Thinking about Blogging at WordCamp Kenya 2013

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

Today finds me in Nanyuki, Kenya at WordCamp Kenya 2013. The past couple years, I’ve been traveling during the event, but this year I get to come hang out with my blogging brothers and sisters.

As I was thinking about what to talk about, I thought I’d cover four areas:

  1. Why we blog
  2. My rules for blogging
  3. 3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere
  4. Using blogging as a tool

Why We Blog

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
– Lewis Carroll

The best bloggers are storytellers, they take you on a journey. They tell you why you should care about things, they’re opinionated and informative, and they understand what makes things interesting to their readers.

My rules for blogging

My rules for blogging

Commitment: to be a really good blogger, you have to commit to it for a long time. Success doesn’t happen over night, and if you take it seriously and really put your mind to it, you can leverage that for much greater things in the years ahead.

Quality: take the time to write well. Sometimes I’ll write a 4 paragraph blog post and it’ll take me more than 2 hours. That sounds ludicrous, but it’s because I’m trying to find the right phrase, link to the right places and put the right images in that make this worth someone’s time to read.

Consistency: this is where I’ve been falling down over the last year or so. If you consistently publish quality blog posts, you’ll gather a following and generate a community around what you do. I blogged consistently, 3-4 times per week for two years before I really got noticed. It’s important to remember that blogging is a long-game, and that if you stick with it, it will pay off.

3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere

1. The Kenyan elections
Back in March of this year we had the prolonged (5-day) Kenyan elections, where there was a lot of tension. Where I believe we traded “peace” for truth. I wasn’t surprised that the media didn’t do their job. I was surprised that there were so few bloggers who did theirs. I took a lot of heat for creating the IEBC Tech Kenya blog on Tumblr to track the facts around the IEBC technology failures, but I kept wondering where the other bloggers were.

Quote by @Gathara

One person who did blog was @Gathara, and boy did he blog well!

Our job as bloggers is to be independent voices, and we’re most powerful when mainstream media isn’t doing their job. When we do this blogging in a timely manner and get that information out there quickly and in a well-researched and circumspect way. We need to get back to our Kenyan blogging roots, which were just like this back 4-7 years ago.

2. Corporate sponsored bloggers
Making money off of blogging is fine, nothing wrong with that. I’m tired of cut and paste blogging though, where people take press releases from a corporate and get paid to just paste it with no changes. I want to know why what that company is doing is interesting, why I should care. I want to know what your opinion is.

Don’t sell out and lose your identity.

3. Kenya’s new media laws

Kenyan MPs have approved a contentious media bill that journalists say amounts to government censorship

I see articles on the East African, the Telegraph, the Nation, but only a couple blogs show up in Google search results.

Why? Already we have loose set of laws around media and information, it’s a slippery censorship slope that hurts all but the powerful in Kenya. This new law makes it even worse, it smacks of Moi-era censorship.

Where are the bloggers using this opportunity to push back? Don’t we realize that this law applies to us too?

Blogging as a tool

My final discussion points were about how even if you have very little, you can still use WordPress, Twitter and Instagram to build a brand. I talked briefly about where we’d come from with Ushahidi and the iHub, just using blogging and social media to get on the map. Now, we’re doing the same thing for BRCK.

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

I used the example and ran through the story of the BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana to catch the Solar Eclipse. I used my blog, as well as the BRCK blog to create the narrative, amplified by Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

When you’re building a new brand, what you write and the images you use, help people understand what the narrative and brand is about. For us, it was important to put a stake in the sand (literally too, I guess), about the BRCK being a rugged connectivity device. Nothing said that quite like the team behind it out and thrashing it themselves (and also thrashing themselves…).

The results of this were that by the time we got back a week later, there were many more people interested in buying a BRCK themselves, but also people who now wanted to partner with us and even invest.

