Why and how does the mobile phone play a role in activism in Africa? What makes it be different from other forms of activism? And what are the potentials and challenges behind it?
I tried answering these questions two weeks ago at the Medien Jour Fix, an interesting German network around communication and development, organized by MICT. I presented the latest developments around mobile phones in Africa, which did not seem to have been that much noticed in Germany. In most of presentations the radio played a key role as an instrument for media work.
I had mused before about potential future trends of mobile activism, but this time I highlighted the differences between the all-purpose-tool, its different uses and its implications. I was curious to do such a presentation on ICT for development in front of a German audience, which was widely mixed with delegates from media, NGOs and scientists.
I uploaded my presentation here and thanks to Creative Commons License I found some great photos.
I began my presentation with the well known satellite image of the world at night. On it one can see how dark Africa is and it seems as if not much is happening there. But because it is always difficult to generalize about the continent as a whole, I chose some examples:
Mobile innovation even comes from Africa such as mobile finances.
The highest growth rate is on the African continent.
99% of Tanzanians are in direct reach of a mobile phone.
The highest traffic to the BBC mobile website comes from Africa.
But what makes mobile phone so special?
It is so especial because it combines all former media, such as telephone, Internet, and even radio and television, and because one can:
Communicate and receive information (radio, television and Internet)
Document and collect information
Publish information in text, audio and video
Can network in different ways on a peer-to-peer basis
So a passive recipient can become an active user or citizen.
The excellent Pomise of Ubiquity report from Internews has some fascinating statistics such as the different media access. In most countries, 2008 signified a turning point as more people owned mobile phones than televisions. So, the mobile phone becomes a key instrument to receive information via Internet, listen to radio (FM mobile phone) and watch videos although the latter has not worked yet and is unrealistic due to high costs. Location-based services will be very promising.
"A world in which nearly everyone owns a mobile linked into networks advanced enough to offer video and location-based services is years, not decades, away." Internews
Different spheres of mobile activism
I looked, during my presentation, at political activism and focused on four different spheres and examples even though there is still a lot more happening (and much more in many African countries than in Europe).
Public sphere The mobile phone will become an important tool to shape the public sphere. Two examples are Voices of Africa and mobile African reporters. I showed a great footage from Cameroon about a Guiness factory polluting water sources. This example shows the potential to report better from the local context. But I also wonder when will there be a critical mass of an audience for such reports?
Participation The radio still plays a decisive role, because it reaches many more groups of people and particularly illiterate listeners. Combining a mobile campaign with the radio can be a great package. The organisation AZUR in Congo launched a while ago an SMS campaign, where they asked women to report about cases of domestic violence. The answeres were then portrayed and discussed in a radio show.
Transparency For some years now, the monitoring of elections has been happening in different African countries such as Zimbabwe or Nigeria. Digiactive has a great comparative case study analysis. In Barcelona, I followed an insightful presentation by Ethan Zuckerman, where he describes a great example from last year's election in Zimbabwe: "SMS is an effective tool for monitoring all sorts of large, dangerous mammals. You can make the argument that Morgan Tsvanagarai was able to challenge the first round of Zimbabwe’s presidential elections in no small part due to SMS. A change in polling law meant that every local polling station in Zimbabwe was required to post local voting results publicly. Zimbabwe’s opposition party, MDC, organized an effort to collect these results via SMS. As a result, the MDC knew, within a few hours after the close of polls, that they’d received more votes than ZANU-PF." By the way, an organization called Sokwanele has also been doing some pioneering work in Zimbabwe for mobile activism. Another one is Kubatana, which developed the Freedom fone.
Networking A bit more than a year ago cotton-workers in the Nile delta striked for a higher salary. They went into strike for a few weeks long because of the inflation, which took most of what little was left. Unrecognized by media in Egypt and internationally, an Egyptian woman, who did not use to be an activist, decided to set up a Facebook group to solidarize with the strikers. The group grew in a few weeks to more than 70,000 members (Egypt has about around 700,000 Facebook members). There is an enormous potential to use social networks for campaigns and protests. I think these networks will be working over the mobile phone in the future as I described here. Nevertheless in this case the protest could not made it to the the street, as the Egyptian authorities hardly allowed any protests on their streets. But mobile phones play a decisive role in protest coordination. Patrick Meier, also from Digiactive, did a great presentation about Mobile for Advocacy and Activism.
Unfortunately, there are numerous challenges to mobile activism in Africa and, therefore, it is even more incredible how many initiatives are happening. Just to name a few:
Usage The costs of mobile communication or SMS are still very high. Although rural areas a now much better connected, there is a disparity between rural and urban areas, where one part becomes only passive recipients of information.
Government Mobile networks can be even easier controlled such as the Internet, because they belong to one provider. Recently, it came out that half state owned Vodafone in Egypt gave out its customers data about the above described strike to the Egyptian police.
Mobile Provider As much as mobile providers have done positive for the dissemination of mobile phones , they have their own business interests, which do not necessarily fit and promote activism. Such are walled gardens, ) where companies can and want to control what is offered and exchanged.
Activism Although mobile activism is at least 8 years old, since the Estrada campaign in the Philippines, it has just started and a lot of experimenting is happening. It is also clear that it can also be a tool for a mean and cannot be useful for any form of activism. A theatre group might have more impact on the issue of HIV/Aids than an SMS campaign.
The presentation lead to a discussion around the quality of information, which is a typical debate in Germany, where journalists and bloggers continuously battle over who is better. Ironically, a journalist from the Deutsche Welle, who hosts the annual Blog Awards, asked me how the information from mobile reporters could be verified or controlled. Luckily, that was an exception, as there were many interesting examples for media communication work presented from Laos and Cambodia.