Last week, the Indigo team attended Africa Gathering’s 2011 conference at the Guardian’s offices in London. Founded on the principle that sharing information is key to the continent’s development, Africa Gathering provides a space for technophiles, thinkers, entrepreneurs and funders to come together ‘to talk about positive change in sustainable development, technology, social networking, leadership, education, the environment and good governance’.
Monday’s conference looked at the role that new media – and in particular social media – can and do play in Africa’s development. Featuring contributions from a wide range of participants, Africa Gathering 2011 provided a lively and robust platform for the exchange of ideas on this important topic. While all present agreed that new media offered exciting opportunities, a number of speakers also highlighted the challenges and pitfalls of an over-reliance on new media. Clare Melamed of the Overseas Development Institute, for example, spoke of the factors limiting the impact of social media in Africa, such as lack of access, cost and poor literacy. CNN’s Faith Karimi, meanwhile, emphasised the difficulties and opportunities of using new media in journalism. While sources such as Twitter and Facebook can provide up-to-the-minute, on-the-ground news updates, verifying these stories is sometimes impossible. The recent Gay Girl in Damascus hoax was a timely reminder that new media sources need to be treated with caution.
Another journalist, Alex Jakana, also warned of the dangers of relying too heavily on new media. Jakana, who presents BBC Africa’s Have Your Say programme, reminded delegates of the continuing importance of radio in Africa. For many parts of the continent, radio is still the preeminent source of news and information. Have Your Say seeks to combine both traditional and new media in a potent mix, thereby allowing ordinary Africans to both contribute to and consume the programme’s output. It is this mix of old and new media that is without doubt one of the most exciting developments in the field.
While the debate over the role and influence of new media in Africa will doubtless continue for a while yet, its huge potential is clear and was welcomed by all at Africa Gathering. Now all that remains to be done is to harness more of that potential.