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Blogging is a long-term strategy. The Ushahidi blog has been a big part of our identity for almost 6 years. The team who built Ushahidi were all bloggers, so it makes sense that it’s part of our DNA. For the iHub the same. For BRCK the same. I don’t believe in press releases, I believe in blogging the story and if you’re doing interesting things and telling the story about them well, then the right parties will find you.

Blogging in a different style

I’ve realized that my life doesn’t allow for the same style blogging that I used to do in past years, where I would find time to spend a couple hours on different pieces. Instead of giving up on blogging altogether, I’ve decided to take it to a different format.

post-icons

My essay-like blog posts will be less common, though I still plan to do them from time-to-time. The format will be more “tumblr-like” with shorter reads, links to interesting reports, some shots I take as I travel, and articles that I find interesting and think worth taking your time to read as well.

Maybe I’ll even find time to update my blog’s design again… :)

Kenya’s Slippery Censorship Slope

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

Robert Alai is blogging scum. Make no mistake. The quality of a person is not found in what they say, but in what they do, and Alai has proven time and time again that he is a bad actor.

If you know Robert Alai’s history in the tech scene in Kenya, then you know why he has been banned from the iHub. There’s a reason why the Skunkworks community ejected him multiple times over many years. There’s a reason why Nokia banned him. There’s a reason why Google blacklisted him. He consistently libels individuals for personal gain, to draw traffic and monetize his sites. For him it’s about attention, any way that he can get it.

Yesterday, the newswire said that Robert Alai was wanted. Today’s news is that he has been arrested for tweeting about the Kenyan government’s official spokesman Alfred Mutua. (fuller backstory here)

A lot of Kenyan’s on Twitter are laughing at Alai’s current predicament, after all, it is fun to see someone of his particular uncouth makeup get their comeuppance. The problem is in how and why this is being done. While you laugh today at Alai, tomorrow they will come for you.

However…

This isn’t about Alai, he just happens to be playing the role of a jester, distracting us from the much greater story that is online and media censorship in Kenya. There were many of us who warned against the real danger in 2008 and 2009, this Kenyan Information and Communications Act that allowed for censorship based on fuzzy details and definitions, and how it could all be done at the behest of one man, with little oversight. While everyone wants to laugh and point fingers at Robert Alai, they won’t be laughing when this censorship gets applied to him.

This all stems from the Kenya Informations and Communications Act (PDF Version), which was amended after the post-election violence in 2009 in an effort to curb hate speech. It is a controversial amendment of the Kenya Communications Act, 1998 because it gives the state power to raid media houses and control the distribution of content.

Of course, the media houses only cared because of the fear of it applying to them. However, they’re already mostly muzzled due to in-house nepotism, links with political parties, and more importantly don’t want to upset the hand that feeds them: the millions that they get from corporations, the government and political parties who advertise with them.

It is for this very reason that bloggers are so important, why Twitter and Facebook matter. It’s through these channels that people can speak truth to power.

“SMS, blogs and websites were an essential source of information, opinions and images. Innovative ways of capturing news and events as they unfolded – for instance, by using mobile phone cameras and uploading images onto the internet – increased access to information during those critical months. The downside of this increased access to information, however, was the use of the same media to spread messages of ethnic hatred, intimidation and calls to violence.”

There in lies the issue, that the medium used for so much innovation, democratization of information, and empowering of ordinary people can also be used for misinformation.

Let’s look at the details

I am not a legal expert, so I am quite interested in hearing from someone who understands and knows the real definitions of the terms here.

“We summoned him on Thursday and we hope to see him probably and latest Tuesday (today). He has violated sections 26, 29 and 30 of the Act and we feel he should come and tell us more,” said Kamwende.

So, let’s take a look at this.

Section 26
Deleted, it doesn’t even exist in the law…

Section 29

29. A person who by means of a licensed telecommunication
system—
(a) sends a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b) sends a message that he knows to be false for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another person commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding fifty thousand shillings, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to both.

Section 30

30. A person engaged in the running of a licensed telecommunication system who, otherwise than in the course of his duty, intentionally modifies or interferes with the contents of a message sent by means of that system, commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding three hundred thousand shillings, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or to both.

