Why the Internet Matters in Africa

If anyone doubts the power of the internet in Africa, they need to look no further than what is happening in Kenya right now. Kenya is balanced on the precarious edge of a cliff that could quickly descend into even more riots, bloodshed and government heavy-handedness. The people I’m talking to via Skype/email tell me that there are gunshots going off as we type… This isn’t Zimbabwe (yet), but it is still bad.

Kenyan GSU or Police in Kibera after elections

(image via WIR Media – downloadable below)

As of yesterday there was a media blackout. The only way to get any up-to-date news for the past 24-48 hours has been through the blogosphere (like Kenyan Pundit, Thinker’s Room, Mentalacrobatics), Skype and Kenyan populated forums (like Mashada). The traditional media has been shut out and shut down for all intents and purposes.

Two thoughts were racing through my head last night as I was trying to sleep.

Internet Penetration
First, though the internet is good for us in the diaspora and a few in Kenya, it just doesn’t have the reach to the wananchi (average citizen) in Kenya. The government knows that shutting down radio, TV and print is still the most effective way to squash news.

However there is still the mobile phone, specifically SMS messaging. The problem with mobile phones is that they’re so disbursed – there’s no central core for users to all tune in to. Of course, that’s the strength in mobiles too. The trick is to leverage the strength without destroying the medium.

What Can be Done?
I went to bed trying to think of what I could do. Situations like this are where technology can really shine. The government can squash traditional media, but not technology that it barely knows exists.

Anyone can see that the problems in Kenya right now (both news blackout and general communication) also represent a real opportunity. There is a great need for a service that can’t be easily controlled by the government. How about a platform that serves as a centralized repository for on the ground reports from any Kenyan via SMS? The ability for people to upload videos and images with some text to a web-based and mobile phone accessible site.

Technology Being Used
I’ve been touching base with all of my contacts and these are the tech stories that I’m hearing:

  • Phone cards are in short supply, so people are using Sambaza to top up their mobile phone minutes. (Kenyan Pundit)
  • No one was able to get to the cyber cafes in Kenya to get on the chat, so David at the Mashada forums is working to create a way to post to them via mobile phones.

Further reading:
Downloadable news and pictures from WIR Media – read and pass it on (1.2 Mb PDF)

Ndesanjo has done an excellent job of hitting the major points of the Kenyan blogosphere over on Global Voices.

18 thoughts on “Why the Internet Matters in Africa

  1. Pingback: SMS Your News - the Mashada Hotline | White African

  2. jogany

    The matters you mention in this post are common to all african countries and I have great hopes that the transfer of knowledge added with the work of well intented developers will make something outstanding out of this situation.
    I’m spreading the news so Malagasy geeks can help as well.

    Happy New Year and Best Wishes to you and your loved ones! May 2008 become the best year ever to happen!

    Bizzzz

  3. Joe

    Too bad Twitter isn’t local to Kenya. During the San Diego wildfires, I “followed” KPBS on Twitter, along with nearly 1000 others, and I received updates every 10-20 minutes. Additionally, I “tracked” the keyword Carlsbad on Twitter to see what other’s in the blogsphere were reporting about my home town.

    One solution you’re looking for in Kenya would be similar to Twitter’s follow or track features where Kenyans could subscribe to either a news source or keyword and immediately receive updates on their cell phones via SMS.

  4. Joe

    Hash:
    Here’s a demo of how it would work. You send the following text to Twitter (40404):
    “Follow KenyaNews”
    And then you’d receive updates posted by that news channel (which I’ll update periodically over the next couple days).
    Also, you can send the following text to see what people are saying about Kenya:
    “Track Kenya”

    Both of these techniques give you access to an “authoritative” news source (KenyaNews) and also you can hear from citizen reporters.

    With my background in SMS, I wish I was in Kenya right now to make this happen so people could use a domestic phone number instead of an international phone number (+1).
    If I thought I could get the word out I’d implement it.

  5. Josiah

    some clarifications – it isn’t a media blackout. Its a temporary ban on live broadcasts so as to prevent incitement between communities on vernacular radio etc, which apparently took place on one channel and it was too late before the editors pulled the plug on the person who had called in.
    I’m not saying this to defend anyone, just that media blackout means no news IMHO.
    The news houses are transmitting news at 7 and 9. And lots of stuff is coming through – the online papers (www.nationmedia.com and http://www.eastandard.net) and their respective TV channels have stuff.
    The Govt spokesman+Communication PS said something to the effect that Kenyan media houses can’t do automatic delay of news that would allow them to ‘moderate’ what comes through.
    That said I hope that this ban on live media gets lifted within a day or two. Perception is everything after all.

    Have a peaceful prosperous and happy new year wherever you are. Pray for those families affected and for peace to prevail.

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  8. Eric Z

    What about streaming audio from a ham radio channel designated for this crisis? Anyone with a ham radio could send and anyone with one could recieve.

    1. The channel could be recorded 24/7 and relevant clips could be transcribed (and translated if appropriate) along with the audio clip
    2. Ham radio is portable so the trasmitting station could move as the environment permits to avoid being located
    3. Multiple recieving stations can publish the stream over the internet creating a redundant solution
    4. A second channel can be established to transmit world news into affected areas
    5. Text to speech engines could allow for over-the-air updates via email, IM, SMS or posts on a blog

    I’m not a ham radio operator but in times of crisis these individuals have always come to the aid of their respective areas to ensure communication lines remain open.

    My thoughts go out to those affected by the current crisis.

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  14. webringnet.com

    we should fully utilized IT infrastructure, no matter what is the situation, we always have an alternative media. we must sharing the truth by telling the world.

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