Africa Gathering: June event Highlight

Is Social Media really revolutionising Africa? That was the question asked by many people present at the recent Africa Gathering event held at the Guardian Offices last June.

The use of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring has made social media the star of the international development show this year with everyone from governments, activists, civil society, the Diaspora and every one else trying to understand just what social networks can do and how to use it to engage with one another.

But along with the hype, a voice of reason has also risen to say emphatically that technology in and of itself can do nothing. Twitter doesn’t start revolutions, put can help the people on street, have their say in how our world should evolve.

What social media can do – and does well – is to amplify voices. Through Twitter retweets, Facebook likes and blogs written or shared, the digital space acts as an echo box for views that would have once struggled to reach the masses.

If the value of social media then is in its ability to give voice to the voiceless, this begs the question, why don’t we hear more from Africa? And Africans? A complex answer was teased out from the many views shared at this year’s Africa Gathering in London last June.

The first part is obvious: the masses do not have access to Internet based social platforms. While connectivity on the continent is growing exponentially, the infrastructure to support it – electricity cables for example – has hardly changed in several decades. In this regard, Africa remained the dark continent – literally – generating only 4% of the world’s electricity but having a sixth of the total population.

Without access to the Internet, people are using tools that are relevant and could enter the mobile phone. Its evolution into this multi-purpose tool not just used for communication, but also for financial transactions, accessing market information and now increasingly, improving transparency and accountability, is well documented. But how often do media organisations or civil society factor it in when wanting to engage with Africans?

A significant point about culture was made late in the day. There is no doubt that Africans are social but Africans are also orally cultivated.  Throughout much of the continent, history used be told through stories under the palaver trees and much time was spent in gatherings were people can talk about the issues that are important to them. To continue that same spirit this is now channelled in to a 140 character tweet is invariable to decide to not include the African story.

As the event was held at the Guardian and it still holds that the media have a vital role to play in shaping the development discourse and perceptions of the developing world, how traditional media organisations use of social media to speak with Africans and to hear from them has never been more important. But if the process, as Kevin Anderson, a speaker at the event and former Guardian journalist put it is about “seeking, finding and amplifying the right voices,” there is still much work to be done as the Africa Progress Panel and The Gate Foundation highlighted it in their team up talk.  Let’s ask ourselves if we are creators, spectators or just participants. See you at the next gathering!

By Eliza and Marieme.


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