Now, Section 26 doesn’t exist and Section 30 seems a stretch, because as far as I know Robert Alai doesn’t run, own or license any telcoms system. Instead, let’s focus on Section 29, which seems to be more relevant.

Alai is likely being held for Section 29(b). He’s well known for libel and defamation, and someone is finally penalizing him to the full extent of the law. People need to be held to account for what they say, freedom of speech comes with responsibility. This fine line is where and why the law actually matters. It’s about what the law is, who defines it and how it is followed through on.

The real issue 4 years ago, and why this act was opposed by many, is that the act contained controversial provisions that sought to allow security agencies to seize property without due process, arrest and indefinitely detain suspects.

What the question should be for all of us with Robert Alai, is whether that is being tested on him. Was/is there due process? Who decides which media company gets raided? Who gets to say which blogger gets arrested, or which person on Twitter said the wrong thing?

My BBC Post on Blogging’s Evolution and Growth

I was asked to do a guest post for the BBC, as they’re doing a new full-production special titled “Digital Revolution“, which is set to focus on the first 20 years of the internet.

The producer asked me to write about the changing face of blogging. Answering the question on, “has blogging lost its feeling of freedom, untethered and raw that once defined it?”

My answer is simply: no. You can read why on the link below:

Voices on the rise: raw and unfiltered blogging still lives

An excerpt (read the full post to catch the arguments):

“So, in answering my question at the beginning, we see not a loss in the freedom and raw power of citizen-based communication, but a burgeoning growth in it that threatens to overwhelm us all. In fact, the wave is coming on so strong and big that the most important question we need to ask is not how to get more citizen blogs, updates and voices, but how to filter it so that it remains useful.”

African Digerati: Adii Pienaar of Woothemes

African Digerati Interview: Adii Pienaar

Adii Pienaar (aka Adii Rockstar) is the 7th in the African Digerati series of interviews. At only 24 he’s the youngest one on the list – he’s here because he represents the success that can be achieved as a young digital entrepreneur in Africa. Just under a year ago Woothemes splashed onto the stage as a new seller of WordPress (blogging tool) themes.

Rumor has it that this might be the most monetarily successful startup in the new media scene coming out of South Africa… That’s in less than one year. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact is that Woothemes is one of the top WordPress theme sites in the world, and it’s grown out of Africa with a lot of work, an eye for design and passion.

Woothemes just launched version 2 of itself, called WOO2. This interview is in response to that, and a chance to take a look at one of the visionaries behind it. After reading the interview, take a look at Adii’s blog. You’ll realize he’s light-hearted and doesn’t take himself to seriously, personality traits that I appreciate.

Woothemes version 2: woo2

When was the seed of Woothemes planted in your mind, and what was it’s genesis? What caused you to go from idea to actually building something, and how did you do that?
I don’t really know… Magnus, Mark & I had been collaborating a bit more loosely and the business was growing quite steadily. So I think it was just a natural progression to formalize the collaborations into a business and brand it as WooThemes. Luckily for us, we had a good following at that stage and the foundations were good all round to launch WooThemes.

What inspires you?
Would I be egotistical to say that I inspire myself? :) Honestly though, I’m inspired by a bunch of different things on a daily basis; and those things are random at best. The “being inspired” bit, along with willingness to act on said inspiration is a result of me absolutely loving a challenge and thus being completely driven to pursue those challenges.

Who are your biggest influences?
Online, I’ve got a lot of respect for entrepreneurs like Ryan Carson & Collis Ta’eed, who are at the top end of this new wave of entrepreneurs. Offline I’ve always appreciated Richard Branson’s way of going about business and marketing his ideas. And then closer to home… I’ve learned a helluva lot from both my business partners – Magnus & Mark – whilst I’d be lying if I said that my dad didn’t influence my business mind a lot – especially when I was younger.

Woo2 is a redesign of the Woothemes site and the community platform behind it. What are the big changes, and why do they matter?
Facing outwards, I think WOO2 signals our intent with regards to further growth and also improving the current experiences on WooThemes.

