Africa Gathering

FrontlineSMS @ Africa Gathering 2011

By Nsonje Siame and Hussain Abdullah

Africa Gathering is a unique platform which allows NGOs, donors, journalists and academics to come together to connect and explore ideas on "positive change in sustainable development, technology, social networking, health, education, environment and good governance in Africa." The most recent Africa Gathering was hosted at the London-based Guardian building on Monday 20th June 2011. The chosen theme for this event was "New Media Revolutionizing Africa", and it inspired interesting ideas, insightful discussions and some energetic debates between the presenters and delegates.

Sharath Srinivasan, co-founder of FrontlineSMS:Radio presented at the event  about how simple and adaptable solutions can be the most effective in promoting dialogue and interactive communications in Africa. Sharath argued that new social media's relevance in Africa hinges on an understanding of context. What is necessary is what Sharath referred to as a 'pull method,' understood as the ways in which technology is shaped by those using it.

Tami Hultman, co-founder of, emphasized the desire from African's to have the tools necessary to tell their story, and it is this same desire that underpins the ethos of FrontlineSMS:Radio – the objective of empowering people. The social issues in any given country are best understood by its citizens and so too are the solutions.

Many of the participants at the conference agreed that IT literacy, and indeed infrastructure, are not yet at a level for new forms of social media to overtake other existing communications tools. The consensus was that there continues to be an important place for traditional media. Some discussion was dedicated to the continuing conflicts in North Africa, for instance, as it was recognised that while the rise in use of new, internet based tools such as Facebook and Twitter have facilitated communications channels for social mobilisation to increasing numbers of people; there is a danger of creating new forms of inequality. In many contexts, new media does not have the same pervasiveness or reach as mediums such as newspapers, radios and mobile phones. At the local level, the tools required for change are often already in people’s hands; the challenge is making them work effectively to meet the needs of the context.

It was argued that change must be bottom-up, and begin by supporting grass roots initiatives to acquire the tools which suit their needs. If kept simple, social media devices such as the traditional radio combined with simple, cheap low-spec devices, like a mobile phone, can enhance the interactivity of radio to produce better intra-community experiences. By removing barriers of communication between community members and leaders, it becomes easier to foster a strong and engaged civil society.

For more information on Africa Gathering visit:

Interview at Africa Gathering

Filmed at the Africa Gathering event in London last Saturday, this short interview with Jonathan Marks covers the history, thinking and use of FrontlineSMS, and contains some priceless footage of over 100 Africa Gathering attendees doing an impression of the FrontlineSMS logo.

(Tip: Turn HD off if the video is slow to play). Thanks to Ed and the rest of the team for organising such a great event, and to Jonathan Marks for conducting the interview.