New timing (Monday instead of a weekend) and new venue (The Guardian at Kings Place instead of a variety of academic lecture theatres) but the programme for this years Africa Gathering promised as inspiring glimpse of innovations from Africa as ever.

Africa Gathering 2011

Africa Gathering 2011

This year the theme was social media, and I guess unfortunately that might have constrained some of the presenters.  While there were lots of interesting ideas discussed and good ideas described, for me, what I have really enjoyed from previous events has been the deluge of examples of all sorts of innovation – and this time, while there were flashes of that, there were also more theoretical sessions about social media – and most presenters took us through what they were doing in that space. While this was interesting, it didn’t provide the range I had been looking forward to.

Thats a minor niggle though – as I hope the following notes show, there was a lot covered during the day.

First session was in the form of a workshop, introduced by Alex and Myriam from the BBC Africa Have your say radio programme.  They use all channels available to gather feedback as part of their programme making – they seed ideas and also source topics online, and invite people in to answer questions posted by the public. They also talked about how to broaden their inclusion – eg how to give a voice to people who may not have internet access to participate.  Once they are made aware of an issue via whatever means, they do send out freelancers or stringers who can visit villages and talk to people.  They also talked about how difficult it can be to find the right people to talk to from official channels, to provide a balanced view or response to questions. They have had some success in finding people via social media, eg the policeman who was able to give them some useful numbers to ring.

One interesting question posed was whether they have seen the emergence of hubs – for example when there are groups of people without net access, does the one person in a village who may have a mobile become a source or gathering point for others. They didn’t have evidence of this, but one correspondent did say that he was using their programme as a trigger to teach friends and others about social media in general – so perhaps there are many as yet un-tracked consequences.

We were all invited to discuss our thoughts around the question: how do people find out about what matters to them? Groups then fed back,  and it was clear there had been wideranging discussions.  Issues included:

  • the need to raise general awareness – social media literacy is low
  • projects like iHub Kenya are interesting – could that model be useful elsewhere?
  • the importance of empowering young people
  • the importance of connections – put pilot projects in touch with each other – they will often reach solutions based on shared problems and challenges
  • the value of social media in humanitarian response (and there are of course many blog posts, reports and articles already about this!)
  • social media and the feedback/interaction it stimulates is a way of finding out that someone is actually listening to you
  • while mobile is undoubtedly spreading widely, people’s primary use is (not surprisingly) for their own immediate needs – they wouldn’t necessarily know there were wider issues to get involved with
  • the role that corporates could play in opening up access
  • building on the idea of hubs as physical presences, to look for human hubs – key leaders who people trust (someone later mentioned iChiefs and iPriests) – find people who are already respected and listened to and give them the tools and training
  • the challenges of moving beyond comments on a forum, which is often a closed conversation, and how that virtual debate can be turned into action

One thought that occurred to me – there is no cause for complacency here in the UK, many of the thoughts expressed above in relation to Africa are valid here (maybe not to the same degree, but valid nevertheless). We hear talk of the digital divide, we have the race online initiative, and online advocacy and participation in democracy may be growing, but is still relatively small.

One final thought-provoking comment which came up several times through the day, was the fact that much of African culture is still rooted in the oral tradition – not so much about writing which forms the basis of much interaction via social media. Alex (BBCAfrica) commented that while many of his first contacts may come via twitter, SMS or facebook, they often quickly progress to “call me”. My response would be that in no way is any invitation to participate online intended to replace that tradition – but my belief is very much in the social side – people like to find other people like themselves – similar interests, similar concerns. Social media enables you to reach way beyond the communities you would previously have had access to – thus finding more people to talk to. In particular, if you have a niche issue or question – whether it be medical, social, agricultural or other, the web can bring answers and solutions that simply were not possible in the days of just talking to your neighbours.

The session ended with a roundup of ideas, including:

  • make space for the market. If a business can be convinced that there is a market for a service, then they will often deliver an appropriate solution (this was expanded by a later speaker, but I agree there is a germ of truth here)
  • it is important to understand the purpose of communications initiatives – the ones that meet peoples needs can be supported, shared and encouraged
  • look at ways to give specific groups the motivation to engage – is it a question of new platforms, or showing people the benefits of sharing and engaging
  • strong feeling that people should decide for themselves – but I firmly believe that there also needs to be catalysts – its hard when people want to carry on as they always have, and simply dont know that something completely different might be possible. Innovation might spring up in surprising places with no apparent trigger – but sometimes it needs help.
That ended the open discussion and we moved on to a series of speakers. Africa Gathering  part 2 follows.