By Tapiwa Marume
The Shoko Festival Hub Unconference which started on the 23rd of September and ended on the 24th of September 2016, was a must attend event for those interested in new media. The conference drew an audience from professional journalists, citizen journalists, media practitioners, activists, entrepreneurs, students among many other individuals and organizations interested in new media. The Hub UnConference has an exciting history with new media and was part of the growth of startups such as Bustop TV, TV Yangu and Spiked News.
This year’s presenters and panelists comprised of Zimbabwe’s leading startup founders and internationally recognized individuals from leading media houses in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Uganda and Zambia. Presentation and discussion topics on the opening day included: The State of the Internet in Zimbabwe; Surviving a digital Lock down; Digital explosion, Local Insights; and Geeking, Local and International Trends.
Session 1 ‘The current state of the internet in Zimbabwe‘ was presented by Limbikani S Makani (TechZim, Zimbabwe). He gave a detailed background of the growth of the internet, changing trends and opportunities that have been made available in Zimbabwe. During the early stages of internet introduction in Zimbabwe around 2006 connections were fixed and fewer people had access. In 2011 when mobile operators started offering mobile internet services 3.9 million people had access and this figure doubled to 6.7 million in 2016, he said.
In Zimbabwe there are more sim cards than people, as a result of mobile technology 95% of the population that uses mobile devices is connected to the internet. The use of social media such as Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook has also quadrupled over the years. He pointed to how mobile operators in Zimbabwe and around the world have taken advantage of these developments by offering selected and limited access of the internet through bundles. For instance, one can purchase a special bundle that gives him/her access to Whatsapp or Facebook only.
One does not have access to the ‘whole internet’ and this translates into higher costs for internet access, that is, one will require money for a Whatsapp bundle, Facebook bundle, Opera bundle and so on. He also pointed out that India banned the use of bundles to try and institute or rather put in place a neutral and open internet free from this practice. Zimbabwe desperately needs to take a turn in that direction.
Limbikani also analyzed the growth of the use of video by artists on social media in the past year. He said musicians were no longer now interested in taking their musical videos to traditional local and international television channels such as Channel O, but they are now posting them direct on YouTube where they are attracting considerable viewership. Jah Prayzah’s song in collaboration with Diamond Platinumz from Tanzania got one and a half million hits on YouTube in a short period of time after it was posted. The question, however, is does that automatically translate into revenue for the artist? He observed that popular Zimdancehall artists were just content with the high viewership and many hits or likes on social media their videos get without even thinking about the revenue that could emanate from that.
However, he applauded Bustop TV and comedians such as Baba Tencen and Comic Pastor who have evaded the traditional broadcaster by producing and distributing their own content via new media. These comedians have also started airing adverts from different companies as way of attracting revenue there by challenging the old media business model. These newer models of media business are not susceptible to license fees to operate as compared to traditional broadcasting media.
On the political side, Zimbabwe noticed a huge surge in activism with highly charged political content via Facebook live, Whatsapp and Twitter. This coincided with the Cyber Crime Bill which some segments assume is meant to stifle dissent and production of content to counter the public media agenda. Authorities argue that they want to protect citizens from malicious content such as revenge porn, false sensational and unverified reports, and other types of cyber crimes. Limbikani pointed out that these types of bills were standard across the world and people should participate in drafting them so as to safe guard their freedoms.
The presentation concluded by zeroing in on the reasons why technology has failed to make business in Zimbabwe compared to other countries. He argued that people in Zimbabwe had a low set of skills and that they did not want to invest in learning especially online via downloading free apps and tutorials readily available on the internet.”Maybe it’s a cultural thing, of waiting for something to happen and not be hungry for progress”, he said. He said government should view the internet as a tool to increase efficiency.
He advised the government to also cut on youth funds which are meant to provide youths with capital for projects and arrange foreign trips where serious young people can be exposed to new ideas and individuals and groups who are using innovative approaches to attract meaningful economic activity in their own countries and beyond.
Session 2 ‘Winter is Coming- Surviving a Digital Shut Down’
The panelists were Sherifah Tumusiime (Zimba Women, Uganda), Declan Galvin (Sahara reporters, Nigeria), Nigel Gambanga (TechZim, Zimbabwe). The panelist were in concert that in Africa internet shut downs were common place and that almost all the time they were politically motivated. Sherifah Tumusiie explained how in Uganda they went for two days without access to social media sites such as Whatsapp and Facebook as the government tried to stop dissenting voices from spreading information and communicating.
