Digital Publishing in Africa: 10 things we learnt


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Summary of Information for Change 2010 by Robert Cornford, Communications Manager, Oxfam GB, Nairobi, Kenya, 21st September 2010.

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Digital Publishing in Africa: 10 things we learnt

  1. 1. Digital Publishing in Africa: The next steps www.informationforchange.orgDigital Publishing in Africa: 10 things we learntRobert Cornford, Communications Manager, Oxfam GBSummary of Information for Change 2010, Nairobi, Kenya, 21st September 2010.A personal list of the things that struck me, in no particular order.◊ There is a huge interest in democratising knowledge and a sophisticated awareness of the importance of knowledge in achieving change. Perhaps this is a result of the initiatives developed around the contested election in 2007 and the post-election violence, where having access to information and being able to share information represented a real change in the way people and organisations handled the volatile situation. Initiatives like Ushahidi ( and the reporting of Pambazuka News ( come to mind. Kenya has always struck me as a very politically sophisticated and active society, so it is hardly surprising that new communication tools are quickly taken up by change organisations. There is also a very sophisticated understanding of the role of digital communications in advocating for change at different levels - from the International and Regional to the very local.◊ There is an understanding that CONTENT is at the centre of new communications models. In the US presidential election of 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign had the slogan, “It’s the ECONOMY, stupid” to try and sum up what his message was. For digital communications, the slogan is “It’s CONTENT, stupid!” Much of the discussion at the workshop reinforced this. It’s not really about the technology: it’s about the content - how you organise it; how you store it; how you structure it; and how users can find it. And there is a lot of content available in East Africa: the question is how best to organise it and publish it. As one participant put it, “The infrastructure is just the plumbing. If we don’t have our content sorted, there is no water to run through the pipes, so you begin to question why you put in the plumbing in the first place.”◊ Linked to this, there is another important word that has come through the day - “trust”. There seems to be distrust of the outside digital world which is stopping people in the region form making the most of their content. There was a very visible fear of piracy: “If I put my content up online so it’s visible I can see that this is a good promotion for my books, but I’m really worried about losing control of the content, and of someone stealing it from me.” So much of the learning that comes from the more mature digital markets in Europe and North America is dismissed - for very understandable reasons. But I have to ask, “Is there something special in the water in East Africa that makes digital piracy more likely than elsewhere. We’re not talking about Harry Potter or global textbooks here: it’s specialist and technical and academic books, monographs, and they are not often the target of pirates.” So learn to live with - and overcome - the fear!◊ The impact of the undersea fibre optic cables into East Africa is clearly being felt. I could see it in the speed of internet contact in the hotel and office. I’m interested that many people are talking about how this will impact on their access to information from the rest of the world, but fewer are thinking about how what East Africa knows can get out into the world, although this point was very clearly raised by Tusu Tusubira from The UbuntuNet Alliance ( who pointed out that the improved connectivity will enable African researchers to contribute to 1
  2. 2. Digital Publishing in Africa: The next steps the global knowledge base. This partly links to the trust issue above, and making content visible. I wish I had asked how many publishers in the region have their books on Google BookSearch (, where you can limit the extent of visibility of content, and can have a link to a ‘buy this book’ site. This, alone, will open up African publishers output to the rest of the world, at very limited cost or risk.◊ There are clear differences between the interests of commercial publishers and the not-for-profit or NGO producers. The first need to make money from their intellectual property, and they - obviously - are the most concerned at the risk of piracy. But both types of producer can approach the publishing activity with a common purpose - to get their content as widely known and visible as possible: once that is achieved then there is the question of how to (awful phrase) monetise the intellectual property. As one speaker from a commercial publisher said, “Publishers are not unwilling to make content available digitally. It’s a question of having a firm legal framework, an understanding of copyright issues, and the capacity (the people and the skills) to handle it. Then we can see a way forward.”◊ There was general agreement that the basic ICT infrastructure is - generally - in place for most publishers in Kenya. The next big frontier will be mobile devices - and this will mean mobile phones (many of quite limited functionality - not an i-phone or other smart phones) rather than e-book readers or tablets. There were mixed views on the immediate impact of digital technology in the schools market, in spite of two exciting (and cheap) basic e- readers displayed by Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications.◊ There was a very visible enthusiasm to try things out, to pick up ideas and experiment (though the fear of piracy and losing control of content was also present), and to learn from others. I was struck by the depth of knowledge and experience in the participants, and would like to see a way of harnessing this so people can share experiences in an open forum. I suggested that participants might like to set up their own ‘Information for Change’ group in Nairobi, to come together for seminars where they could share experience, like the Independent Publisher’s Guild Quarterly Digital seminars in London ( Many participants in the workshop ticked the box asking if they would be prepared to help establish such an initiative, and gave their contact information: we’ll be putting them in touch with each other.◊ Linked to the above was, to me, the clear view that there are plenty of experts in digital publishing in East Africa: they are the participants in the workshop, all of whom have thought about the issues, tried some things, gathered some information, had some successes, experienced some failures, and have come back to learn more. There is a critical mass of experience in the region. The question is how to bring it together - maybe the local office of IDRC can have a role in this. The workshop really demonstrated to me that you don’t need specialist speakers because you are the specialists who are trying out ideas, and learning from them: all those participating at the workshop (except the representatives of CTA and Oxfam) were from East Africa. There were no experts parachuted in for the workshop.◊ For me in Oxfam an interesting highlights of the case studies was the identification of the differing needs of ‘the media people’ and ‘the development people’ in any communication project undertaken by an NGO. The media people wanted a steady stream of stories (preferably good news) that can be packaged for more or less ‘popular’ audiences. The development people wanted time to learn, to be thoughtful, to analyse and to reflect. This was 2
  3. 3. Digital Publishing in Africa: The next steps mentioned by both Bob Kioko from AMREF ( and Susan Kung’u and Katie Allan from GHARP/KRA ( There are real tensions there, which need to be identified, recognised and managed.◊ Finally, don’t take my word for it. On the website ( there are video clips from speakers and participants at the workshop. They are a human account of the issues that were important to those taking part. 3