As Ghanaians head to the polls in presidential elections, the debate over the country’s leadership has been going on for at least a year.
Helping to frame that debate is Kinna Likimani. She heads Ghana Decides, a group of Ghanaian bloggers using social media to discuss the elections. The bloggers use Twitter, Facebook and Google Hangouts to discuss the election candidates, debate issues – such as womens’ prospects in the country’s politics – and encourage Ghanaians to turn up and vote.
But Likimani faces a huge challenge. “Most Ghanians aren’t online and can’t get involved this way,” she explained. “There are only 1.2 million accounts on Facebook in the whole country.”
Fewer than 15 per cent of the people in the country use the internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
But Likimani has also been travelling to “offline groups” across Ghana, and bringing their stories and observations into the online conversations.
“Most Ghanians aren’t online and can’t get involved this way [on social media]. There are only 1.2 million accounts on Facebook in the whole country.“
– Kinna Likimani, Ghana Decides
It’s a similar situation across Sub-Saharan Africa. Statistics from the World Bank show that, in 2011, just 12.3 per cent of people across the region had internet access.
Yet in recent years, citizen reporting and participation in governance have emerged as powerful forces, both locally and globally, coming into sharp focus during 2011’s uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Predominantly young, tech-savvy activists blurred the line between citizen participation and documentation, storytelling and political mobilisation – using smart phones and online social media platforms to tell their stories.
Turi Munthe is founder and CEO of Demotix, a global news wire service based around an international network of freelance and citizen journalists.
“We have been bowled over by the content we have received from places like Iran,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We get great material from the Middle East [and] South East Asia.” But in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s a different story.
“To get good content from Sub Saharan Africa right now is a nightmare,” he said. “There just isn’t the network connection to upload images or video there yet.”
Tech boom leaves many behind
The problems that Munthe and Likimani both face seem at odds with the “technological renaissance” often portrayed in media profiles of the continent.
For example, an explosion in mobile phone ownership – ITU reported in 2011 that more than 50 per cent of Africans had a mobile phone subscription – has sparked a wave of pioneering innovation.
Kenya has led the way as an innovator of mobile services and tools. Nairobi has been dubbed “Silicon Savannah”, now hosting companies such as Google, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and Vodafone.
The impact is spilling across Kenya’s borders, and technology “hubs” have sprung up across the continent – with some in unexpected places.
In Somaliland, a South African organisation named RLabs has set up a hub; the concept is to train up a group of “tech entrepreneurs” who will go on to create financially sustainable start-ups. The majority of the population is unable to afford internet access, but co-founder Marlon Parker is optimistic.
“The population is well educated and more than 50 per cent of people are under 25. 95 per cent of people own a mobile phone and costs are the cheapest in East Africa… the young are passionate about driving change in their communities.“
– Marlon Parker, RLabs
“There’s also a big opportunity here,” he said. “The population is well educated and more than 50 per cent of people are under 25. 95 per cent of people own a mobile phone and costs are the cheapest in East Africa… the young are passionate about driving change in their communities.”
Across the continent in Libera, iLab was set up in 2011 to support the online mapping of conflict and the presidential election using the Ushahidi platform. “Our partners had difficulty using our online platform because of poor internet connectivity, computers corrupted by viruses, and unreliable electricity,” said co-founder Kate Cummings.
Liberia’s telecommunications infrastructure and electrical grid were largely destroyed during the country’s 14 years of dictatorship. Relying on satellite internet connections and generators makes accessing the internet prohibitively expensive – and this is one of Africa’s most significant challenges to technical innovation and full engagement with the continent’s residents.
“We do have a network (of citizen reporters) across the continent,” Muthe said. “But our contributors tend to be middle class, based in urban centres with good broadband internet. Until internet connectivity grows we can’t spread much deeper than this.”
Most of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 695 million mobile phones are basic models – able only to call and text. According to Informa Telecoms and Media, only one in every 30 mobiles in Africa is a smartphone.
Devices are getting cleverer and cheaper, but the fact remains that only a small portion of the population have access to them.
Many groups, however, are not waiting for internet access to catch up with mobile phone users. They’re exploring other ways to connect “offline communities”. Innovative technologies are bridging the gap between the traditional two-way connection of phone calls and texts with the massinvely interconnected, nebulous interaction of the web. Using voice and text messages from basic phones, social media platforms are developing products such as Speak to Tweet.
Google Africa has also recently rolled out a product that enabled users to receive emails from a Gmail account via text message, bypassing the bandwidth-sucking graphics utilised by smartphones.
“Our contributors tend to be middle class, based in urban centres with good broadband internet. Until internet connectivity grows we can’t spread much deeper than this.“
– Turi Munthe, Demotix
Justin Arenstein is the director of digital innovation at the African Media Initiative (AMI), a pan-African organisation that supports private and independent media.
Arenstein, himself a South African, believes that the local media environment is another factor that has prevented citizens from speaking out in the past.
“Traditional media here haven’t tapped into citizen content the same way an Al Jazeera or a CNN iReport have,” he told Al Jazeera.
“As a result of there not being a platform, I think that people haven’t aspired to use the tools available in quite the same way that they have in North Africa.”
This looks set to change. Large funders such as Google and the Gates Foundation are now investing heavily in media and journalism innovation in Africa.
Arenstein is the manager for AMI’s African Innovation News Challenge (AINC), funded by these two organisations, among others. The Challenge launched this year and is offering $1 million to be spilt between the 40 finalists who offer the most innovative digital solutions for the news industry in Africa.
Call me maybe?
Recently, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) set up the Mobile News for Africa project (MNFA).
Programme Director Catharine Fulton said the mobile phone “is a brilliant means of reaching communities that may be otherwise geographically or economically separated from the media”.
Despite investments such as these, citizen reporting in Sub-Saharan Africa follows a different model to that of the US or the UK, said Arenstein.
“The majority of these people are trying to make a career of reporting, they’re almost stringers or runners and want to finally be full time reporters,” he said. “This is not neccessarily a bad thing.”
He explained: “It means we’re getting a far more grassroots reporting network in place. Reporters are now in rural areas able to report on news as it happens. They’re able to report with context on the issues, they’re not just parachuting in for one story.”
Phoning it in
Traditional African media organisations are beginning to see the value of combining mobile technology with citizen reporting.
“Someone from the pastoralist community told us how 1,000 of his cattle were stolen during a cross border raid … After a community reconciliation initiative they managed to have every one returned.“
– Dickens Olewe, Kenya’s Daily Star
The Daily Star, a Kenyan newspaper, has developed a citizen journalism app named “Star Reports” – and it’s given the paper at least one exclusive.
“Someone from the pastoralist community told us how 1,000 of his cattle were stolen during a cross border raid,” said Dickens Olewe, the Star’s project manager. “After a community reconciliation initiative they managed to have every one returned.
“It was brilliant because we don’t have reporters up where he is, and none of the newspapers were covering it,”
For Likimani, “social media is a really important way of informing and engaging with people online, more and more people are coming online”.
But, for now, offline interaction remains key
“At Ghana Decides we come from a similar social class and have the same conversations,” she said. “With our offline engagements we use the knowledge that we gather to broaden peoples’ ideas of who a Ghanaian is and what their issues are.”
Organisations such as hers are needed to bridge a digital divide between Africans using the latest technologies to get online and those limited to an “old school” handset. However, with advances in mobile technology, plus a growing media interest in a vocal public, this divide is getting smaller every day.