Community Networks Cooperative Society: Bridging Digital and Democratic Divides

By Jabhera Matogoro, Michael McEvoy and Steve Taylor

For many people around the world, a life without the internet is today hard to imagine. We connect with each other, to knowledge, to resources. Many of us use the internet to make ourselves known and heard, but also to hear new voices and opinions almost every day. The information ecology provided by the internet is fundamental to the breadth and depth of our democracies, for securing our rights and protecting those of others. The hard realities of the ‘digital divide’ however mean that many are still excluded from the global network. In 2019, 82.5% of people were online in Europe, compared with only 28.6% in Africa[1]. In the rural district of Kondoa, 140km north of Tanzania’s capital Dodoma, internet connectivity remains a luxury. But a grassroots cooperative society, the Kondoa Community Network (KCN), is working to change that.

In an aging block of half-abandoned offices just off one of Kondoa’s few main streets, a dimly lit corridor leads to a small dusty office that might otherwise go unnoticed. Behind the door however lies another world. Ms. Aziza, Ms. Asha and Ms. Mercy are excitedly peering over the shoulders of KCN’s software engineers to see the sleek design of the new ‘KIWAJAKO’ website[2] on a laptop. KIWAJAKO (an abbreviation of the Swahili words for ‘Kondoa group of widows women’) is a community-based organization (CBO) that provides mutual support to local widows to better understand their rights, fight stereotypes and secure economic livelihoods. Being widowed is arguably hard enough for anyone anywhere, but in many Tanzanian communities there are the added struggles against traditional and customary laws that prohibit ownership of land as a widow, as well as significant cultural stigmatisation. Given the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, many in Tanzanian communities frequently jump to the often false conclusion that their husbands succumbed to the virus, and that the widows themselves are also infected. As a result, finding employment and gaining access to other forms of support can be difficult. Ms. Aziza says that this often leaves widows heavily marginalised, not to mention the gender power imbalances already prevalent in society. She speaks of the feeling that the pain of the loss of her husband was, like many others, compounded by the fact that her property was confiscated by his family following his death. Out of pain that so many widows faced was born KIWAJAKO. However, connecting to each other, accessing their legal rights and fighting back against social stigmas was confounded by the group’s lack of resources and small membership. They needed a way to help multiply their efforts and amplify their voices.

The digital divide has a heavy gender component to it, with around 37% less women having access than men in sub-Saharan Africa[3], and it was something that the Kondoa Community Network Cooperative Society[4] was keen to address when they partnered with KIWAJAKO in 2017. The initiative launched by Mr. Jabhera Matogoro of the University of Dodoma[5] piloted a model of ‘community-owned’ internet using TV white space (TVWS) technology. Essentially the idea was to take advantage of spare capacity in the unused television broadcasting frequencies in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) spectrum to deliver broadband internet for previously cut-off communities. In Tanzania, this spectrum ranges from 470 – 694 MHz and has strong propagation characteristics exceeding a typical home Wi-Fi which covers only small geographical areas. Phones and computers can access this high-speed television white space Internet through fixed or portable wireless access points. All of which makes it perfect for rural communities who were previously unconnected, particularly as large telecoms companies are frequently reticent to invest in these areas. With the internet access provided by the pilot, the women’s collective was able to access information about their legal rights, advocate for their cause and address social stigmatisation, and connect with each other over long distances from village to village. Critically, the connection also enabled them to access new markets to sell their products and secure sustainable incomes and financial independence. The group hopes to launch their e-market in the coming few weeks that was developed and maintained by the Tanzania Community Networks Alliance (tzCNA)[6]– vital now that government donations have dried up. Ms. Mercy says that in understanding her rights better she has been released from the social stigma, and the collective has allowed her to, in her words, ‘feel seen, and less inferior’. This is the very human side to bridging the digital divide.

KIWAJAKO is just one of several local initiatives that benefitted from TVWS internet connectivity during the KCN pilot. The pilot also connected Ula secondary school, Bustani teacher’s college, the Study Zone Computer centre and Kondoa Girls High School.  Education is equally critical to addressing societal and global power inequalities, and internet access is now fundamental to levelling the playing field and ensuring we all benefit from the talents and passions of our youth. Through their partnership with KCN, Kondoa Girls’ School for example, was able to significantly change the student learning experience via its new-found online connections. Classes of up to 70 students previously relied on a limited number of textbooks (sometimes one between 10) and under-resourced teachers. With the TVWS connection and a new computer suite, students were able to supplement their learning with the vast resources afforded by the internet. Empowering students with access to knowledge like this can not only deepen the quality of learning, but also shift the relationship between teacher and student to one of collaboration and exchange rather than a unidirectional ‘read-write-repeat’ model. It engenders the sort of critical thinking, independence of thought and global consciousness so necessary to society’s evolution.

