From the local town crier who goes around the village announcing the date of the new yam festival to the little smartphone that sends messages to people to assemble at the square for a protest march, the media in Africa has mutated over time and, as new technologies evolve daily, media consumption on the continent has evolved alongside, keeping the media industry on its toes as it tries to adapt to these changing times.
When new becomes old
The communication system in Africa dates back to the pre-colonial era. Back in this era, symbols like white chalk, green palm fronds, red cotton and the rhythmic banging of drums were all forms of communication.
Colonization and the slave trade, as dark as this period was, took the communication system on the continent up a notch. It was in this period that the colonial masters helped to set up newspapers and radio and TV stations. When I bought my first world receiver radio at age 11, my dad told me about my late grandfather and how he was glued to his radio during the Nigerian civil war waiting for the next breaking news. Even today, my grandmother will always wait until the 9 PM Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Network news to confirm the stories she hears during the day.
In her generation, narratives were formed by limited sources, and media consumption was often left to the elite, who were educated enough to understand the news and rich enough to purchase a copy of a newspaper, radio or TV set. However, all this changed when Africa got caught in the World Wide Web.
Numbers don’t lie
Although Africa got onto the internet in the early 1990s, broadband connection across the continent was slow until 2012. By 2012, only seven African countries had over 40% of their population connected to the internet, but the figures have improved ever since.
In 2013, the World Bank and African Development Bank reported that there are 650 million mobile users in Africa; this figure, at the time, surpassed the number of users in the United States or Europe. The report further stated that, in some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity.
Deloitte’s report, The Sub-Saharan Africa Mobile Observatory 2012, also reported that mobile phone penetration in Africa increased rapidly between 2000 and 2012, going from 1% in 2000 to 54% in 2012. These numbers represent a growing generation of information-hungry Africans who are getting connected to the internet daily.
Headlines vs hashtags
The annual State of the News Media report by the Pew Research Center revealed what writer Amy Mitchell described as a “mobile majority”. Among digital news websites, 39 out of 50 get more traffic to their sites from mobile devices. You might say, yes, this is research conducted in the United States, but the truth is that this trend is slowly catching up on the African continent as well. Politicians, in Nigeria especially, who understand this trend are getting on social media in an attempt to shape perceptions in their favour.
#BringBackOurGirls, #SayNotoXenophobia and the Arab Spring are vital signs of modern media consumption on the continent. Unlike my grandfather who sits close to his radio waiting for the next news, a vast proportion of the African audience are on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks to get instant information in real time, as well as have their voices heard in the process.
Blogs have also been springing up all over the African blogosphere like germinating crops from seeds scattered in our backyard garden. These days, anyone with a Google account can create a blog ‒which is how I started my blog, by the way ‒ and many of these blogs, started by individuals who might not necessarily have a media background, are slowly becoming the go-to point for information in many countries. The challenge with this is that credibility and the ethics of journalism might get lost in the process because many of these blogs are set up as money spinners, and so the bloggers most times don’t care about professionalism.
The BBC’s WhatsApp experiment
As news providers around the world try to adjust to the recent consumption trend, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently conducted an experiment at the height of the Ebola outbreak using mobile messaging app, WhatsApp, the biggest “chat app” on the continent. The BBC used WhatsApp to send news and updates to subscribers as a means of keeping people informed in the fight against the virus.
Does this suggest that newspapers and TV stations will soon be extinct and everything will be on social media? No, I don’t think so. I like to think that there will be an evolution, a mutation, just like we noticed between the colonial and pre-colonial eras. The main question is, are all parts of Africa ready for this evolution?
Yes, more Africans are using the web and consuming information online than ever before, but again, many Africans are not really on the internet. As much as I love my hometown, Kono, I always dread visiting the village, not because there are witches waiting to squeeze my neck at night but because there is no network coverage, and certainly no broadband. Many rural communities in Africa are cut off from the national electricity grid ‒ no power ‒ and they also don’t have network coverage.
Many who live on less than a dollar a day cannot afford the expensive data bundles people in the city enjoy. If this isn’t fixed, we’ll have a large proportion of the continent cut off from the digital civilization that is already hitting the continent. Policy-makers and regional leaders will have to look into this as it is not good for growth.
*Ebenezar Wikina is a Huffington Post writer, TEDx Organizer, and World Economic Forum Global Shaper from the Port Harcourt Hub, Nigeria. Follow the Global Shapers Community on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.globalshapers.org