Zero-rating -the idea of making some internet content entirely free to access (ie no data charges)- is an idea that we at Kiwix do not support as a matter of principle. We think it goes against the whole idea of net-neutrality, and it is not a good thing for the internet at large.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic broke last year: this post is therefore the story of how we worked with giant telco Orange to bring zero-rated educational content to West-Africa, because at the end of the day our mission is to bring educational content to people without access.

What happened exactly? In the Spring of 2020, most governments decided to lock down their populations as a way to fight the expanding pandemic. In most cases this included closing down schools too, and hoping that teacher would magically adapt to the situation and do remote teaching to well-connected students. Problem is, not every student had internet access at home, particulary not in West Africa where less than 50% can afford to browse the internet.

This is when Orange reached out to us. They wanted to give zero-rated access to people in the region (we already work with their Foundation to provide offline content for their Digital Schools across Africa). Turns out that even large companies such as them do suffer, to some extent, from poor connectivity: while they can deploy their networks at the national level, their are still relying on the international internet backbone to circulate data in and out of the continent. And would you believe that there, too, Africa is less well connected than the rest of the world? For Orange, this meant that any successful zero-rated offer would suffer from limited bandwidth (as users would try en masse to get their data from servers located elsewhere) and additional costs (because someone has to pay for that international traffic).

So what’s the solution, then? Make it local. We installed Kiwix-serve directly at Orange’s regional data center in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with now locally-stored copies of Wikipedia, Khan Academy, the Gutenberg library and more. All of this was made available in Arabic, French and English on a dedicated portal for Orange customers:

Taking the international data transfer out of the equation, it was then only a matter of implementing regular zero-rating between Orange customers in the region and the company’s servers.

And it worked: over the few months it ran, the service attracted up to 200,000 individual users per month across the 14 markets it was deployed. Now that schools are returning to a semblance of normalcy the service is gradually being migrated to a regular, net-neutral service.