[BigDataSur-COVID] Alternative Perspectives on Relationality, People and Technology During a Pandemic: Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa

By Nic Bidwell & Sol Luca de Tena

Many rural communities in Africa have characteristics that are neither represented by data about COVID-19, nor addressed by public health information designed to help people protect themselves. This does not mean to say that rural inhabitants are unaffected by information designed for different populations; and grassroots initiatives have been vital in countering the impacts of this. Here, we reflect on the role of community networks in customising information and services for rural inhabitants during the pandemic, and how they reveal constructs embedded in data representation and aggregation. Community networks (CNs) are telecommunications initiatives that are installed, maintained, and operated by local inhabitants to meet their own communication needs. Rey-Moreno’s 2017 survey identified 37 community networks in 12 African countries. With the success of four Annual African CN Summits, more are emerging every year. Our account focuses on Zenzeleni Networks in South Africa. Thus, we begin by introducing its response to COVID-19 and ensuring health information suited local circumstances. We end by arguing that examples of contextualisation reveal logics about personhood that are vital to tackling the disease, but not represented by individualist models embedded in datafication.

Zenzeleni’s Response to COVID-19

Zenzeleni is a community-owned wireless internet service provider that has connected more than 13,000 people and 10 organisations to the internet in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. The network is owned by amaXhosa inhabitants (including 40% women) and is run by two local cooperatives. A cooperative approach ensures internet access costs are up to 20 times lower than services offered by existing telecommunications operators, and expenditure is retained locally. The non-profit organisation Zenzeleni Networks NPC was established through the cooperative, and provides vital connections with regulatory authorities and telecommunications expertise. Zenzeleni was seeded in Mankosi, a remote district of 12 villages, by PhD researchers at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, which followed prolonged collaborations on solar electricity and media sharing technologies. Over the past eight years, the community network has evolved as a social innovation ecosystem in which rural communities own their telecommunication businesses. Like other community networks in the global south, Zenzeleni has created employment and developed technical skills in one the most disadvantaged areas in South Africa.

As well as providing more affordable and higher quality network services than alternatives, Zenzeleni’s embeddedness directly links technology and media considerations to local life. As the COVID-19 lockdown ensued, inhabitants working, studying or seeking work in cities returned to their rural family homes. Zenzeleni played a vital role in providing continuity to residents’ urban lives, by adding network infrastructure to extend the community access points and ensuring free and open access to education websites, including all of the nation’s universities and further education colleges. Indeed, usage of access points tripled during since the pandemic began.

Not only are health services difficult to access, but the local populations served by Zenzeleni are particularly vulnerable; they have a high incidence of HIV, tuberculosis, and child and maternal health issues. Thus, Zenzeleni sourced funding to connect the District Hospital. Just as importantly, however, from the pandemic’s onset, the network started to address health information needs. Like other groups across Africa, Zenzeleni immediately recognised the mismatch between health information issued by WHO and South Africa’s national government and local circumstances. Not only was information initially unavailable in most of Africa’s 2000 languages, even when advice was in a home language it was ill-suited to many rural contexts. Recommending regular handwashing, for instance, is inappropriate for Mankosi’s inhabitants who share a few unreliable taps in their villages because water is not supplied to households. Similarly, guidelines on shared transport are irrelevant when only one bus a day connects villages on a five hour round trip to the nearest supermarket. Zenzeleni ensured free and open access to official health websites. Understanding the local context launched projects also increased access to relevant information resources and raised awareness of health strategies that matched local circumstances.

My Mask Protects you, and Yours Protects me: Accounting for Personhood in the Datafied Society

While providing health information in home languages suited to local constraints is vital, but efficacy in managing a socially-spread disease requires integrating deeper insights about the nuances of local social practices and relations. For instance, people returning to villages from cities bring information of varying legitimacy, from recommendations to outright falsehoods. Locally, this information was interpreted through assumptions that information in cities was inherently more credible because cities are highly connected. The valorisation of information associated with electronic media has been discussed elsewhere in rural southern Africa. An implicit part of Zenzeleni’s role has been to foster critical approaches to disinformation by directing inhabitants to legitimate information and ensuring information was properly contextualised. However, at the same time, promoting information access must account for sharing practices. While internet hotspots safely offer socially-distanced access, many inhabitants group around tablets and phones.

Device-sharing practices in Mankosi are not merely about limited access to devices. They also involve a cultural construct of relationality. Devices like smartphones are embedded with logic that personhood exists prior to interpersonal relationships (Bidwell, 2016). This individualist logic contrasts with the philosophy of Ubuntu, an isiXhosa word which is often translated as “I am because we.” This collective logic assumes that neither community or individual exists prior, and being human depends on the mutual and dynamic constitution of other humans. As Eze explains:

We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am.

The importance of the construct of Ubuntu to effective contextualisation is illustrated by Zenzeleni’s local volunteers’ observations that community members assisted each other in putting on face-masks. Senses of mutual responsibility are straightforward in communities such as Mankosi. However, routinely performing responsibility involves physical help and, since none of the guidelines explicitly combine social distancing with putting on a mask, this represents an ambiguity.

The challenge of translating a guideline such as “wear it for me” reveals an important role for community networks in COVID-19 times, and in datafication more generally. Much like the assumption of a person putting on their masks themselves, prevalent models of data extraction, representation, and personalisation cultivate and amplify an individualist logic. Yet, as many commentators have suggested, the best protection we have against the virus is Ubuntu. Zenzeleni and other community networks around the world offer an alternative perspective on relationality, people, and technology.


Nicola Bidwell is an adjunct professor at the International University of Management, Namibia, and a researcher at University College Cork, Ireland. She has applied her expertise in community-based, action research for technology design in the Global South for the past 15 years, and catalysed thought about indigenous-led digital design and decolonality. Nic is an associate editor for the journal AI & Society: Knowledge, Culture and Communication.

Sol Luca de Tena has over a decade of experience in strategic project management within technology development, capacity building, social impact, and policy, with a focus on utilising technologies to address environmental and social challenges. She is currently the acting CEO of Zenzeleni Networks Not for Profit company, supporting the operation and seeding of community networks in rural communities in South Africa. She also leads various projects which seek to address the digital divide in a human centre approach, and collaborates on various working groups and forums on Community Networks in Africa and around the world.