On a business level, I think WOO2 is more professional and we put a lot more strategic thinking into it. So again, it’s some kind of natural progression of how we’ve grown. WOO2 is the next step and the next part of the journey ahead.

Woothemes is expanding to other platforms beyond WordPress (Drupal, Expression Engine, etc.). What is your strategy here, and when will we start seeing these themes for different platforms?
The strategy is basically one that aims to diversify our offerings (and also our risk of having all our eggs in one basket), along with the growth aspects (new products = new markets = new users). And whilst I’m reluctant to commit to any schedule in this regard, we will start rolling out the Drupal themes in the next 2 / 3 weeks, and we’ve already started work on the EE & Magento stuff.

There’s always been the debate amongst the WordPress intelligensia about some theme providers not honoring the WordPress GPL licensing. iThemes, Brian Gardner and others have changed stances. I noticed you have as well. Is this where you wanted to go, or was it something that the greater community forced upon you? How will this help your business?

I can categorically say that this wasn’t something we did because we felt forced to do so. Way back in August 2008, I told Matt Mullenweg (at WordCamp SA) that going GPL was on the horizon for us and we’d do so when we felt comfortable doing so.

And as for how it will affect / help our business… I don’t know yet. We’ve only been GPL for a day, so I guess we’ll have to wait & see. :)

How big is Woothemes and how active is your community? Can you give any numbers?
This is tempting, but I’d rather not share these numbers… Maybe in the next couple of months, we’ll adopt a more open approach and share some of these numbers, but we’re not into boasting about supposed success.

I can however say that our support forum has racked up almost 45K posts, which means that the community is active. And our free themes (6 of them) have been downloaded about 35 000 times in the last month… :)

You’ve successfully created a web business out of South Africa that has impacted people around the world. You’re tapped into the web in a way that few others are. What’s next? What does the big picture look like from a the Rockstar perspective?
I’m taking over the world, one WordPress installation at a time.

LOL no… I’m very content with what I’m doing at the moment and very happy with the space & freedom that WooThemes has afforded me. I’m still young (24), so at this stage I’d like to think that I’m trying to revolutionize my own life, in terms of how I work and how I act outside of business hours. Beyond further growing WooThemes, that’s probably my main focus, because I want to do this now and not when I turn 30 / 40 and realize that I’ve work my life away.

And a shameless punt… I’m writing a book called Rockstar Business that basically airs my thoughts & experiences within this journey! :)

Finally, what are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in your own continent: Africa?
I’m ashamed to admit this, but Africa is generally a deep dark place for me (which I’m planning on rectifying with a proper journey into Africa – for holiday – later this year). So I’ve honestly not met many Africans who are bloggers.

BUT… In theory I think blogging gives everyone a voice; a voice they didn’t have before. And that’s true freedom & power for me, which we’ll ultimately see itself manifest when Africa becomes one of the strongest nations / economies in the world.

[Disclosure: I’m a customer of Woothemes, having purchased (full-price) one of their themes for the Maker Faire Africa website. I’m very happy with this too, everything is rock solid.]

Weapons of Choice



WhiteAfrican {2}, originally uploaded by Jon Shuler.

Thanks to everyone for 2008. What an amazing (and unexpected) year!

My “Weapons of Choice”:

  • Moleskin notebook
  • Zebra pen
  • Sanyo Xacti waterproof camera (dustproof for Africa!)
  • MacBook Pro (not pictured)
  • Nikon D50 (not pictured)

What are yours?

Why I Blog About Africa

[I don’t usually join in blog memes, but this one I just couldn’t resist… Théophile Kouamouo, a blogger based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), started the “Why I Blog About Africa” meme, which has crossed the Francophone and Anglophone Africa divide and I think holds a certain amount of power as I read others posts. See a good mini-aggregate post at Global Voices]

Roadside Bicycle Repair

Where others see a broken continent, I see Africans trying to fixing what is eminently fixable.

