shadow kenya
Credit: By wallygrom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The African Union celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and, as countries work through the social and economic troubles created by colonialism, many nations are experiencing a boom the likes of which have not been seen in 30 years. Of the world's fastest growing economies, half of the top ten are in Sub-Saharan Africa according to the IMF and as more countries are moving from being bracketed as "poor" to "middle income", technologies such as mobile phones and social media permeate society more and more.

This is particularly true of Kenya, where Musa Haron, a freelance print and radio journalist in Nairobi, described a situation that should be familiar to social media users the world over. Previously he would only hear the news if he caught the evening broadcasts, but the real-time nature of social media is having a wide impact

"Social media has managed to override the traditional media, where things that are happening on TV or radio at prime time have already been shared on Twitter and Facebook," he said. "In Kenya I think if you want to get news just log in to your Facebook and Twitter account and then you can get all the news that you want. And then when you wait for the seven o'clock or nine o'clock news it is like a recap. You already have a touch of what is happening."

The timeline of social media's wider introduction in Kenya follows much the same path as Europe - Facebook around 2007/8, Twitter a couple of years later – but mobile use among the poor only took off in 2009 according to the World Bank, and the country itself was not released from the corruption and human rights abuse of President Moi's 24-year reign until 2002.

As such, Njenga Nakeenah, a radio journalist at Hope FM and Earth Journalism Network fellow, sees these technologies as having a liberalising effect on his compatriots.

"There is a transformation that has not been there and the fact that the government has not clamped down whatsoever on the internet, [means] Kenyans are able to express themselves and even receive all kinds of information from all over the world without any limitation whatsoever," he said.

"I think this has kind of liberalised the platform and Kenya has opened up [more] now than it was a few years ago."

They'd rather forego a meal, maybe lunch, and have airtime for their phonesNjenga Hakeenah, radio journalist and Earth Journalism Network fellow, Nairobi
People's interest in politics has rocketed – "anything political will sell" says Nakeenah – and the feedback loop created between social media and the increased liberalisation of Kenyan politics, and hence Kenyan journalism, is ever-growing.

"Politics has more ground because people are interested in how they are governed," continued Hakeenah, "so if I do a story that is inclined more towards the politics you will find that it has a following. If I did a story on the government or some project somebody will pick that up but not as many as those who are doing politics. Regardless of how popular a political topic is, even months later somebody is retweeting a story that you shared a long time ago."

And the power of social media, amplified by mobile access, is being felt from the slums and skyscrapers of Nairobi to the dirt tracks and plains of the Rift Valley. In January, the Communications Commission of Kenya published statistics from its SIM card registration survey revealing that, allowing for the possibility of duplication, there are between 25 and 30 million mobile phone users in Kenya, representing around 60 to 70 percent of the population.

Hakeenah regularly visits his "rural home" not far from Nairobi, but says that many people are connected to social media and their appetite to stay connected is so strong that it can influence whether they eat or not.

"Even there, there are people who are very well connected because a number of Kenyans are well educated and they have access," he said. "They'd rather forego a meal, maybe lunch, and have airtime for their phones. And you will find that most people are on social media, Facebook and Twitter and others.

"So you will find that the connectivity, although it may not be very pervasive in the rural areas, it is still there because if I go there will be somebody who will meet me and they will be interested in what I'm doing and then they will get to join or get connected to the social media through the internet and that way the numbers keep growing..."

Hakeenah's conclusions are backed up by independent research, as one study in 2012 put Facebook use in Kenya at almost 2 million while another found that the country has Africa's second most active Twitter community, behind South Africa.

Collins Nabiswa, social media editor of Nairobi's Daily Nation, which has 350,000 Kenyan Facebook fans, told Journalism.co.uk that social media can inform people of local news where more established media do not have the same reach.

"Very many people go onto social media to access and to know what's happening around them and you find that in traditional media, radio and TV, [they might] not have a national outlet so they can't see press where they are," he said. "Their network is not there. But there is the internet where they are. So they go there and log on to internet to access, to know what's happening."

These more marginalised portions of society, which Nabiswa says access the internet either through their phones or by the use of a dongle but rarely see their stories told, are where the work of a UK based media development organisation comes into play.

africa mobile

Radar, founded by Alice Klein and Libby Powell, both freelance journalists with backgrounds in development, offers free training in mobile journalism to citizen reporters as one of its central programmes.

"Our focus at Radar is to bring in people who aren't involved in mainstream media production," said Klein, "so we work through our trusted network of partner organisations who can then select participants so we know that these are people who can give us verifiable information."

