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[Highway Africa 2011] What kind of innovation does Africa need?

If you were perusing the Twitterverse this weekend for news from the Highway Africa conference in Cape Town, you would certainly have caught the tweets about keynote speaker Naspers CEO Koos Bekker saying that Africa and Europe are failing in Internet innovation.
The innovation, Bekker told one of the largest annual gatherings of media people in Africa, was coming from the West Coast in the US, China, Japan, Korea and Russia - and, crucially, that innovation only really takes place when people have the "freedom to fail".

Listen to podcasts of Bekker's speech and question time afterwards.)

Koos Bekker - Q&A part I
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Koos Bekker - Q&A part II
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Titan of the global media industry

Bekker is a titan of the global media industry, so we need to pay heed when he speaks. These kinds of statements, of course, are made for pithy tweets and already I've seen one good piece in response to Bekker's speech - from a young techie by the name of Tyler Reed (@TylerReed).

However, so much of your view on innovation depends on where you're coming from. Although he is a South African, we musn't forget that Bekker is also the head of a global media and tech empire of which the SA arm is a very small part.

By contrast, Mustafa Mourad, an Egyptian and the head of the international NPO One Global Economy that strives to find ways to provide low-income households with access to information through technology, told the conference that amid the euphoria of new technology it's also easy to forget that there are millions of people who live on under US$1 a day.

"We see the poor - not as children - but as regular households perfectly capable of making decisions if given access to innovation," said Mourad, whose organisation piloted its online community portal (in vernacular languages written to be understood by people with Grade 4 educations) in Durban. This portal is now in 16 countries worldwide.

What kind does Africa need?

So maybe the question is what kind of innovation does Africa need? And do we need to be a centre of innovation at all when the MITs of the world are so much better positioned to do it? (Maybe Bekker could use the might of Naspers to create an MIT here in South Africa, attached to an existing university with excellent engineering and computer science schools?)

So much of the really ground-breaking online innovation has random origins anyway. Another delegate at Highway Africa, Adam Clayton Powell III, who co-ordinates digital innovation projects for the University of California, wowed the conference with demonstrations of a new "super Skype" that his team has developed that is cheap, uses very low bandwidth and is incredibly high-resolution - broadcast quality, in fact!

It is a completely new way of doing video - so much so that it can penetrate the Chinese firewall as it is not even being recognised as video. Powell joked that the guy who developed it missed all the classes at MIT on how to do video so he had to invent a completely new way of doing it!

If you go by the prestigious annual Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, SA seldom gets a look in.


It is notable that among this year's Knight-Batten winners is a Dakar-based network of radio stations serving 13 countries in West Africa which designed a publishing system that works for operations without resources. Among the 2008 winners was the remarkably innovative Ushahidi site, launched by a group Kenyan techies for bloggers and citizen journalists to report, document and map incidents of political violence, following the presidential election of that year that went so awry.

So Africa does have the smarts when it comes to media innovation. Where does SA, the economic powerhouse of the continent, fit in if we're not leading the charge?

Rhodes University's Prof Harry Dugmore (of Madam & Eve fame) leads an innovative citizen journalism project in Grahamstown that is being funded by Knight Foundation money and has just put the finishing touches to an open-source content management system - called NiKA - that allows community newspapers to very easily have mobile and web presences. He was one of the Highway Africa speakers but about a month ago I asked Dugmore - as one of the few, if not only, recipients of Knight Foundation money in SA - why he thought the country wasn't more innovative when it comes to media.

"At a very broad level of generalisation there's no doubt that we don't have enough competition to really drive entrepreneurial spirit," Dugmore told Bizcommunity. "The media is very consolidated here [in SA] with the big-city monopolies. Digital has disrupted it a little bit but, of course, the big players also quickly become the big players in that space so Naspers and Avusa quickly stake out their claims."

"Powerful role of Caxton"

"One also has to think of the powerful role of Caxton because that's an incredibly innovative model but it's not necessarily one that's all that great for journalism. It's got some upsides for journalism and it's kept some [community] newspapers going that would have closed but it's also changed a very vital space in local city/town/village newspapers that are now these Caxton freesheets with little journalism and much advertising.

"Where a lot of innovation comes from historically in other countries is from the small papers. A lot of the experimenting in the US is happening with the very big guys and the small guys... There's not much of a set of economic incentives for innovation [in SA]. I guess if there was more proliferation [of media rather than consolidation], there'd be more innovation."

Personally, I'd like to see more innovation in SA as to how we present our journalism - the actual story-telling. I do believe that is something that journalists can do without the aid of the hardcore techies. For more on this - and why SA journalism is missing this opportunity - come back to Bizcommunity this week to read a Q&A with Geoff Cohen, the GM of Media24's digital division.

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See also:

For more:

Highway Africa

Pan African Conference on Access to Information (PACAI)

About Gill Moodie: @grubstreetSA

Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) is a freelance journalist, media commentator and the publisher of Grubstreet ( She worked in the print industry in South Africa for titles such as the Sunday Times and Business Day, and in the UK for Guinness Publishing, before striking out on her own. Email Gill at and follow her on Twitter at @grubstreetSA.