African Path is one of the most exciting African citizen media projects. It is an online platform whose content comes from bloggers, readers, artists, and specialists. It also aggregates news on Africa from different sources.
Joshua Wanyama, a Kenyan entrepreneur based in the US, is the co-founder of African Path. In 2003, after finishing his B.S in Architecture, he started Interactive Spectrum, a technology firm based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In January 1st, 2007 he officially launched African Path. A digital path of woven tales of Africa's past, present, and future.
Recently, Joshua Wanyama spoke with Global Voices Online about the project.
Ndesanjo Macha: Tell us about yourself and how/why you started blogging
Joshua Wanyama: At the heart of all things, I am an entrepreneur. I seize the opportunities presented to me and try to make something of them. My partner and I had done a blog before to highlight the services our company, Spectrum Interactive, offered. I didn’t do much on that site. There were too many other things that I needed to accomplish and I couldn’t keep up with the blogging. I started blogging again once we decided to create African Path. It was a lot easier with content on Africa since I didn’t need to do a lot of research to understand the audience. I have been observing and participating in African culture since I was born.
I have felt that knowledge is a key source of growth for humans in general and a necessary ingredient in the development of Africa. I felt a site like African Path would help the people who had experienced success and failure, want and excess to tell their stories. And those who were looking for such content could find it at a central point. The beauty of providing a working solution in Lesotho since it is already being executed in Chad is helpful in developing not just one country or ethnic group, but the knowledge can be shared and used in all countries thus fueling economic growth that we all seek in Africa.
NM: What is African Path?
JW: African Path is really a network of different knowledge bases that provide human connections and interactions. These knowledge bases cover as many fields as we could provide content for. The platform is online and the providers of content are bloggers, specialists, readers and artists who weave tales of our past, present and future. Hopefully what is put up influences someone to think further than what they have thought before, to network with people who share their vision or to create the ideal connection to enable one to elevate their living standards and give them a sense of dignity.
NM: How did the idea and the name come about?
JW: I have been working with newspaper clients for more than twenty months. Spectrum Interactive developed an online newspaper template (News Portal) that enables upstart and expanding news and blogging organizations to scale their services online. That meant the basic infrastructure for African Path was in place.
In December of 2006, my partner and I decided to create our own news and blog aggregator site for Africa. We had tried getting partners who would edit such a site while we provided the marketing, brand and technology expertise but to no avail. We therefore restructured the company so I could dedicate my time on the development of African Path while he kept our other business interests going.
I have always had a love for Africa and wanted to develop something with the abilities I had in order to have a positive impact on the continent. I think African Path is on the way to achieving that goal. Media coverage in Africa is predominantly biased and western based. We need an African perspective on the world stage so we can tell our own stories. My goal is to develop African Path into this vehicle.
While searching for an appropriate name, I knew the name had to reflect an ever changing, ever growing perspective of African development. While one might be down today, tomorrow they would have moved forward. So African Path wants to be part of that move. We want to provide some of the things that one would use to make this move. Information is the greatest tool to empower a people. Africans need a source of information that makes it easier for them to be empowered. Yesterday’s mistakes should stay in the past. We need information to make the right decisions that help us move forward today.
NM: Who are the people behind African Path?
JW: My partner Charles Baarsch and I. Charles is a programmer by expertise and a visionary in how he sees the world especially business. He has been in business for many years so he provides me with valuable knowledge of what to do and what not to do to avoid the pitfalls that can bring a business down. On the other hand I’m a designer, marketer and entrepreneur.
NM: How does African Path operate?
JW: We work with bloggers from all over Africa. We are always recruiting new ones especially for the countries we are yet to represent. They can provide content as regular African Path bloggers or sign up as guest bloggers and post whenever they feel like it. We also work with musicians and their agents in creating a database and profile of the continent’s musicians. We feel this will be an important vehicle in telling Africa’s story. If you are searching for artists in Mozambique or Togo for that matter or a kwaito artist versus soukous, we want to be able to provide such information for our readers.
I also serve as the editor, marketer, and sales representative for African Path. I have a part-time employee who assists in marketing the site. We want to grow the site so that it can become self-sustaining and provide employment for people especially those back in Africa.
NM: How do you see the future of blogging and citizen media in general in Africa?
JW: I anticipate a rise of blogging. Citizen media will continually grow. I think we will start seeing a more concerted effort to provide expertise in an area or a model that can allow for bloggers to earn an income by sharing their knowledge. More than that, blogging allows anyone to leverage their knowledge and potentially create a reputation that can give them a better chance at landing a prime job, improving your business or creating a following that can lead to political positions.
I also think a move to mobile technologies will improve the offerings for bloggers. Cell phones are really the access points for information in Africa. There exists some opportunity for entrepreneurs who can develop systems to serve content from news and blogging software to mobile phones in a package. I think we will keep seeing pilot programs and finally real products that will offer such services.
NM: Should Africans care about blogs and blogging?
JW: Africans should really care about blogging. Other than localized newspapers, one can’t access news generated by Africans featuring issues specific to them. We need that. Blogging provides access to alternative sources of news and stories that are important to Africans.
The need for African news generated by Africans goes back to creating our own identity and stories. When a western media house reports, on Africa, it is all blood, gore, famine, crime and other negative images. For them, a positive image is tourism. Africans have a lot more than just these issues. We need to hear about a farmer who has created a better way of tilling the land that has enabled the village to have a surplus of maize, or the lady who built a company employing 20 people from good fiscal management and hard work. These are the stories that make Africa wonderful. The hope that all Africans have in abundance is lost in the media and this leads to a negative connotation and identity for Africans. We have to take back our stories for future generations will love to hear what we had to say and actually see it as our own perspective and none other. The examples I have mentioned above transcend borders. I think any pan-African vehicle has to offer solutions that work across borders otherwise they will be irrelevant in most markets.
