7 Ways to Strengthen Digital Activism Across Africa

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI)‘s Social Media Experts conference in Accra, Ghana.

My biggest takeaway from the conference was that there is still much to be explored and uncovered on the continent when it comes to how African NGOs are using new media for advocacy. But judging from WACSI’s dedication to equipping African change-makers with information and resources they need to succeed, any projects seeking to leverage new media for advocacy will not be lacking in support.

Even as young Africans are dispersed across the globe, in our mission to create alternative pathways to change — one that side-steps our corrupt governments, subverts barriers to capital, and taps into the crowd-funding potential of 6-billion mobile connections on the continent, we’re already charting and covering new territory.

1. Researching Africa’s Social Media Landscape

More research is needed on how African NGOs specifically (including organizations based on the continent, managed by its residents i.e. not managed by some gap year volunteer from Holland) are using social media. As I sat and listened to a presentation on tips for increasing engagement on Facebook pages, which was based on Facebook data from companies all across the globe, I questioned its relevance to Africa; the insights that drove the suggestions were based on data heavily driven by internet- (vs mobile- ) connections, yet the vast majority of Africans are connected to the web via mobile. What would social media insights (i.e. the best time to post, how long each update should be etc) based on African-based, mobile-sourced data look like? Also, how does culture influence the way we build relationships online? Until Africa 2.0 defines its own benchmarks, our strategizing and planning, whether for advocacy or other purposes will be based on models that don’t necessarily reflect Africa’s tech landscape. Luckily, organizations like WACSI and Indigo Trust are committed to supporting such initiatives.

2. Bridging Africa’s Digital Divide through Cost-and-Time Effective Tech Training

For a continent booming with mobile innovation, much of it still experiences limited to no cell phone signal or data services of any kind. Moreover, the speed and costs of internet services varies widely between regions, creating further barriers for non-profits/activists wishing to use social media for advocacy. Hence, I particularly appreciated, participant @sourceadam’s presentation regarding his work at @sourcefabric, which implements open source, cost-effective tech solutions for NGOs, making it easier for them to optimize their time on the web. In my own work with Africans for Africa, I’ve found, also, that comprehensive social media training for people living in remote areas must include time management training; it’s not enough to tell small organizations with low capacity (and limited connectivity) that they constantly need to tweet and update Facebook without showing them a feasible way they can brainstorm and share content, in a time-efficient, cost effective way.

3. Fighting Government Censorship and Privatized Data Control

I was recently on a webinar with the African Feminist Forum and Association for Progressive Communications about online security and censorship in digital activism. This year, at least seven online users were arrested for their internet activity, and it doesn’t seem like government monitoring of social media is going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s becoming more aggressive. For instance, a Nigerian senator recently proposed censoring social media in order to curb criticism of the country’s governance; in Ghana, there’s been a recent proposal to place a “cap” on data and internet usage; and, in Ethiopa, a Skype call will get you 15 years in prison. There are many other blaring examples of the dangers of taking our lack of ownership and control of the internet too lightly, yet many activists who use social media for advocacy aren’t informed enough about the internet infrastructure — the wiring, the cables, the data — nor the government policies that monitor (and can end) its use. If Africans are serious about new media as a tool to create , we’re going to need to address government censorship, freedom of speech on the web, and the systemic denial of ownership that is too often ignored in our discourse about digital activism. 

4. Using Pop Culture to Engage “Social” Users, Politically

There’s a study that reveals that most Africans use social media, not so much for information gathering and research, like our western counterparts, but more so for fun and entertainment. Yet, we often hear complaints of how difficult it is to get youth to engage, coupled with emphases on how there’s a strong need for civic engagement around “serious” issues. But, clearly, in order to increase engagement among the majority of Africans who prefer to use social media for fun and entertainment, we’re going to have to find a way to make the political issues we care about fun and engaging. For their #occupynigeria campaign, Enough is Enough, for instance, featured Nigerian pop culture icons and used a lot of humor; as their mission is to encourage youth to become more responsible citizens, they made sure that the tenor of their messaging resonated with their target base. This doesn’t sound like such a terrible idea to me. If anything, activists could use with a little bit more communication 101 practice. How often must we resort to blaming the audience for not listening or “doing anything” as a way of disguising our own failure to captivate and inspire?

