Harry Dugmore of Rhodes University is working on a pioneering project to provide news and information into urban neighborhoods in South Africa via mobile phones. The project – Lindaba Ziyafika (the news is coming) – is designed to create and distribute news in the context of the “techno-social flux” that South Africa is experiencing.
South Africa has low but improving broadband access, growing from a low base. But there’s rapid uptake of cellphones – almost 100% of families have access to them. The phones are getting faster and smarter and an increasing number have access to the internet. But costs of internet access in general are absurdly high.
Africa, as a whole, suffers from low journalism density. (Actually, South Africa probably doesn’t – it appears to have a journalist to citizen ratio like the US, but there are countries like Ethiopia where there’s one journalist to 100,000 citizens.) As a result, Dugmore believes that user-generated content needs to play a huge role.
The situation is changing quickly. The major constraint on African internet expansion – undersea internet cables – are being built at a ferocious rate – in the next year or two, the capacity will be 400x what it was in 2007. This isn’t neccesarily changing the prices for bandwidth – South Africa just got uncapped ADSL broadband… but at prices no one can afford: $30-40 a month, which is impossibly high in a country where many people live on $2 a day.
Internet penetration in South Africa is around 8% via fixed broadband, behind Egypt and Nigeria. But cellphone penetration is growing like crazy – only 200,000 people had cellphones when the nation became independent and Mandela took the presidency. Now there are 34 million users, and there are more SIM cards in use than there are South African citizens. That’s because people want to avoid interconnect fees – they carry multiple SIM cards and negotiate with each other for the least expensive calls. (He tells us that everyone is waiting for Chinese phones that allow you to insert multiple SIM cards and do this negotiation via software, not hardware.) By
2012, 600m people will have mobile phone access across the continent. Dugmore argues that there’s a strong correlation between democratic governance and places where people have mobile phone access. (I want to run the numbers on this – I’m not sure this is as strong a correlation as he thinks.)
So how do you create informed communities in a sustainable way, taking advantage of this changing technical and social environment. You need to focus on mobiles, and you need to get more audience generated inputs. For Dugmore and his team, this has meant training citizen journalists and offering them incentives to participate. It also means using SMS and instant messages to supply news and information. Finally, it means accepting the “news will find me” culture that characterizes a digital age.
The journalists behind the Lindaba Ziyafika project are largely unemployed adults in their early 20s. They’re producing content that’s ending up in the 140 year old newspaper that serves Grahamstown. The content is distributed first via online media – SMS, messages through systems like MXit (an incredibly clever hack that uses the cheaper data connectivity available on African cellphones to evade the huge expenses of SMS messages), Twitter and Facebook. Facebook is now the most used site in South Africa, and Twitter is the 9th.
As such, Lindaba Ziyafika is based around Nika, a new workflow system for newspapers, which incorporates Facebook, SMS, IM as input and outputs into the newsroom. It’s a content management system that accepts the idea that mobile phones are the first platform for distribution and print the last.
What can we learn from the project? Making citizen media work in poor countries requires:
– heavy training and some cash incentives for participants
– mobile news first, print second
– embrace of mobile-friendly platforms
In the long run, revenue may come from time-sensitive advertising – coupons that expire quickly, requiring users to watch closely and act fact – 50% off bananas at the local market… now 49%, now 48%. They’re just starting to implement this and waiting to see what comes next.