You won’t find the community of Macha on many maps. It’s 50 miles from the nearest road in the Southern Province of Zambia, itself a land-locked southern African country – it’s pretty much the last place you’d expect to find a community logged on to the Internet.
Taking advantage of a satellite link installed by John Hopkins University Malaria Research Institute, the LinkNet Cooperative (formed three years ago by the community and staffed by talented self-taught local youngsters, none of whom have graduated beyond grade 12) has established the largest wireless Mesh Network in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Linknet Cooperative is a hive of innovation. In this resource-poor environment, with a low population density, extremely high satellite connection costs and with few international donors necessity breeds invention. Simple wireless routers, similar to the ones used in homes in the UK, are used to spread a single internet connection across a wide area for people to share. Sharing the costs like this, first with schools, health centres and a nurse training college, then with businesses and homes, makes internet connectivity affordable for the first time. The hospitals connection of $1,500 per month shared between 50 people is reduced to $30 each, with smaller units available at the Internet cafe, and the connection is fast.
But the project is about more than geeks playing in the bush. By researching crop types, local farmers have already diversified – many have substituted part of their maize crop (a staple subsistence crop) with sunflower oil which generates vital cash in the local market. A small cash income for a family there sends children to school and can cover medical expenses for ill family members.
Doctors and nurses at the local hospital can seek advice on treating patients from specialists in the capital. Screening for malaria has improved thanks to the John Hopkins link and rates of malaria have dropped by 90%. Local people are using the internet for research to establish businesses whilst transaction costs for basic goods have reduced considerably.
The community has moved from net migration to cities, to net immigration from surrounding areas as income, healthcare, employment and small enterprise opportunities have increased beyond all recognition. Perhaps the biggest development, again driven by Internet-based research is the development of a bio-fuel, Jatropha, from scrub land on the edge of town. A fully-grown Jatropha tree can generate 1.5 kilos of fruit per year in this climate and, crucially, the crop times are compatible with the maize growing season – providing 400 farmers with a cash income initially and, longer term, a ready supply of fuel. The community expects to be self-sufficient in fuel inside three years.
The experience in Macha proves that access to information is the critical first ingredient in helping local young people identify opportunities for social and economic development. The LinkNet Cooperative calls them local heroes which is a clumsy translation from the local language, Tonga. We might understand it better as change-makers: people who will advocate for change, challenge conventions, take risks to kick-start business and social activity. More important than anything else, the Internet installation in Macha gives young local change-makers the space and opportunity to drive development.
There are thousands of communities like Macha across the developing world and millions of local change-makers who need the tools to drive development in their communities.