Cliche, Irony and Hope

I find great irony and humor in writing about Africa and technology. About the oddities and the entrepreneurs. About the vast differences between East and West. About the fact that we all generalize (like this post) and then say how it’s so different even within each country.

Where others see cliche, I do too – and value it’s strength. The sunsets, animals, people… it’s all cliche, but it’s also the Africa I know and love. Beyond the picture book material, I also appreciate the annoying inefficiencies that drive us all mad from time-to-time. It’s what makes Africa Africa.

Most of all I write about Africa because my other half (the West) doesn’t see our Africa. My goal is to pierce that veil and tell a story about the Africa they don’t see. To talk about the people that are changing things, and who very well might change the world. To help us all better understand how the use of technology is leading the way.

I also write about Africa because it gives me hope. In a crazy, hectic, selfish world I can still rely on the timelessness of Africa, and of people who invest in each other.

Tagged

Thanks to Kaushal for tagging me, read why he blogs about Africa. In time-honored meme tradition, I now tag the following 5:

Kari
Jeremy Weate
Rebekah Heacock
Mike Stopforth
Ethan Zuckerman

Rugged, solar powered VSAT broadband in rural communities

I just sat down next to Raphael Marambii, who happens to be the innovations and knowledge management specialist for a small local NGO called ALIN (arid lands information network), at a cyber cafe in Nairobi. As happens in Africa, you get into conversations, and I found out that they have been connecting rural communities via community knowledge centers (sort of rural cybercafes cum libraries / training centers) running solar powered VSAT dishes.

Solar powered VSAT broadband for communities in Kenya

They have deployed a unique prototype solar powered VSAT base station terminal at two of ALIN’s Community knowledge centers, at Marigat and Nguruman, Kenya. The base station is self contained and toughened for remote African rural conditions and requires little expertise to deploy. It’s part of the University of Michigan’s Imagine Africa project.

The question is, “why is this NGO plunking down remote satellite connections in rural Africa?” I asked Raphael just that question, and he tells me that it’s because they strongly believe that information and access to knowledge is what is needed most in these communities. They are trying to get the youth within these rural communities to embrace some of the new social media tools too, like blogging and podcasting.

From what I understand this is a pilot, testing out what happens when a new form of information is freely available within marginalized or disconnected rural communities. Raphael and team have ideas on seeing this become embedded in the community – ranging from helping with eCommerce, to creating new local content, to live video language services available over the connection.

There are two reasons I like this project. First, because it’s being driven by a local NGO, so it has some hopes of making it after the big donors leave. Second, the team is truly trying to think different – they make no bones about how their ways to connect the community to the rest of the world in mutually beneficial ways isn’t “normal”.

The true test however will be found after their 6 months of funding is gone. It costs about 26,000 Shillings ($320) to run one of these each month. Let’s see where this project, and more importantly, the communities are in one year.

Maneno: A Blogging Platform Made for Africa

Maneno means “words” in Swahili. An apt name for a new blogging platform being created right now by Miquel Hudin Balsa. It’s all new. There is nothing in there that’s part of some pre-packaged system.

Maneno.org - blog platform for Africa

Do we need another blogging platform?

When I first heard about Maneno, the first question that came to my mind was… “what about WordPress.com and Blogger.com?” Don’t those serve the same purpose? Realizing that my knowledge in this might be lacking, I contacted Miquel to answer a few answers. Here is his response:

“We travel quite a bit and I found that anything hosted in the US gets slower and slower the further you get from the US, so I worked to create a CMS/blog platform that was very stripped down, yet fully functional. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress is a beautiful, fantastic system that I admire and also use, but when you’re on a satellite connection in Bukavu or very slow DSL in Sarajevo, it’s mighty slow to use, which is the same problem with GMail and other web based applications that were developed in North America and Europe. So, I realized that what I was doing for our personal blogs would translate very well in to a system that would meet a great many of the needs for a new blogging system for Sub-Saharan Africa.”

