WikiAfrica believe free access for children could become reality

The possibility of Wikipedia Zero coming to South Africa is “very real” as learners at a Cape Town high school lobby major mobile phone operators to allow free access to the online encyclopedia.

Asked by HumanIPO whether the initiative, which is already giving free access to school children in India, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, would be coming to South Africa, Isla Haddow-Flood, project manager for WikiAfrica, said: “I think its very real, it is just a question of whoever takes the plunge first.”

Grade 11 learners at Sinenjongo High School have written a letter toVodacom, MTN, Cell C and 8ta because they believe being able to access Wikipedia for free will improve education through equal access to information.

“At the moment they (Sinenjongo learners) are the ones who actually mobilised and got together and said this is a great idea, let’s do it, let’s try and approach them (mobile phone operators) and they linked up with our organisation and with our project – WikiAfrica to extend that,” added Haddow-Flood.

It is estimated 90 percent of Sinenjongo learners have mobile phones, while 70 percent access Facebook from their mobile phones.

“The 25 school computers are available to each learner for an hour a week,” said Pieter Streicher, managing director of BulkSMS.com and volunteer computer studies teacher at Sinenjongo High School.

Streicher added the children do not have access to computers outside of their school environment.

“Their alternatives are to walk or take public transport to the nearest library where the learners have to queue to use the few available computers with Internet connectivity, or they have to go to Internet cafés, an expensive option for learners from low income households.”

Streicher believes the online, open and collaborative encyclopedia is an ideal educational resource for learners and covers all topics that are studied at school.

Before Wikipedia Zero began, school children in India would band together to try and pay for their Internet usage.

“With only 21 percent of South Africa’s schools offering a library, our school children face the same problem. Mobile network operator Orange, which currently offers Wikipedia for free on its networks in 18 African and Middle Eastern countries, look upon Wikipedia Zero as a differentiator in a highly competitive market,” said Haddow-Flood.

She added about 95 percent of African mobile phone users are on pre-paid. “Cellphone users are fickle and go for the operator with the best deal. Access to free information and education is a great service to offer to retain customer loyalty.”

In the letter, the Sinenjongo learners wrote: “We recently heard that in some other African countries like Kenya and Uganda certain cell phone providers are offering their customers free access to Wikipedia. We think this is a wonderful idea and would really like to encourage you also to make the same offer here in South Africa.

“It would be totally amazing to be able to access information on our cell phones which would be affordable to us.”

They also said their school is not equipped with a library and offering Wikipedia for free could improve the education system in the country.

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