, are being increasingly proposed as a solution to connect the unconnected.

However, in Africa, where the proportion of unconnected is among the highest globally, little is known about the role community networks are playing. Despite the success of the mobile revolution in Africa, there is a common understanding that market forces are unable to provide affordable access to communications to the poor segments of the population, which ultimately hurts their access to information and further exacerbates existing digital divides.

For instance, the GSMA expressed that to justify the cost of deploying a base station, it requires more than 3,000 active users. This, and other factors, have led governments, civil society, and the telecommunications industry to start looking for alternative solution. Community networks, which can be broadly defined as telecommunication infrastructure deployed and operated by citizens to meet their own communication needs, have been part of the foundations of the Internet infrastructure since the early days.

In recent years, the community networks movement has grown consistently, leading more and more voices to point to them as a solution for connecting the next billion, due to increasing evidence of the role they do, and can, play.

In Africa, a community network is not simply telecommunications infrastructure deployed and operated by citizens to meet their own communication needs; it is a tool to improve what a community is already doing in terms of their growth and development, by contributing to a local ecosystem that enhances the daily lives of the people.

Community Networks (CNs), i.e. telecommunication infrastructure built by citizens for thebenefit of their communities, have grown consistently and attracted considerable attention inrecent years.

In particular, there is a growing number of voices proposing them as a potential solution to provide affordable access in areas where the market is failing to do so. However,none of the many CNs, such as guifi.net, Rhizomatica or the Digital Empowerment Foundation, to name a few, come from Africa, where access to affordable communications is lacking in most places Community Networks (CNs), i.e. telecommunication infrastructure built by citizens for the benefit of their communities, have grown consistently and attracted considerable attention in recent years.

Emmanuel Alamu, Africa’s foremost Network Engineering Expert is a member of the Internet Society (ISOC) International and Nigeria. He is the Chief executive officer of NetEng Solutions, a network and internet solution providing company in Lagos, Nigeria.

Emmanuel is an active volunteer at the Internet Society Global Volunteer Training Program on Community Networks. He is the president of The Emmanuel Alamu Network Academy (TEANA) where he has trained and certified hundreds of young people to become network engineers.

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