These participants, including Musa Haron, are often selected by NGOs and taught how to send micro-reports via SMS to a local number, which then forwards the text to an email account in the UK.

"Mobile phones are pretty much everywhere in Kenya," she continued, "even when we were training people who had come down from Lodwar in the north, which is a semi-arid area of northern Kenya, they all had their own mobile phones. It might not be smartphones, it might just be green-screen phones but they are still capable of using those to send us the micro reports."

Radar received "hundreds" of microreports when it was first introduced to cover March's national elections but has since remained a key outlet for some citizen journalists in the country, such as SMS updates on the presidential inauguration from citizen journalist Sarah Mwikali and live reports of Occupy Parliament protests from Musa Haron, a story which eventually made its way on to the New Internationalist website.

All of these stories broke through mobile reporting, albeit from the relatively connected streets of the capital, but tip-offs from rural areas would largely come through social media, as Nabiswa explained.

"People have access to internet, people have access to social media. Therefore they tell us what's happening right then," he said. "A few weeks ago there was an attack in the north-east. We had the story and if it wasn't for the social media we would not have had the story."

That attack proved to be the first in a new wave of violent incidents on the Kenya-Somalia border from Somali militia groups that has led to an increased military and media presence in the area.

Hakeenah described how a recent story of a water source polluted by heavy metals had first been broken by a text message sent to the newsroom at Hope FM. Trained reporters followed up on the lead, but the story and industrial pollution would have remained un-reported without the initial tip-off.

"The first person who was reporting about the poisoning, they may not know what it is really," he said. "But once you have experts looking into that then you're able to change how that society is."

I firmly believe that both traditional journalism and citizen journalism will co-exist and probably need to co-existAlice Klein, Radar
This appetite for involvement is reflective of the more open and liberal society that Hakeenah said emerged with the internet.

"In Kenya everybody, as long as they have a phone, they become a reporter," he said. "And it is very interesting because you are able to break a story if you have sources who are savvy in terms of using mobile telephony. And what has happened is that they are coming up, we are coming up as citizen reporters whereby something happens somewhere and someone is either tweeting it or calling you or sending you a text message."

This may be similarly true of the situation in more developed countries but the geographical isolation of some areas of Kenya and the connectivity which the technology brings is making the difference. Lucy Maroncha, a freelance journalist who writes for the Standard Group, Radio Netherlands and IRIN News, said that these technologies have radically changed how journalists in the field go about their work.

"I am able to report my stories directly as opposed to going to sit somewhere and file my story," she said. "Now I can report a story directly from the field, where it is happening. So I think that it has really changed. Another thing is that we are able to send short messages, on my phone I can send a very short message to my editor and they get the story."

Some issues of connectivity and the availability of power outlets for charging still remain, but mobile phone manufacturers have begun to pick up on the demand for models better suited for the African environment. Nokia's Asha's series has had a dual sim capacity - to act as a back-up in areas with low connectivity – in the phones since its launch in 2011 and the new 501 model reportedly has 48 days of standby battery life. Other examples include ZTE's solar powered model, launched in 2011, where one hour of sunlight equates to 15 minutes of talk time; and Apple are expected to produce a low cost iPhone for developing countries later in the year.

Klein believes these developments will allow citizen journalists to play a more prominent role in Kenya, playing a key role alongside the more traditional forms and outlets.

"I firmly believe that both traditional journalism and citizen journalism will co-exist and probably need to co-exist," she said. "It's not that one will take over from the other, you need the traditional journalism that sends people to do these long training courses and they write these longer, rigorous in-depth features and articles but I think that citizen journalism will definitely play a role insofar as diversifying the voice."

That diversification of the voice is important not just for the individuals involved but for society on the whole, said Hakeenah, describing how citizen journalists and traditional outlets can work together.

"I believe that traditional journalism is not threatened, as many would want to say, but it is kind of getting a boost in the fact that if you have your sources right and they're positioned right then you have your stories," he said.

"And then the only thing you need to do is to tweak, by educating those who are your sources, citizen journalists so to say, because if we just rely on the resources the media houses are giving us then it means that we are missing the real story which is out there."

Voices previously marginalised by a lack of connectivity are finding they can play an increasingly important part in society and, as Kenyans learn how best to put these new technologies in to practice, the opportunities for journalism to play its truest role can blossom.

Hear more on how technology has affected journalism in Africa in this Journalism.co.uk podcast.

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