Free Wi-Fi project launches at Northern Areas ‘centre of hope’

APRIL 5, 2016

A community health and business centre in Gelvandale – a beacon of hope in an area affected by gang violence, drug abuse and poverty – will be the first to benefit from a free Wi-Fi project in Nelson Mandela Bay.

The project – a joint initiative driven by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Centre for Community Technologies (CCT) and the office of the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications, Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize – will be launched on Wednesday (6 April) at the CCT-FamHealth Computer Labs. The project is part of the government’s national broadband roll-out initiative.

The computer labs form part of Gelvandale’s FamHealth Medipark, which provides a range of medical services to the community, trains community health care workers, and runs youth training programmes through its NMMU-FamHealth Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) for Grade 11 learners. The labs, which were established a year ago, are also open to the public, and are used particularly by learners.

The YLA programme, which targets “at-risk youth” and this year has 97 Grade 11 learners, is now in its fifth year. The teenagers are given training in technology, leadership, entrepreneurship and many other life skills they will need to become successful adults.

CCT head Prof Darelle van Greunen said Gelvandale had become a suburb where children were no longer seen on the streets and neighbours were reluctant to visit each other, for fear of being caught in gang wars – but the free Wi-Fi would enable community members to connect with each other online.

“Our vision is to create a connected community in the Northern Areas that will not only assist in re-establishing the social constructs of this vulnerable community, but also fight substance abuse, gang violence and enhance education.”

The computer labs have 25 computers and 10 tablets, but the community will also be able to utilise the free Wi-Fi on their own phones and other devices.

“Through the Wi-Fi project, we will now be in a position to connect schools and set up digital libraries and offer access to other programmes [e.g. vocational programmes] to support the formal education sector.”

She said the next phase of the project would be to partner with industry and the Metro to bring free Wi-Fi to underprivileged schools in the Northern Areas and townships – and then later to schools in deep rural Eastern Cape areas.

“Where schools already have computers, we can assist them to connect to the Internet. If there are no computers, they will still be able to connect using tablets and cell phones, enabling the learners to carry out research for school projects … In 2011, the United Nations declared Internet access a basic human right. That is part of what I’d like to achieve, not just in Nelson Mandela Bay but throughout the Eastern Cape.”

In the rural areas, Van Greunen is hoping to target schools at deep rural villages in the Willowvale area of the Transkei, which are under the Chieftainship of Chief Ngwenyathi Dumalisile, with whom NMMU has a Memorandum of Understanding, and which has led to the establishment of an ICT Resource Centre.

“I want to see how we can expand this Free Wi-Fi project to connect six of the schools in the immediate area. One school has been without maths and science teachers for nearly two years.”

She also hopes to expand the free Wi-Fi project to the nearby Donald Woods Foundation (DWF), which is the hub of Hobeni village, near Elliotdale.  “If we can create public access to Wi-Fi there, we can connect 15 schools and eight health care clinics.” CCT already works closely with the DWF, in terms of rolling out ICT health care solutions to improve health care delivery.

Van Greunen has been invited to speak about the project at Unesco’s Tech4Dev 2016 international conference in Geneva, Switzerland in early May.