There was great confusion within the government as one section of the government accepted responsibility of the internet shut down while the other section denied any association with it, she said. In Nigeria internet shutdowns are used by the government under the guise of protecting the country from terrorist attacks, activities of Boko Haram, pointed out Declan Gavin. In Zimbabwe a few months ago there was a similar occurrence and the government distanced its self from it denying any form of involvement.
Nevertheless, in Uganda people started using Virtual Private Networks (VPNS) to circumvent the ‘media gag’, they had a record of over a million VPN downloads and some individuals charged around US 0.30c for VPN installations. In the Zimbabwean experience people also employed VPNs to go around the mysterious shutdown that lasted for a couple of hours before midday. Media shutdowns of this nature hinder citizen journalism, the freedom of expression and the right to receive and share information as enshrined in most constitutions of African countries.
An Information Technology specialist in the audience shed more light into the use of VPNs during the question and answer segment. She expounded,” VPNs are primarily used to shield internet activities from hackers and other cyber criminals,” for instance a person could use a VPN when doing a bank transaction or when opening emails with confidential information that could be used negatively by hackers. “The VPN allows a person to mask their internet access, you could be in Zimbabwe but it will show as if you are actually in Russia or France”, said another member of the audience.
Session 3 ‘Digital Explosion: Local and Global Insights’,
The panelists included Kenny Tonga (Founder, Power FM and President of Stand for Peace, Zambia), Tom Shore (Human Rights Activist, In Place of War, UK) and Teresa Bean (In Place of War, UK). Kenny Tonga pointed out that the young people in Zambia were using technology more as compared to the older generation. The saying is true, that the young people are the ‘avant garde’ of technology.
In Zambia, Kenny said they discovered that before every election youths were taken advantage of and used in violent campaigns by the different political parties running for office. He formed the organization ‘Stand for Peace’ were they used social media in conjunction with other organizations to spread a massage of peace and tolerance no matter the prevailing political situation or the result of the election. “Internet was very key for us because we were able to communicate many massages”, he stressed. Their just ended peaceful presidential elections proved that this initiative via new media was fruitful.
In Latin America, Columbia, Teresa Bean said that citizens journalist were employing new technologies to challenge and counter major issues in the mainstream media concerning their areas which are usually poor, located at the out skirts of cities and are recruitment places for gang members. They create their own videos telling their story. Tom Shore pointed out that the digital revolution has democratized communication and that anyone can use it as a tool to benefit mankind. More and more people including the old are now turning to digital media gradually as traditional media is fading into irrelevance. The older generation of politicians is also now playing catch up realizing, being aware and taking social media seriously as a way to relate with the electorate of which the young are a part.
The panelists pointed out that more news content was now being produced and disseminated via social media more than on traditional media all over the world. Kenny advocated for a position were both new media and main stream media are used together to achieve maximum benefit. For instance everything that is online will go on radio and vice-versa.
Session 4 ‘Speed Geeking- Local and International Trends’ Panelists were Caroline O’Donovan (journalist, US), Declan Galvin, Kenny Tonga and Boldwin Hungwe (Journalist, Zimbabwe). Boldwin Hungwe presented ideas on how some media houses are buying content from citizen journalists in areas they cannot reach themselves. He also said cellphones are now being used to take more pictures and videos than actual video cameras and cameras. He further said that 80% of content from established media houses in the west is being accessed via mobile devices.
Caroline O’Donovan focused her conversation on current technological advancements in the US which include self-driven cars and artificial intelligence, computerized devices that can have a conversation with a human being. Declan expounded on the role of the role of citizen journalism working through social media in exposing corruption and bringing public officials into accountability.
The first day closed with pitches for The Hub Awards from diverse individuals/organizations under 4 categories that proposed ideas to solve key problems using new media: Women Arise, Fix Up (environment related), Your Voice, and Speak Truth to Power. Winners will be announced by the judges on the last day of the conference.
Shoko Festival is an effort by Magamba Network, a Zimbabwean creative organization working in the arts, new media, activism and innovation. The Hub Unconference is being held at the Harare City Library.