While backpacking across the Transkei in South Africa, I stayed at Mdumbi Backpackers close to Coffee Bay, in the Mankosi Administrative Area, a rural traditional community within the Nyandeni Local Municipality in the Province of the Eastern Cape.

I had been made aware of an innovative wireless mesh network called Zenzeleni Community Telecoms by a friend in Cape Town, Michael Graaf, and took a look around. Zenzeleni translates to “Do it yourself” in isiXhosa.

It provides internet via a multihop backbone that eventually connects to South Africa’s backbone at Mthatha University. Much of the work has been done by volunteers - Masbulele Jay Siya, Coenraad Loubser, Carlos Rey-Moreno, Sol Luca De Tena, Lweras Max, Zuko Tshitshi and Professor William Tucker from the department of Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape.

It also provides standard POTS dialup between local stations - though since a hardware upgrade I am not certain of the status of this service.

Mesh networking

There are a few articles and reports for further reading.

Essentially, mesh networking allows a chain of wifi stations to carry data like a “hot potato” from the client (you or I) via a series of line-of-sight connections until it hits “real” internet - in Zenzeleni’s case, Mthatha University, about 50 Km away.

There is a main relay tower about halfway - at Nomadolo which is a high site visible from both Mthatha and Mankosi. This tower makes for fewer hops on the way from Mthatha - improving latency and speed. It means that the small local stations in Mankosi either must talk straight to that tower, or should be able to see a nearby station that can relay the connection to that tower.

Local stations

In the local community, a standard setup has been assembled. It consists of the antenna, a solar panel, car battery, electronics to manage the charging, radio gear for the antenna, relaying, and POTS phone connection, two cigarette lighter sockets for phone charging. This is inside the house, and includes a test button to check the battery voltages.

The cigarette lighter sockets give an opportunity to charge cellphones - an important service in these rural areas, and it turns out to be the main revenue earner for the person who hosts the radio equipment.

Each local station provides a wifi hotspot, that nearby phones and laptops can use.

The main hazard as I can see it is the maintenance of the free data uplink generously provided by the University of Mthatha, and local expertise required to maintain the local gear. Weather took out equipment on the tower, requiring Jay to get replacements and install it at the tower.