What’s interesting about the community initiative however, is not just the technology which in itself is highly innovative, but the whole philosophy of governance. Under the project, the community takes ownership and ultimately responsibility for the network and its maintenance. They collectively decide on appropriate pricing for members, who themselves can buy shares in the project as part of the cooperative structure. This bottom-up ethos stands in stark contrast to the top-down approach of private service providers who build the infrastructure only when profitable, barely engage the community in the enterprise, and set their own prices for users to pay. Prices that are typically far out of reach for rural families that can often scarcely afford more than two meals a day. As project lead Mr. Matogoro explains, if it was left to market forces, rural locations such as these in Konda District would not be connected for many years to come. It’s also a sharp departure from the NGO, or non-governmental approach so common in development scenarios. Here, shared ownership, participation and financial sustainability are understood as the keys to long-term success.

While the community is enthusiastic about the potential of expanding the use of TV white space in Kondoa, significant challenges remain. After enjoying the connectivity afforded by the TVWS pilot for two years, Kondoa Girls now remains disconnected to the disappointment of teachers and students alike, and the women of KIWAJAKO again have to rely on expensive mobile data. The project initially piloted on a two-year academic licence, however the government has so far not accepted to renew the permission after it expired in 2019. Part of the problem is likely bureaucratic, another is the lack of TVWS policy guiding the utilisation of the technology, but beyond this many in Tanzania still think of internet access as a luxury, not something to be prioritised above more pressing economic development issues.

And yet many of these issues could be more efficiently addressed were the communities suffering from a lack of development themselves supported by access to the internet. As the experience of Kondoa shows, grassroots initiatives can flourish if given just a little helping hand. The internet can afford communities previously unprecedented access to resources, knowledge and networks of collaborators.

Beyond the political and bureaucratic hurdles, the major telecoms companies, with their vast infrastructure and greater lobbying power, are still holding the reigns of who is connected and how much they must pay for the privilege to do so. We are still some distance from the original vision of the internet as a democratic platform open to all, owned by no one. The digital divide is complex and multifaceted – political bureaucracy, economic development, infrastructure and social factors like education and cultural gender imbalances all contribute. Mr. Matogoro stresses that addressing the digital divide is not a one man show – it requires a holistic approach from civil society, the government and private companies.

Despite the political and economic challenges facing community-based telecommunication in Tanzania, after Kondoa Community Network Cooperative Society, many more such initiatives have now been established. These include Community Network Cooperative Societies in Kasulu, Nyasa, Mpimbwe and Tarime. All of these have made big steps towards democratising the telecommunications industry in Tanzania and beyond.

Difficult as it may be, at a time when global challenges from the climate emergency, to pandemics, to poverty are both highly complex and highly interdependent, not limited to the borders of individual nations, we need as many voices as possible contributing to the shared solutions. The world cannot afford to let communities like Kondoa remain disconnected from the urgent conversation on these challenges, which are at once local and global. Big telecommunications companies and governments may be slow, unable or unwilling to act, but at the grassroots, local solutions to the digital divide are beginning to spring up, and the Kondoa Community Network Cooperative Society is one example that is blazing a trail for others to follow.

Mr. Jabhera Matogoro was the Open Internet Engineering Mozilla Fellow 2019 – 2020 and has founded the Tanzania Community Networks Alliance to advocate for the affordable and universal connectivity for rural Tanzania. His fellowship was hosted by the Internet Society under the mentorship of Kevin Chege and Jane Coffin

Michael McEvoy and Steve Taylor are co-authors for Journeys Through Democracy, a multimedia project chronicling the unique stories of communities around the world who are re-imagining the boundaries of what democracy is and can be in today’s world. Find out more at: www.journeysthroughdemocracy.com

KIWAJAKO is a registered community-based organization empowering widows in Kondoa.


[1]https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ITU_regional_global_Key_ICT_indicator_aggregates_Nov_2020.xlsx

[2]https://kiwajako.or.tz/

[3]https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/06/09/closing-the-digital-gender-gap-why-now-should-have-been-yesterday

[4]http://kcn.or.tz/

[5]https://www.udom.ac.tz/

[6]https://tzcna.or.tz/

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