Ever heard of load shedding?

It’s one of the cleverest bits of Orwellian double speak the south African government (or in this case the government-owned electricity company ESKOM) has ever cooked up. It means, in plain English, power cuts — as in cutting off electricity to whole areas. Not because there is any extra “load” (i.e. a surplus) of electricity that needs to be “shed,” but rather because there is too little electricity to go around. So different chunks of the country have to take turns having no electricity.

In 2008, we dealt with the grim reality of load shedding, and, although it only lasted a few months, the irregular four to six-hour cuts were hugely inconvenient. Even when a time-table listing future cuts came out and regularity was introduced, it made everyone very depressed that our “can-do” country — a nation that produces about 25 percent of the entire continent of Africa’s GDP — could be reduced to frequent power cuts, albeit cuts with fancy names.

Why the history lesson? Because recently, Grocotts Mail, together with Indaba ZIyafika’s new citizen journalism editor and two citizen/student journalists who received training from our Knight-funded program, broke the story of what might be a world first: Water-shedding in Grahamstown.

Yes, that’s right: Our drought here has gotten so bad that the local authority is seriously thinking about rationing water, and, possibly, cutting off whole areas of our city on some kind of rotation for unspecified periods of time. Electricity cuts were gloomy enough, but water?! That’s enough to put a real damper on our national mood, and even drive some of us to drink (ok, enough with puns!)

Of course, it might yet rain a lot, and voluntary restraints (already in place) and some restrictions such as a ban on the use of hoses in gardens, might all work to advert this “water shedding” situation. But whatever happens, we helped break the story.

Our New Citizen Journalism Editor

The other piece of big news here is that on Tuesday of this week, Kwanele Butana became what we think is the first “citizen journalism editor” in South Africa, and perhaps in all of Africa. Citizen journalism or citizen media editors seem have been around for four or five years in the U.S. and elsewhere, but full-time appointments are rare in our part of the world. Kwanele is working with citizen journalists who have received basic training and who also earn a bit of money for doing quality journalism. The compensation aspect is also pretty new.

Overall, our Iindaba Ziyafika project is starting to come together in a big way. First there is the tech side: We built a content management system and work-flow management software called Nika that allows integrates reporting via text message. We’re now adding instant messaging and are also enabling the site to be optimized via web-enabled phones. The mobile site is called called Grahamstown Now, and we’re launching in May. I’ll be talking about it at the 11th International Symposium on Online Journalism. Llve video streaming will be available.

The big deal from a tech point of view is being able to gather submissions via things like text message and instant messages and get news and info back out to audiences. The suite of Nika products enable us to “edit once” and then publish multiple times (SMS, IM, mobile).

So that’s all very cool, we think. But its not going to take us very far if we only have a small group of professional journalists trying to engage in hyper-local journalism. So we also provide some training for citizen journalists, and allow some of the best citizen journalists who emerge from our 20-hour course to join in the full daily news diary meetings.

As I’ve blogged in previous posts, some of our citizen journalists receive payment. Even though they are very humble payments (that’s my Orwellian double speak for “we’re cheap and the payments are small!”), it is much appreciated in our resource-poor town.

Our citizen journalism trainer Elvera Van Noort blogged a bit about the training she is conducting and our editor, Steven Lang, recently addressed a major conference in Berlin about how we are using citizen journalism in our small town. He defending the whole notion of citizen journalism to some pretty skeptical Europeans.

Nika For All

In terms of Nika, a big of a plug: we’ll help any community newspaper that’s interested in using Nika. We do give priority to African non-profit papers in terms of helping set things up, but if you want to check it out, visit here.

If you like the web-based version of Nika (we use it mostly for demos) and have some LAMP installation experience or tech skills, you can download and install the full stand-alone version from the same website. Our IM and mobile interfaces are still in development and are not currently in Nika 2.0, but Nika 3.0 will be out in the wild come July.

Between our training approach and tech approach, we believe we’re developing powerful learning’s for community papers who want better ways to reach audiences through their cell phones, and more participation from “the people formally known as the audience.”

The Knight Foundation entrusted us with a lot of money to make the Nika suite of products work, so we’d love your feedback.