Project Isizwe is a non-profit organization started in 2013. Its goal is to connect low-income communities across South Africa by facilitating high-quality free WiFi networks at the lowest possible cost in public spaces, mainly for the purpose of education. Since its inception, Project Isizwe has connected around three million South Africans to free public WiFi and provided access to information and opportunities. Through the project’s efforts, individuals have obtained more than 200 jobs and benefited from 11,000 online digital literacy programs.
Project Isizwe is based in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, which has a population of over 2.1 million. South Africa is one of the most expensive countries in Africa terms of price per 1 GB data. Based on a 2015-16 Affordability Report by Alliance for Affordable Internet, for almost half of the population in South Africa, an affordable mobile Internet connection (priced at about 1.5% of average monthly income) costs 7 to 15% of their income. For lower income users, it costs around 20% of their income to afford 1GB data. Recently, the municipality of the City of Tshwane has started to subsidy the Internet. In Pretoria alone, there are over 700 public Internet access zones, including schools, clinics and libraries, due to a collaborative effort between the City of Tshwane and Project Isizwe.
Equipment. The equipment is somewhat vulnerable, susceptible to getting stolen or struck by lightening. As the number of hotspots increases, it becomes more challenging to take care of the existing equipment or replace it when taken or damaged due to limited financial and human resources.
Limited Capacity and Resources. As an NGO, the project is challenged by the task of maintaining such a complex and quickly spreading network. As the project becomes more successful in its range and impact, it becomes harder to keep up with the increasing technical, human and financial needs this success brings.
Change in Political Leadership. Change in political leadership affects the ongoing efforts toward connectivity. Some state policies limit new designs of digital equipment. Changes in IT policies to address new needs that digital innovation brings are often seen as unnecessary by authorities. This instability and inconsistency among political authorities make it harder for the NGO to make decisions or plan long-term for their sustainable development.
Lack of Awareness about Connectivity. There are many challenges in creating general awareness that Internet access is not a luxury but a necessity and that it should be seen as public good. People believe that there are more pressing issues than connectivity in South Africa, such as genocide, economy, and corruption. There are very limited platforms to share the message of Internet access and its social necessity in order to bring awareness to public.
Project Isizwe aims to bring free Wi-Fi within walking distance for every South African. The daily data limit is 500 MB per day per device. This affords the equivalent of about twenty movies and twenty chats. They partner with municipalities to plan, install and launch free Wi-Fi for low-income communities, using existing infrastructure and working with local companies for necessary additional labor and resources. In addition, they are able to purchase bandwidth at discounted rates, which drives down costs to less than 1 rand a day. This discount is consequential as it makes it affordable for the government to subsidize the free Wi-Fi. Furthermore, Project Isizwe also partnered with local NGOs to offer educational programs such as chess and online courses to the community. Notably, they offer free online digital literacy programs on their network. As of now, they are working on a business model that would allow them to sustain their services.
Due to high demand on the part of the community of Pretoria, Project Isizwe has expanded to 1,050 hotspots. In order to increase the effectiveness of Wi-Fi usage by the public, hotspots were deployed strategically. They placed hotspots at calculated locations (such as parks, next to schools, in libraries, hospitals, and police stations) where the public can gather easily. While Internet access is free, content is restricted. They don’t allow people to stream violent programs on the network or to watch pornographic images or videos.
In 2013, Project Isizwe started off with 35 free Wi-Fi hotspots and 250 megabyte for each device per day. As of today, they have deployed 1,050 free Wi-Fi hotspots around South Africa, and allow 500 megabytes of data usage per day per device. Currently they have three million unique users, which include 600,000 unique users per month and 330,000 people who log onto the Internet per day. Recently, they have partnered with Facebook to deploy even more hotspots.
In addition to allowing users free Wi-Fi, Project Isizwe has developed a content portal that focuses on education, skills development and employment. It allows local communities to access information, education and jobs. Through this content, 11,000 citizens completed online digital literacy training, and around 222 users found a job. The project is also working with local NGOs with a focus on outreach programs to develop online tools for learning such as chess tournaments or programs cultivating awareness about cyber bullying. They partner as well with international tech companies like Mozilla in creating an online platform to empower low-income women to pursue resources and opportunities for health and finance.
NGOs. One of the reasons for the success of Project Isizwe is their effective public-private partnerships. While they partnered with municipalities for the subsidy of the Internet, they also work with local NGOs to improve the outreach of their programs. They also work with international tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Mozilla to provide infrastructure and technical support.
Government. The role of government needs to be much more than merely financial. Government partnership is equally important in building awareness about the significance of connectivity among stakeholders in these initiatives. The lack of this awareness may slow or hinder the processes that aim to build, expand and sustain connectivity projects.