NM: Considering the socio-political realities in Africa, can African bloggers bring about concrete social change? Do you know of any success stories so far? Any negatives?
JW: I think African bloggers can affect how their countries are run. Whenever you have a group of people sitting together discussing politics and economic growth, everyone has a heated discussion based on their reality. Blogs capture this spirit. The effectiveness of blogs though is reserved on how many people read these stories. We need to come up with ways to deliver the same content from other sources. This is the way to affect the socio-political situation in Africa through blogging. While the percentage of people with access to the Internet keeps growing in Africa, most of the people who can effect change through voting do not have access to the net. This makes cell phones a better option in disseminating information. Strikes have been carried out in Zimbabwe through sending SMS messages.
The biggest negative I see is the lack of regulation. Both good and bad content makes it onto blogs. Stories that highlight human achievement and those that destroy the human psyche are part of blogging. Depending on what one reads regularly, you can influence one’s thought to the detriment of a community. Bloggers have to remember that the moment you have more than yourself reading your content, then you have an audience and you have to be responsible for what you do.
NM: What value does African Path add to the African blogosphere?
JW: The main value is creating a vehicle to carry out these stories. More than that, most African blogs sit in obscurity due to poor marketing and positioning that affects site traffic. African Path’s job is to connect bloggers and artists to an audience that is predominantly African or those with an interest in the continent.
We also want to become an organization that is able to create employment for Africans and be part of the economic development of the continent. Through how we work and interact with bloggers and other entrepreneurs, I see an opportunity to help strengthen and develop each other so we can maximize our potential. I get comments from bloggers I interact with on how to improve our site and vice versa. I have been asked for suggestions on ways of monetizing blogs and other ideas. If we can be able to create networks that provide access to funds or ideas that can generate positive growth in each other, then I think we will be facilitating economic, social and political growth of Africa.
NM: What kind of future do you see for your project, African Path?
JW: I want African Path to become a destination point on material in Africa. Through relationships with other companies and media houses, we want to provide relevant content to African readers. I look at the Yahoo! model where they have news, music, images, search, directories and other community content in one branded vehicle. We have such a rich community of blogs, music, film, theater, experts in various fields and businesses.
We want to create a consistent voice that rings true in the Ivory Coast just as much as Tanzania, information that is relevant to a Libyan or Namibian. This will take work but it is possible. We have already proved the model works and we are providing an important service to Africans. We now want to strengthen that, create a solid brand that is relevant to Africa and recruit as many bloggers from all the African countries as we can.
NM: Corruption, economic mismanagement, and the lack of rule of law are some of the main problems facing Africa today, what role can African Path and other African bloggers play in addressing them?
JW: First off, we can highlight where injustice exists. This exposure should enable others to join in demanding change, accountability and better management from our leaders. Special blogs such as Mzalendo cover African leaders and track their performance. We need to have such programs whether within African Path or as relationship within the blogging community. One big issue is the right of a blogger either as a journalist or private citizen in voicing their concerns. The recent arrest and jailing of Soliman in Egypt is a sign of how much we have to progress before we are on good ground. If countries block access to the net or certain blogs, we then are toothless tigers in our attempts to speak out against injustice. We have to find a way for people on the ground in Africa to read our stories just as much as those in the Diaspora.
Another issue is, some might just complain but never do anything. We need solutions to get Africa past the position it occupies in the world. Bloggers have to start looking for solutions, partnering with entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations and media houses. Let us find a way to improve the lives of all Africans. You can’t change anything by trying it yourself. Let us share the knowledge and opportunities available to us to effect change.
NM: What role could African Path and African bloggers play in providing a more balanced coverage of Africa?
JW: While the bias is there as I have already stated above, we can change how the world perceives us by controlling our own destiny. An example would be when a site visitor runs into a story or web site that shows a positive view of Africa, that would be user generated content facilitated by what the blogger has in place on their site.
A common standard or operation model of bloggers with like interests will probably help in pushing this common perspective. The South African, Nigerian or Kenya blog rings act as such a body. I have turned down bloggers who I felt they would provide a biased view such as what mainstream media does and that wasn’t part of African Path’s vision. The stories of corruption, mismanagement, famine, war and bad governance need to be told but this is only a fraction of what constitutes Africa.
If we fail to provide a balanced view, we fail our children. The heritage and mistakes of past generations do not have to extend to future generations. We have a lot of knowledgeable Africans who work in unified settings regardless of race, ethnic and clan associations. We need to continually emphasize our oneness instead of promoting our differences.
In closing, I would like to state that I believe in Africa. I believe the solutions to Africa’s problems lie within the continent. There are people who are working day and night to improve lives and change the continent. It might be a parent teaching a child to respect the sanctity of life or a school teacher spending a few extra minutes with her students so that they might have a better future. The pulse of all these people, leaders who are both educated and illiterate, is reflected in each and every blog on Africa. Whether social or political, economic or cultural, the variety within African blogs and the knowledge spread throughout is enough to make a positive impact in Africa. All we need to do is harness it and apply it in the relevant areas. While farmers in Rwanda might have searched for a solution within their community thirty years ago, they now have a chance to talk to someone implementing the said solution in Equatorial Guinea. That is the power of globalization. Bloggers are the vehicles to spread this wealth of information.