(This story was written by Anne-Ryan Heatwole of MobileActive.org.)
Mobile phones are the tool of choice for a new group of young reporters in Africa. Voices of Africa Media Foundation, a Netherlands-based non-profit, trains young journalists in Africa to create news videos for the web using mobiles.
The foundation currently has programs in Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa, with plans to expand to more countries in 2010. The training program for the young journalists lasts nine months and teaches the trainees how to create video news reports with cell phones. At the beginning of the program, the small group (there are usually six or fewer participants per program) comes together and is trained for three to four days in the basics of mobile reporting (both how to use the technology and in basic journalism). Then they return to their communities, and for a period of six months, use the phones to make video reports on local stories.
The reporters send in the videos (usually two per week) to the Voices of Africa website (part of Africa News) where they receive feedback on the reports from a Netherlands-based teacher; at the end of the six-months period, the students enter a three-month phase in which they are encouraged to continue in journalism by going after new assignments. After the nine-month process, the students have received a free education on how to tell stories digitally - and are encouraged to continue publishing pieces on the Voices of Africa website as a way to promote themselves.
Cell phones were chosen as the primary reporting tool for several reasons: they are much more portable than full camera equipment, they are less intimidating to potential subjects, and they can easily transmit information. Annelies van Velden, a program manager for Voices of Africa says,
"The use of the mobile phone is a very useful tool for reporting. What we have noted is that people don't feel intimidated when being interviewed by a mobile phone; as opposed to having a complete camera crew that walks into a village. [...] When people are interviewed by someone just carrying a mobile phone it's less intimitating, they're used to phones - everyone is walking around with a phone. Especially when they're interviewed by a person from their own community, speaking their own language, they are able to tell their own stories, and they feel comfortable. So we have really realized that the mobile is a useful tool for bringing out local stories."
The reports captured by the journalists show a variety of subjects, such as the effects of illiteracy in Tanzania or a meeting among the women of the Kibera slum to discuss women's rights. Van Velden stressed that an important component of the program is that the students are free to cover whatever they like, as long as it relates to their community. This freedom allows students to report on everything from music to environmental concerns. This approach also keeps the content on the site engaging and fresh.
Despite its freedoms, the program has faced challenges - especially in adapting technology to the constraints of working in areas where Internet access is often limited or non-existent. The students are given Nokia phones that have camera and editing functions - the model changes depending on the location, year, and level of funding available. Says van Velden,
"We are basically just using the Nokia phones with a camera and an editing function. So, it also depends on the season - we had the N79 that we were using, but we have already changed [to another Nokia] for the new program [...] Things develop fast, so we just change - if we see a cheaper phone that comes out that is also able to do the same work, then we change to that phone [...] For example, in Kenya, we have just started to use mobile broadband. We use the USB - you use the phone to plug it into a computer and you use the Internet and send your videos like that. In other places like Nairobi, people are able to send the video directly from the phone using Internet on the phone. It just depends on what is happening in the market [...] At the moment, in Kenya, it's getting better and better - especially in the bigger towns. One year ago, people were not able to upload the reports in the rural areas; they always had to travel to Nairobi. But now, with the current Internet speed and using mobile broadband, people are able to stay in their own village and upload the reports."
Another challenge faced by the organization is the difficulty of sharing its news coverage with the very populations it covers; since the video reports are distributed online, it is necessary to have Internet access in order to view them - a rarity in many rural areas. For now, the main audience of Voices of Africa videos is concentrated in Europe and North America, and in major African cities.
Voices of Africa is investigating ways to give visibility to their reporters and to increase the distribution range of their videos by linking up with different organizations. Videos are hosted on the Africa News website in order to draw greater attention to them. Voices of Africa also has a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund so that environmental-themed videos are covered on the site. The foundation is looking for creative ways to bring the work back into the communities they cover. Says van Velden, "We have made some videos of local NGOs, and are now looking into giving the videos back to them so they can show the videos on their own laptops or their own TVs, because to watch the videos online is a big challenge in those countries."
Because Voices of Africa provides its training program free of charge to its students, they are dependent on funding from outside sponsors. The current program in Kenya is sponsored by Hivos, a Dutch NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty and creating sustainable economic development in developing countries, while the WWF contributes money for its partnership as well. Van Velden spoke of the limitations of funding on the expansion plans for the organization saying,
"We have high ambitions, it's only that we are limited by funding. So at the moment, we are still taking it step by step, although eventually we'd like to be in so many countries, we first of all have to make sure that things are going right in one country before going to the next. [...] But yes, although we have big ambitions, we also still depend on funding opportunities and partnerships. It's difficult to predict the future, how fast it will go."
The program, which started in 2007 in two countries with only nine trainees, has grown to six countries with 22 participants, and projects to more than double that number of participants next year. Many of the alumni of the program maintain their status on the Voices of Africa page; van Velden specifically mentioned two alumni, Walter Nana Wilson and Wanjohi Peris Wairimu as being notable for their continued progress in journalism.
Voices of Africa alumni have a section of the website in which they can add updates and comments. In Nana Wilson's follow-up describing his experience with Voices of Africa he writes, "Life has never been same for me since I got to be part of this business called www.africanews.com and Voices of Africa. It has been an indelible experience and it will continue to be."
Wairimu echoes this sentiment writing, "I joined the Voices of Africa mobile reporting project in October 2008. Since then my life [has] never been the same again. In the project I have learnt how [to] approach people for interviews, how to make videos and also how to write reports. Through Voices of Africa also I was able to fly to the Netherlands - not for fun but to attend a Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany. In the forum I got a chance to interact with my colleagues from Ghana, Cameroon and other world wide reporters."
Mobile phones offer a lightweight, non-intrusive means of covering communities that are in need of having their stories told. Voices of Africa meets this need by training local citizen journalists to tell the stories of their neighbors and neighborhoods. Van Velden summed up the foundation's mission saying,
"Basically, what we feel is that we need to bring out more local stories - and the best people to bring out local stories is people who live in communities themselves. They can tell about their own issues, and they are able to bring stories from their own viewpoint. And that is basically what we want to do. This is why we use mobile phones."
<em>Screenshot of video, courtesy Voices of Africa.</em>