South African students are selling school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money

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For 13-year-old Thabo, lunch is a luxury. So selling his school’s Wi-Fi password brings him a few bucks every day to help him buy lunch.

Thabo is one of millions of impoverished children in South Africa who don’t have access to the internet at home. Yet his school’s internet is supposed to be free for access to students like him. But for Thabo and some of his classmates, free Wi-Fi access also makes for a lucrative small business to help keep hunger at bay.

Here’s how it works: For a small fee, students reveal the school’s Wi-Fi password to people who live near the school and don’t have internet at home or data on their phones.

“The going rate is 10 to 20 rands [70 cents to $1.40] or less. On a good day, I can scoop 50 rands [$3.50],” said Thabo, who lives in Duduza Township, about 35 miles away from Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. (As Thabo is a minor, Rest of World had consent from his guardian when he was interviewed, and we are only using his first name).

In theory, Wi-Fi at schools across South Africa, like at Thabo’s, is meant for students and their teachers. But many from the poor households dotted around schools feel the free Wi-Fi offered to students should be opened up for households too.

While household poverty in South Africa’s townships encourages students like Thabo to leak Wi-Fi passwords for cash, on the other end of the transaction is a desperate need for cheap internet access. Even though South Africa has some of the most developed telecommunications infrastructure on the continent and is generally regarded as Africa’s most advanced economy, it is also the world’s most unequal country, with a Gini coefficient of 63 in 2014, according to the World Bank. Many families in some of the country’s poorest townships struggle to comfortably afford enough internet data for their phones, even as everything from essential government services to daily entertainment begin to move online.

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