In 2012, researchers from the UWC Dept. of Computer Science established contacts in Mankosi, Eastern Cape, where some of its students had come from. A senior researcher decided to propose mesh networking in the area. This is a cheap, low-energy system using scattered node devices rather than central masts or beacons.
Each node communicates with the nodes nearest it, but data can step throughout the network by passing through as many nodes as necessary. For more detail, see the Mesh Networking page on this site.
An important feature of the Mankosi network is that it’s solar powered, since there is no electric grid there. The power systems also allow Zenzeleni users to charge phones at the houses which host the nodes, as well as providing lighting to those homes.
As the community falls under a Tribal Authority, approval was sought from the T.A. A community meeting was held at which clarity was obtained about what was offered, and a committee was elected. Households were chosen to host nodes. “Zenzeleni” was named.
The committee commenced with admin paperwork to register the co-op, open a bank account, and so on. Meanwhile, a member of each host household underwent training in installation and operation of the node equipment.
The committee finalised a business model for the co-op. Local calls would be free, but charging of phones would be priced at half what other facilities charged.
Once paperwork was done, Zenzeleni was able to enter into an arrangement with a company providing internet phone services (Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP). The VoIP company places calls to other networks (cellular or landline) for 17% (a sixth) of the normal cost of such calls, but the co-op committee decided to charge users 50% (half) of the normal price, so as to fund itself.
When the network started operating, low usage was made of local calls although free. In addition, people often made calls to other networks on their mobile phones, although this cost double what Zenzeleni charges. Privacy issues are probably part of the explanation.
Soon users will be able to make calls with smartphones using WiFi, near to the nodes. Maybe one day Zenzeleni will be able to issue its own SIM cards, and users will be able to make half-price calls anywhere in the country.