5. Nurturing (More) African Social Media Experts

Beyond the same ol’ recyclable twitter lists (e.g. twitterati assumed to be “African social media experts” simply based on large numbers of followers), there was a deeply expressed need to identify and nurture a network of legit social media experts and strategists,  one which activists, non-profits, and/or campaigns could call upon for advice, expertise, and most importantly, training. Ghana Decides’s model of offering social media trainings to their civic engagement partners (including NGOs that work with marginalized communities such as women, youth etc) is a movement-building model worth replicating; investing in the social media capacity of their partners essentially duplicates their outreach efforts, and  of maximizes their chances of engaging a wide, diverse audience overall. When considering the potential political power (both online and offline) of African communities were social impact organizations to be trained to more efficiently engage their social networks, there is no limit to what we can achieve together, as individuals, as countries, and as a continent. We’ll need more trainers to train more trainers to train more trainers. Thus, nurturing an elite class of social media experts is critical.

6. Mobile Crowd-funding Is the Future

With the rise of online fundraising platforms for creatives and entrepreneurs such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the philanthropy sector has developed a few niche platforms of its own; sites like givengain.com and 234give.com allow charities to raise small amounts of money from large numbers of people in their social networks. Africa’s adoption of online fundraising phenomenon is not necessarily news. However, with mobile banking innovations such as MPesa (mobile banking) and M-Shwari (mobile loans) sprouting up all across the continent, improving workflow and usability, Africa is well-positioned to lead the way when it comes to crowd-funding through mobile and SMS. Given the funding (and political) climate of African countries, the need for more self-driven, autonomous, alternate pools of funding options is unprecedented. In countries like Nigeria, where human rights are being violated due to homophobia and bigotry, and organizations are barely permitted to operate, let alone receive funding, it is critical that crowd-funding be explored as an option, and not just from western countries; were mobile giving made readily available, perhaps the world would be able to see that Africans can and already do support each other in times of need; perhaps crowd-funding Africa is just what we need to curb the negative impact of white savior-ism and foreign aid. 

7. Creating an African Blogging Network

It’s not every day that marginalized groups experience the thrill of connection, especially as intensely as they happen at conferences where there’s shared interest (and in this case, identity). At the WACSI conference, many of the participants commented on the importance of staying connected. Being able to support each other across issues and across borders, and count on the signal-boosting power of a global network of Africans online could make a huge difference to local organizing efforts. There are certainly smaller efforts being made in this area: The Guardian African Network, African feminists (#afrifem) on Twitter, region-specific efforts such as Blogging Ghana and the Nigerian Blog Awards, and issue-based sites such as Identity Kenya and Dynamic Africa. But there remains to be seen a large, robust network that connects the vast number of African bloggers online. Many questions remain: Given the diversity on the continent, and how dispersed Africans are around the globe, is such a network even possible? Who would lead (and house) such an undertaking? Would an informal network (such as a dedicated twitter hash-tag for African bloggers) work just as well? There’s no doubting the collective power that could be harnessed from a formal network of African activists. However, till such a space exists, African bloggers are going to need to create one virtually; linking to each other where possible, learning how to position ourselves so that we are (more) visible to each other, and intentionally supporting each other’s initiatives in our various capacities, are all important principles of activism we should be practicing, online or offline.

Post Author: Spectra Speaks

Spectra is a new media consultant whose work focuses on the intersection between culture, technology, and communications in the philanthropy and social justice sectors. An MIT graduate, she worked for over five years in the software industry with small business and corporations to implement technology solutions before deciding to lend her skills and expertise to the non-profit industry. She writes about new media, human rights and the African Diaspora at www.spectraspeaks.com, and can be found tweeting insights from her travels @spectraspeaks.

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