Media and tech innovation in Africa: what’s the story?

What do dodgy doctors, smartphones in plastic bottles submerged in rivers and computer printed drones have in common?

On the face of it, nothing; but all form part of innovative media projects that prove that nothing in the world of publishing and journalism is as it was, nor will it ever be the same again.

Today anyone with a smartphone or a computer with access to the internet can bypass conventional media and be a ‘reporter’ or ‘publisher’ in their own right, using social media or any number of free apps or blogging platforms.

This video of South African police dragging a Mozambiquan man behind a police van  is just one of many that are uploaded to YouTube on a daily basis by ordinary people who have captured a newsworthy event with a smartphone. And in Nigeria the Sahara online community has more than a million followers on social media, far more than many media houses.

The challenge is for media to tap into these burgeoning grassroots networks, but still keep citizen voices at the core of the feedback loop, by building tools to monitor and engage with ordinary people and include them in the news gathering process. 

Until now Africa has lagged behind more developed parts of the world because of the prohibitively high cost of Internet access, but this is changing as the deployment of new undersea cables down the east and west coasts of the continent help reduce the cost of connectivity.

But engagement needs to go beyond merely harvesting inexpensive content created by citizen reporters because, in the 21st Century journalism, publishing is no longer a one-way conversation in which the media pushes content and all their audience can do is consume, without question or input, the diet they are fed.

The explosion of free social media platforms and cheaper connectivity has also helped increased the diversity of voices and sparked an explosion of ideas and innovations by some pioneering media, including “news you can use” tools that ordinary people can use to make decisions on issues that directly affect their lives.

A good example of this is budgIT in Nigeria, which gives ordinary people easy-to-understand information and graphics that explain different aspects of the country’s Federal and State budgets. It also offers a suite of simple tools that allow users to track different aspects of budgets, including giving them the ability to track the progress of budgeted projects in their own areas or neighbourhoods.

In  South Africa the Ziwaphi  community-based newspaper in rural Mpumalanga is using old smartphones submerged in clear plastic bottles in rivers to monitor sewage contamination and water-borne diseases, like cholera. Functioning as simple electron microscopes, the phones use their inbuilt cameras to take regular flash-lit pictures that are then magnified and compared against an existing image data base to detect dangerous levels of E.coli. The information is then fed back to Ziwaphi’s readers via SMS, so that they know from which rivers it’s safe to collect water, and which ones are unsafe.

Once a month, Ziwaphi publishes an in-depth story based on the results, which is shared with other community papers and local radio stations in the area, to help empower ordinary people with information to force government to deliver clean water and sanitation to their poor and under-serviced communities.

In Kenya, the Star Newspaper group has developed Star Health, a simple-to-use online tool that helps readers find doctors and the location of health facilities close to their homes. All users need to do is type in a doctor’s name to find out whether they have ever been found guilty of malpractice (in one case a man working as a doctor in fact turned out to be a vet). In a country where dodgy doctors are a real problem, the tool has proved to be a real hit.

In Nigeria’s isolated Delta region, a pioneering project has seen mainstream media working with an existing citizen reporting network, Naija Voices, using controlled drones fitted with cameras to monitor for environmentally destructive oil spills. The plan is to syndicate the footage into mainstream TV and newspaper partners in Lagos and Abuja, giving them unprecedented reach into parts of the country that had previously been largely inaccessible to them.

The fixed-wing drones (similar to those in this TED video) are relatively cheap and simple to fly, but they crash from time to time. Getting new parts, like the wings or pieces of the fuselage, would be costly and time consuming, so they’re experimenting with 3D printers to create parts onsite and on demand,

skyCAM,  an innovative start-up, has been experimenting with drones in Kenya as part of “Africa’s first newsroom-based eye in the sky, which uses drones and camera-equipped balloons to help media that cannot afford news helicopters to cover breaking news in dangerous situations or difficult-to-reach locations.

The Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Reporting in South Africa is using “geo journalism and other mapping techniques to amplify its reporting, as well as to analyse ongoing stories like rhino poaching and canned lion hunting to uncover trends or links to criminal syndicates.

Their reportage is credited with promoting a recent ban on canned hunting in Botswana and helping to shape laws on trade in rhino and other wildlife products in China and in Mozambique.

The reality is that poorly fly-resourced African newsrooms seldom have the in-house technology resources or digital skills to build these new tools. 

So many of these projects have been kick-started with assistance from the digital innovation programme run by African Media Initiative (AMI) and similar initiatives by Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and smaller donors like the Indigo Trust, which are helping build external support systems to assist African news rooms to leapfrog into a digital future.

Witnessing the bloodbath that has hit media in the developed world, it clear that the old revenue model of depending mainly on advertising and copy sales is broken and times are tough for most publishers. 

But therein lies the rub: media owners, hard hit by falling circulations and rising costs, are reluctant to spend on building audience engagement tools and experimenting, because it is still not clear what will work and where revenue online will come from.

Nevertheless, the writing is on the wall and the question is whether African media will use the breathing space it has been afforded before it too is overwhelmed by the tsunami of change.

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