The project of the National Schools of Community Networks is a collective capacity building effort for the creation, development and consolidation of community networks, as a way to cultivate bottom-up and in sustainable ways, digital inclusion and meaningful connectivity in five countries of the Global South: South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia and Brazil.
As part of the project Supporting Community-led Approaches to Addressing the Digital Divide, implemented by APC and Rhizomatica under Local Networks (LocNet) initiative, and with financial support from the UK Government’s Digital Access Programme, since 2021 every National School has been working in its own timeline and training programme with a participatory approach, according to local needs and interests. They have included face-to-face and online training activities, as well as mentoring on different topics related to community networks like services and infrastructure, sustainability, policy and regulation, and communication.
Each National School has been impulsed by a support organisation and had included at least 21 participants from seven local communities, interested in strengthening or growing a community network in their region. These local organisations are Zenzeleni from South Africa, Tunapanda from Kenya, CITAD from Nigeria, Common Room from Indonesia and PSA from Brazil.
The methodology used for the design and implementation of the training programmes of each National School is based on the Participatory Action Research (PAR), as a way to respond to the contexts, needs and dreams of the communities in which these projects are carried out. These methodological principles are based on the experience of Techio Comunitario, a training programme for technical promoters in telecommunications and broadcasting in indigenous communities in Latin America, and can be found in Technological autonomy as a constellation of experiences: A guide to collective creation and development of training programmes for technical community promoters (2021).
While each school reflects different realities and brings together multiple voices, they all have in common the community-centred approach that allows participants to adapt the shared knowledge to their own realities, incorporating local strengths.
Each support organisation worked on the design of their school with autonomy and according to their own contexts and territories, following the Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology recommendations and the accompaniment of a team from LocNet initiative. It is important to highlight that the design and implementation of the schools started in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, so many of the activities had to be restructured because of bans on travel and gatherings of people.
Despite those circumstances, all the schools managed to develop their programmes following the next three phases:
In this phase, an advisory committee was formed in each country with the objective to design together with the support organisations, the academic structure and the curricula of the school. The advisory committees include stakeholders from different areas such as academia, governments and institutions, and specialists in technical and social issues, that were invited to participate also with the purpose of strengthening the community network movement in each country.
During this phase, and after the selection of the seven organisations they would be working with, the schools started training activities for the representatives of those communities. Besides the online activities, face-to face encounters took place in all the schools. Travels to different regions by the teams of each support organisation took place to reinforce the training based on local necessities.
Besides the training activities, a mentorship programme started with the goal of helping the local organisations to develop a viable community networking project, under a microgrant support that was launched by LocNet. Each local organization had the freedom to develop their projects according to their interests and necessities detected during the development of the schools, for example upskilling technical and operational staff, new business opportunities and community-based marketing.
Even though each organisation implemented their own structure and training model, all of them have been in permanent contact during these years, through online sharing virtual sessions and also in presence activities to visit the schools and to participate together in events such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) celebrated in November 2022 in Ethiopia, where representatives of the schools shared their learnings in a panel called: Lessons Learned from Capacity Building in the Global South.
The design and implementation of the National Schools of Community Networks has been a process of local empowerment through exchanging knowledge, accompaniment and support, and collective acting on national and regional levels for the development and strengthening of community networks in remote or marginalised communities of the global South. The initiative has been recognised during the las Participatory Design Conference held in August 2022, in Newcastle, UK, and received an award for the outstanding achievement in the are of participatory design of information and communications technologies (ICTs).