South African Team Runner Up in Mozilla’s Equal Rating Innovation Challenge

Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi has been announced as the “Runner-Up” in Mozilla’s Equal Rating Innovation Challenge with a funding award of US$75,000. With this global competition, Mozilla called for creative and scalable ideas to provide affordable access to the full diversity of the open internet. Mozilla offered awards, totaling USD 250,000 in funding and expert mentorship to bring these solutions to the market. It received 100 submissions from 27 countries. The final shortlist of best five entries was chosen by an esteemed panel of expert Judges from around the world.

Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi is an extension of the highly awarded and successful Project Isizwe, where 2.9 million users all access 500MB of free daily WiFi data. The key goal of Afri-Fi is to create a sustainable business model by linking together free wifi networks throughout South Africa and engaging users meaningfully with advertisers so they can “earn” free wifi.

“The team has proven how their solution for a free internet is supporting thriving communities in South Africa,” concluded Marlon Parker, Founder of Reconstructed Living Labs, on behalf of the jury. “Their approach towards community building, partnerships, developing local community entrepreneurs and inclusivity, with a goal of connecting some of the most marginalized communities, are all key factors in why they deserve this recognition and are leading the free Internet movement in Southern Africa,” said Parker.

In reaction to the “Runner-Up” award, Tim Genders, COO of Project Isizwe, said: “The divide between rich and poor is being defined as your ability to access the Internet. Free wi-fi allows everyone to gain access. Free wi-fi allows the poor to play on the same field as the rich. Free wi-fi removes the barriers to education, social inclusion, skills development and job applications. In short, free wi-fi empowers.” Genders added: “Our next steps are to make free wi-fi scalable and self-sustaining through an advertising model. We want to make free wi-fi the new medium to get messages out to communities.”

In Africa, availability and affordability of Internet access is one of the new grand challenges that the continent is faced with. “I was particularly delighted to see strong African representation in the semi-finalists,” said Omobola Johnson, the former Communication Technology Minister of Nigeria and Partner of TLcom Capital LLP, “the solutions were contextually innovative and they all emphasized a strong need to collaborate; big companies, local governments, rural communities, Telco’s, all working together to implement solutions where each of them come out a winner. This unique approach provides a strong platform for sustainability, and I do hope the prize money will go to further scale these projects and extend knowledge gained to other parts of the world with similar context.”

The Overall Winner of the Equal Rating Innovation Challenge and receiving US$125,000 in funding is Mumbai-based Project Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband. Gram Marg utilizes unused white space on the TV spectrum to backhaul data from village wifi clusters to provide broadband access (frugal 5G). The team of academics and field workers around Professor Abhay Karandikar, Dean (Faculty Affairs) and Institute Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, leverages what people already have in their homes, and creates rugged receivers and transmitters to connect villages in even the most difficult terrains. The solution has been rolled out in 25 villages on a pilot basis so far.

The “Most Novel” award worth US$30,000 went to Bruno Vianna and his team from the Free Networks P2P Cooperative in Brazil. Rather than focusing on technology, the Coop has created a financial and logistical model that can be tailored to different villages’ respective norms and community. The team experiments with ways to engage communities through “barn-raising” group activities, deploying “open calls” for leadership to reinforce the democratic nature of their approach, and instituting a sense of “play” for the villagers when learning how to use the equipment.

Following the announcement, Katharina Borchert, Chief Innovation Officer at Mozilla, noted in a blog post, “Mozilla started this initiative because we believe in the power of collaborative solutions to tackle big issues. We wanted to take action and encourage change. At Mozilla, our commitment to Equal Rating through policy, innovation, research, and support of entrepreneurs in the space will continue beyond this Innovation Challenge, but it will take a global community to bring all of the internet to all people.”

Mozilla, the non-profit organization behind the open source browser Firefox, launched the ‘Equal Rating Innovation Challenge’ in October 2016 as part of its endeavor to help catalyse new thinking and innovation for providing open internet access to communities living without it.