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Where is Africa on the Internet?

April 2013

By Adama Sanneh, Director, Lettera27 Foundation

In 2003, Kenyan journalist and novelist Binyavanga Wainaina wrote a satirical essay entitled “How to write about Africa”, advising journalists how they should write about Africa if they want to be published and read. He wrote:

“Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. […] Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: 54 countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.”

Binyavanga was drawing attention to the widespread misrepresentation of the African continent by mainstream media, which fail to capture the diversity, complexity and rich heritage of Africa and its recent achievements.

The consequences of stereotyping a whole continent are multiple. In addition to perpetuating often false perceptions about famine and poverty, it undermines commercial interest in the region and reduces opportunities for engagement and collaboration. It can also have a far-reaching and negative impact on the socioeconomic development prospects of many of its countries.

Access to a rich source of contextual information is key to changing the way the continent is viewed from outside, as well as changing the way Africans interact with each other and the rest of the world.

Expanding use of the Internet, mobile phones and social networks, however, is making it possible for anyone with a connection to tell their own story. Every day the continent is becoming increasingly connected.

Over the past decade, the number of Internet users in Africa increased 9 times faster than in Europe and 20 times faster than in North America. Today, over 110 million people living in Africa regularly use the Internet, with an anticipated 10 million new users online every year.

There are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica
than all but one of the 54 countries in Africa. The Share
Your Knowledge program seeks to redress this balance by
supporting cultural institutions in the use of existing content
and the creation of new Africa-relevant content on Wikipedia.
(Photo: Courtesy of Lettera27 Foundation)

Thanks to these powerful communications technologies, the “idea” of Africa is being changed from the bottom up, albeit slowly. In terms of information, Africa remains the least visible continent on the Internet. Wide-ranging and up-to-date information on Africa is conspicuous by its absence. This is the case whether you are searching for events, people and places of global historic importance, literature, science, art, accomplishments, thoughts or news. For the two billion people who now use the Internet as their primary source of information, there is little opportunity to improve their understanding of African history, current affairs or the continent’s future prospects.

Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has emerged as the single most important and popular online source of freely accessible information. It has become the most effective secondary reference source, the most edited and discussed online encyclopedia and among the first entries to appear on search engines. As such, Wikipedia provides one of the most promising ways to help address the critical imbalance in the availability of factual information about Africa past and present.

In spite of its proven capacity to generate information, the fact is that, compared to other countries, those in Africa have the fewest Wikipedia contributors per capita. As reported by Mark Graham in his article “Wikipedia's known unknowns”, published in The Guardian on December 2, 2009, practically the entire continent of Africa is poorly represented on Wikipedia. There are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 54 countries in Africa. In fact, there are more articles about the fictional places of Middle Earth and Discworld than many African countries.

Recognizing Wikipedia’s great potential to rectify this situation, in 2010, the Lettera27 Foundation, together with the Africa Centre, launched the WikiAfrica project. In 2011, the Africa Centre based in Cape Town, South Africa, became a WikiAfrica partner.

What is WikiAfrica?

WikiAfrica’s principal aim is to give Africa greater visibility on Wikipedia by expanding the range and amount of Africa-relevant information on the site. Since its launch, it has generated over 30,000 contributions, including texts, quotes and images, as well as audio and video files.

For the past two years, the focus has been on working with cultural organizations, museums and archives (as well as bloggers and journalists), encouraging them to contribute knowledge and content to Wikipedia. In the process, the project has identified and made accessible a wealth of archival material.

The project’s objectives are to create partnerships with organizations holding Africa-related archival information; to expand access to content while respecting copyright; and to encourage more people to contribute Africa-specific content to Wikipedia.

A user-friendly licensing solution

The project team quickly recognized that if it was to succeed in “migrating” African content from the websites and archives of cultural organizations to Wikipedia, it needed a simple, user-friendly solution that would enable contributors to copy, paste, edit and post material onto Wikipedia without abusing the rights of the content owners. Creative Commons licenses provided such a tool.

As Lawrence Lessig explains, the Creative Commons system “affirms a belief in copyright, because it is in essence a copyright license, but it also affirms the values that underpin those creative environments in which the rules of exchange are not defined by commerce but depend on the ability to share and build on the work of others freely.” (See Interview with Lawrence Lessig). As opposed to the traditional “all rights reserved” model of copyright, Creative Commons licenses, Mr. Lessig explains, are effectively “a some rights reserved model, whereby certain rights are reserved by the copyright owner and others are released to the public.”

For the WikiAfrica team, Creative Commons licenses offers a flexible, low-cost solution that facilitates the flow of Africa-related content (and management of its associated rights) to Wikipedia.

With a view to promoting the Creative Commons licensing model, and to encouraging the uploading of free content onto Wikipedia, the Lettera27 Foundation launched its Share Your Knowledge program. Share Your Knowledge is a pilot training program supported by tutors and lawyers specializing in intellectual property, offering guidelines on best practices and case study materials. The program is designed to help cultural institutions better organize and leverage the use of their content and foster the creation of new Africa-relevant content on Wikipedia. Under the program, cultural institutions can boost their visibility by making their content available under a Creative Commons license via Wikipedia.

Under the terms of the license, anyone can use uploaded material freely and free of charge, provided the original author of the content is credited. Moreover, any new content, such as artwork, videos, etc., deriving from the original material must be distributed under the same licensing terms. “It’s like starting a Creative Commons infection,” notes the program’s promotional video.

Increased online visibility

By encouraging institutions to place their content on the world’s most recognized and easily accessible reference source, the program promotes the active engagement of experts and enthusiasts. Under the program each cultural organization owns, creates or commissions a variety of content - news, publications, research, databases, music, artworks, essays, documents, videos and photographs. In this way it boosts both the quantity and quality of Africa-specific information on Wikipedia. Participating organizations have seen a dramatic increase in their online visibility and impact.

Although the drive to expand Wikipedia to change perceptions about the continent will take time, energy and commitment, the broad availability of powerful communications technologies and online collaborative platforms promises to accelerate the process.

Progress in mobilizing Africa-related content

Within just two years, the WikiAfrica project has made significant progress in terms of mobilizing royalty-free cultural content and propagating new sources of Africa-related content. It remains committed to exploring new ways to leverage the power of the Internet and other modern communications technologies to boost knowledge production and dissemination, while ensuring incentives and rewards remain in place for creators to continue to enrich our lives and promote intercultural understanding through their work.

Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” If we continue doing what we have always done in the same way, nothing will change. It is only by adopting new, more creative approaches that we can hope to overcome present-day challenges and create new pathways for development. The WikiAfrica initiative is one small but important step in changing perceptions about Africa and generating new opportunities for the continent.

WikiAfrica’s achievements since 2010

  • 30,000 Wikipedia contributions about Africa;
  • Expansion and improvement of existing Africa-related content by promoting the participation of experts;
  • A catalyst for the online community in Africa and beyond to actively participate in generating new Africa-relevant content;
  • Creative Commons licenses adopted by over 70 cultural institutions, with many of them sharing content online.

About the Lettera27 Foundation

Lettera27, established in July 2006, is a non-profit foundation with a mission to support the right to literacy and education, and to promote access to knowledge across the world and especially in developing countries.

About the Africa Centre

Established in 2005, the Africa Centre is as an international arts and culture centre and social innovator based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Centre’s activities are driven by a determination to actively participate in developing and enriching Pan-African cultural and social exchange.

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