How is social media revolutionizing Africa?

At a recent conference on the use of social media in Africa, regional players gathered to discuss how social media was influencing everything from citizen engagement to aid to governance.

By , Guest blogger

Last Monday I attended Africa Gathering London. The topic was "Social Media Revolutionizing Africa: How is new media changing Africa, giving voices to the voiceless, improving governance and transparency, and changing narratives?"

The event stimulated thinking and brought up some hot discussions around technology, traditional and social media, aid and development, participation, and governance. (Big congratulations to Marieme Jamme for curating a great line up that brought in an interesting and engaged group of participants and to William Perrin of Indigo Trust for keeping things on track and generating good debate!) See the program, the speaker bios and some short video interviews.

Some quotes, thoughts and debates from the day:

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  • If your purpose is to bring more people into discussions, remember that radio, Facebook, and Twitter audiences are distinct and be sure you are thinking differently about how to engage them all. Remember that many people in Africa prefer to talk, not write. (from BBC’s Africa Have Your Say presentation)
  • You can’t resolve all of Africa’s issues with one approach. The countries are very different and local context really matters. But you also can’t design something for every tiny demographic. Where is the sweet spot between localized and scale? (discussion after the morning workshop)
  • People should not sit in the United Kingdom deciding and developing things for Africans. Develop things with Africans, or support Africans to develop things themselves. This idea got retweeted a lot, with lots of agreement. But H Taylor (@HFTaylor88) also commented via Twitter that this rhetoric has been around for ages within NGOs… (discussion after morning workshop)
  • It’s great that the market has been able to bring mobile phones to so many people in Africa, but the market can’t do it on its own as many are still left out. There needs to be more incentive to reach remote areas. There needs to be education, cash transfers, government regulation if we want to really realize the potential of mobiles. Mika Valitalo (@vatamik) commented that in many African countries, mobiles are still taxed as luxury items, making them more expensive than they should be. (Claire Melamed (@clairemelamed), “Is the Mobile Phone Revolution Really for Everyone?”)
  • Any big story today on CNN has a social media component, yet there is still the idea that social media only breaks news and "it won’t make the history books until CNN or BBC report on it." If CNN is not planning to do a story but sees everyone is talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, they will cover it. CNN finds good opinions and stories on social media, but their primary news source will continue to be their correspondents. Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s), however, questioned whether mass media use of citizen journalism is a broadening of voices or if it’s cheap content for big media – or both. (Faith Karami of CNN's [@faithCNN] presentation and resulting discussions)
  • Social media gives African youth an uncensored worldwide platform, letting them feel included in shaping Africa’s image, but the youth using social media in Africa are still the middle class and the rich. We need to find ways to include other youth. (Ms. Karami's presentation and resulting discussions)
  • The Guardian’s Global Development site and Poverty Matters blog are trying to get away from the vision of "poor Africa" and have only been accused of "poverty porn" once in 9 months (which Liz said irritated her to no end as they really try to avoid it). (I remember the case…) They stay away from the typical "flies in the eyes" photos, but sometimes there really is starvation in Africa, and in those cases, a photo of a starving child might actually represent reality (someone countered that African newspapers should use photos of drunk, vomiting Brits to illustrate stories about parliament). (Deputy Editor Liz Ford's talk and discussion)
  • Is the Guardian’s Global Development site one-sided, taking the view that aid is good rather than other ideas on how to best achieve development? Development is much larger than "aid" and when talking about development we need to remember the bigger picture and the alternative views that maybe aid is not the best (or only) way to "do development." The Guardian is quite open to new thoughts and ideas and invites anyone with ideas for blogs or stories to be in touch with them. They consider their site a "work in progress." Note: I like the Guardian’s site very much as it is one of the few media sources that discusses and seems to really promote and engage in the "#smartaid/@smart_aid" discussion. (Liz Ford’s talk and discussion)
  • Many African leaders, not to mention the public and the media, will listen when high level people call their attention to something, but problems can’t be solved by the same people who created them, especially if those people are considered morally bankrupt. Karen Attiah (@karennattiah) commented in from Twitter that a big part of development work should focus on rebuilding the broken social contract between governments and citizens in Africa. So how can we connect policy makers with ordinary Africans? How to bridge the gap between policy makers and grassroots approaches and implementation? (Panel with Alex Reid (@alreidy) and Carolina Rodriguez (@caro_silborn), media heads at Gates Foundation and at Africa Progress Panel)
  • Not all sources are created equal – this is true for traditional and for social media. Social media is not about the technology, it’s about the human need to communicate. You can make traditional media more social also. Even those without access to social media will get around harsh barriers to tell their stories because of the urge to communicate. So the best thing is to create a social experience, not to worry so much about getting ‘jiggy’ with the technology. (From Kevin Anderson's (@KevGlobal) presentation. See "Putting the social in media")
  • New technologies can have an impact on public debate, people’s political capabilities, citizen-state relations, and relationships with other government actors. Frontline SMS Radio, for example, could be a very useful tool for this because radio is still the main way to communicate with the majority of Africa. Using Frontline SMS Radio, stations can sort through messages they get, understand them better, and use the information to orient their radio programs as well as other things. Radio can play a very strong and useful role in governance. (From Sharath Srinivasan's [@sharath_sri] presentation. See FrontlineSMS at Africa Gathering.)

Julia Chandler (@juliac2) did a great round-up of the day’s presentations and discussions on her blog: Part 1 and Part 2. The Guardian continues the discussion here and of course the Africa Gathering website is a great place for more information.

Linda Raftree works at Plan International, studying how new information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social media can be used to improve community development programs. She blogs here.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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