Isizwe is a non-profit on a mission to open opportunities for everyone by delivering quality internet connection to areas where people struggle to get it. We talk with Enzo Mpanz and Tim Genders about the idea, how they are empowering low-income communities and changing their lives for the better, and what is next for Isizwe.
So tell me more about yourselves. What do you do? What’s your business?
Tim Genders: The project isizwe, the non-profit company, was formed in 2013 by Alan Knott-Craig. What we saw that still exists now is data inequality – only 10% of the homes in South Africa have got wifi. Back then, wifi was provided by ADSL. Now that wifi is provided by fiber, all that has happened is that the wealthy 10% have upgraded their lines and the other 90% are still effectively unconnected. They do have access to the internet but through mobile data. And if you purchase mobile data in the small bundles that they are buying, it’s literally between 50 and 100 times more than what the privileged 10% that have fixed broadband or wifi in their homes pay. As a not-for-profit, it was that inequality that we were fighting against, advocating the need for fair data pricing between the different classes of South Africa.
The goal is to provide connectivity at an equitable price, so initially, we went out for free wifi access points. The challenge with free is sustainability. We were doing good at the beginning of COVID. We’ve got 70,000 monthly active users on our networks, but we need 30 million to address the issue. We felt that the only way to do that was actually to have a sustainable model based on making a profit. We effectively have a triple bottom line. One – we want to address this inequality issue. Two – we want to do good, but we want to make a profit while doing it. And three – we want to enjoy it and have tremendous job satisfaction. So that’s our triple bottom line. For me, it’s about then trying to get this sustainable wifi happening. We’ve realized that people are not that keen to pay for wifi in public access points, but they will pay for wifi if it’s in their home.
So as the for-profit company now, what we’re doing is we’re taking all of the concepts that we had with public wifi. We’re actually deploying it in such a way that we can reach either a home or preferably two or three homes with the deployments, but have the charging mechanism on an equitable basis and a charging mechanism of what they have in their pocket.
What we feel is critical is that even when you get equitable pricing, you’ve also got to address what they have got at any one time in their pocket to be able to pay? And the problem is that 600 rands a month as a one-off payment is too high, but five rands a day per device is achievable. What we’re doing is we’re rolling out five rands a day wifi into areas where there is no fixed broadband, and we are aiming to get the sustainability in place to science that.
Once we’ve got that base level of infrastructure in place, all the value adds that can be brought online can come on top of this. What we’re afterward then is collating the stories of how people have managed to change their lives as a result of the uncapped internet. We’re going to write a book about this because I think when you’ve got a mission and a purpose in mind, it’s always good to say, right?
Tell me about your name, the company name. How did it come up?
Tim Genders: The name isizwe means building a community or building a nation.
What we’re aiming to do with this is to build our communities in an online environment and, through it, create all the benefits of being online that the community can gain.
Why did you go for the .com extension?
The .com is for the profit company, and the .org is for non-profit. We still have the not-for-profits that receive sponsorship to get connectivity out to the various locations guided by the funder as to where we’re going to roll out. Another reason we went for .com is that we want to roll this out in other Sub-Saharan African countries as well.
The name isizwe means building a community or building a nation.
Tim Genders, Isizwe
What’s next? What are you working on apart from the book that you’ve mentioned?
Tim Genders: we’re working in areas south of Durban. We’ve got a network there and what’s next is to expand it. We believe that the revenues will get stronger as you densify your network. We’ve got laser focus on this area, and we’re rolling more and more access points in this area, making more and more people aware of it and really just getting it.
Enzo Mpanza: From a long-term perspective, South Africa probably has just rounded 2 million homes with access to fixed broadband. Ultimately our business is to create a sustainable business model, which you can then use to obtain DFI funding globally that will help us deliver broadband to every home within South Africa, which is our primary area of focus. If you look at the rest of the continent, they actually do sort of face the same issues. So obviously, we also want to expand to other markets, but South Africa certainly is the focus point at this stage.
Learn more about this amazing initiative, ways to invest as the team is working to monetize in order to be able to expand, by watching the complete interview below.