Seven communities from different digitally marginalised areas were part of the first School of Community Networks ongoing across the country, led by Zenzeleni Networks NPC. The skills development training programme began with a two-week face-to-face meeting held from 30 January to 12 February 2022 in Cape Town when urban and rural community members gathered to reflect on community-led connectivity alternatives to bridge the digital divide in the areas where they live.
Internet costs in South Africa are among the highest in the world, and this acts as a barrier to internet use for many, so the school was a meaningful and concrete step towards enabling grassroots communities to promote digital inclusion on their own terms.
The previous work for the implementation of the school included setting up an advisory committee, undertaking research, sourcing expert input to develop the curriculum and course outcomes, creating and preparing content, hiring faculty and program staff, contracting partners, advertising for participants, reviewing applications, selecting the final cohort of 21 students (three participants from seven different communities in South Africa) and setting up of the Online Learning Management System.
As part of the training phase, online, as well as in-person activities were implemented. A second encounter took place in Johannesburg from 20 March to 2 April 2022 and a third one in Makonsi, from 1 to 14 May 2022. The student profiles, or socioeconomic realities in the communities from which they come, show that they struggle financially, or do not have access to affordable, reliable internet. The programme therefore covers student data costs for online training, which has allowed students to access the online LMS, participate in the forums, read the materials, partake in daily video classes with faculty and staff, and host peer-to-peer evening recap sessions.
After the training phase, in June 2022 the mentorship phase started focusing on personal development and also technical and business issues that allowed the participants of the school to develop activities related to a microgrant program that they participated in. They each decided where to employ the resource according to their interests and needs, for example to explore the challenges and opportunities in upskilling technical and operational staff, new business opportunities and community-based marketing.
On 30 January 2023, the final 17 participants of the school had their last activity after a 12-month training and mentorship programme, reaching out to key stakeholders and role players in the state, civil society and industry in a presence event held in Johannesburg, where they presented for the first time their Community Network projects.