That makes sense. Any hosted web platform based in the US and Europe is going to have lag issues Africa. Every byte counts, so a system that has been custom built to work in this scenario can be useful.

Primary African Languages

Currently, the Maneno website interface is available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Kiswahili. Most of the translation work is being built on feedback from translators who work on multi-lingual sites and have problems with the interface – as most are built for just writing and not for translating.

“For the time being, since we are still in Beta, we want to incorporate about 3-4 more non-colonial languages in the next 2-3 months, perhaps Akan, Hausa, Lingala, or Zulu. For now, we’re trying to include languages that have a large amount of speakers. The system is quite open for translations, and we’re in fact looking for new volunteer translators.”

Maneno side-by-side translation UI

For translating individual articles, it’s a instantaneous system where if someone is reading an article, they just click on the dropdown next to it and go to a translation page that allows them to work on their version side by side with the old one.

Final thoughts

The site absolutely flies. It’s a lot faster than most other blogging platforms. I’m interested in hearing from others around the African continent on how fast the site loads for them.

Besides the standard text and images, Maneno allows you to add up to 10Mb audio files as a post. This is a great idea, and shows just how much they’re thinking about things differently, as many normal users of blogging platforms can’t figure out how to host podcasts or audio files to get them out in the public.

What Maneno is trying to build could be a really effective hosted blogging tool for Africa. Besides language and page-load speed, on their blog they state that they’re also thinking about using mobile phones as a way to blog.

The software is in it’s Beta stage, which means it’s time to try it out and see how well it actually works in the field. If you’d like to help in local dialect translations, make sure you visit the Maneno Languages page.

Kelele – the African Bloggers Conference

Kelele - the African Bloggers Conference

Kelele, the African Bloggers Conference, was announced today at Barcamp Africa. That event has an incredible amount of energy and enthusiasm behind it, and it makes the perfect segue to the next big African community event: Kelele! This event was born out of connections made at TED Global in Tanzania last year, when 25+ bloggers from around Africa were brought face-to-face for the first time.

The specific theme of Kelele ’09 Nairobi is “Beat Your Drum” – which connects the traditional African method of getting your message across vast distances – the talking drums – to the 21st century and the tools we use today, blogs and the Internet. We anticipate that this conference will continue to be called Kelele wherever it is held.

Daudi Were is producing the event, along with an organizing committee of bloggers from all over Africa. This includes Ndesanjo Macha, Dave Duarte, Nii Simmonds, Mshairi, Sami Ben Gharbia, and myself.

Bloggers Representing: Nigeria, Kenya and Madagascar

Why Kelele?

From Daudi:

“Kelele is the Kiswahili word for noise. We are organising a gathering of African bloggers in the tradition of historical African societies where everyone has a voice. With too many voices marginalized, or simply ignored in Africa society today for a variety of reasons, we believe that the internet in general and grassroots media tools such as blogs in particular represent the most powerful way in which to give Africans back their voice. We are gathering to make a powerful, positive, inspirational noise that will be heard across the continent and beyond. KELELE!”

I think we’re at a place saying, if Africans want to do something, then do it. So, let’s do it! Let’s celebrate the cultures we have in Africa and let the conference be a reflection of that. Let’s make it truly African, where the people involved are coming from all 52 countries on the continent and the diaspora. Let’s seed the next generation of bloggers and advocates of open dialogue in Africa – which is why one day will be focused on having the top 100 bloggers around Africa training new bloggers in whichever host country it’s in.

This is a pivotal kind of event that I think will grow each year. The goals are big – REALLY big – and I think we’ll reach them.

Sponsorships and a big Thanks!

Sponsors – We have only begun canvassing for sponsors for Kelele this week. Already, the Berkman Institute at Harvard is on board. If you’d like to join us and be a part of making some real noise in Africa, please get in touch with Daudi, or at main@kelele.org.

A very special thanks goes out to Foxinni and David Kobia for the logo and WordPress design work.

As my friend and fellow organizer, Ndesanjo, puts it: Peace and kelele!

[follow along on Twitter @kelele]