A year after Kony2012, five non-profit wins

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March 5 marks the one-year anniversary of a film that blindsided everyone who has an interest in NGO communications, or how narratives emerge from developing countires – Kony2012. The video defied all logic for web videos. It dealt with a complex and obscure topic, lasted a half hour (most ecof the popular web videos are under a minute long) and had a heavy, moral message. I won’t go into the amazing story of Kony2012, there’ll be enough column inches written about it on Tuesday. But one passage from this excellent Observer piece stood out, describing a a report on the film’s impact, which concluded:

 “[T]he way in which charities communicate has to change in the wake of it”. It was, he said, a “game changer”, “for all of us to hear about it from our kids. That’s how I heard about it, from my teenage son, 48 hours in. I was like, ‘How come you have heard about a Kony video and I haven’t and it’s my job? And I haven’t ever heard you talk about Africa before.’

“They reached young people in a way no charity has been able to do before. They connected to people’s stories. It wasn’t snazzy or trendy. It was just good old-fashioned story-telling.”

Despite Kony2012, many NGOs are still trying to peddle the old press-release (and sometimes video) email to journalists, effectively begging for coverage, when it’s been demonstrated time and time again that you need to push the boat out to get cut-through. Kony2012 changed the game entirely. This video has more than 96 million views on YouTube. That’s unheard of, and it’s proof of concept that if you do something different and connect with people on a human level  your message takes on a life of its own.

So here, in no particular order, are my top five favourite comms projects from NGOs and non-profits, people who really thought differently about how to tell their story. Some are expensive and involved, others cheap and engaging. But all are game-changers in a way, and should serve as models for emulation.

1. Médecins Sans Frontieres – Premium Publications

MSF are consistently courageous with how they tell their stories, blending multimedia with that French bravado that serves them so well. The two books to the right, Writing on the Edge and The Photographer, don’t follow the usual formula, rather they are by-products of them. The Photographer is the story of a snapper who went to Afghanistan in 1986 to observe the work of a team of doctors. After the trip, he and two artists blended his work with a graphic novel describing the trip. The result is a wonderful, human narrative that tells a woven story which separate words & pictures cannot achieve.

Tom Craig’s ‘Writing on the Edge’ is another image-led collection with the photographer again as the constant. Craig was accompanied on a number of trips with MSF by his pick of great writers, AA Gill and Daniel Day-Lewis among them, resulting in an expensive, experimental and richly-produced book that is visually halting and riveting to read. Both are examples of how thought and freedom can create something that endures for a NGO’s brand. I bought copies of both – they’re stunning.

2. Wikileaks

OK, so it descended into farce, with Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy, after hosting a

Wikileaks

Russia Today chat show and being defended publicly by George Galloway, but as far as non-profit comms projects go, Wikileaks blew everything else out of the water. They acquired some phenomenal content and made it public in a very creative way, by drip-feeding it to the world and seeding it via a safety-in-numbers network of global media houses, who had the power to visualise and manipulate the data and make it come alive. Would you know about Anonymous or Lulzsec were it not for Wikileaks? Would the occupy protests have happened? Arguable points, but a watershed nonetheless.

3. Shave or Dye

A local one. This initiative from the Irish Cancer Society has raised more than €4.5million for the charity, by getting people to raise money by either shaving or dyeing their hair. It has it all. A macabre play on words in the title, a playful way to make light of one of the worst stigmas associated with cancer – hair loss – by co-opting the healthy into mimicking the worst effect of the illness, or making the hair they still have seem ridiculous. It is fun, and it has the backing of a national broadcaster. A superb, simple success.

4. Mapping @fieldproducer in Burkina Faso

When Neal Mann was between his jobs with Sky News and the Wall St Journal, he was drafted by Save the Children for a trip to Burkina Faso to cover a looming food crisis in the country. They approached me to help them document the trip in a new way. At the time, we were in the habit of using maps to contextualise stories at Storyful, so I suggested we do the same for Neal’s trip to Burkina.

While he pinged back pics and audio from BF, I got busy embedding and arranging them on the Google Map to make the journey come alive. The map ended up attracting 26,000 views, with one of Neal’s audioboo reports getting the same again after it was promoted on Audioboo’s front page.

The engagement was genuine, from fulsome praise to the debate it generated around Neal’s use of Instagram  in some of his reporting. But it was all unfiltered, unmediated, and in real time. Neal had the freedom to respond to users in real time, just as they watched him upload content items and spell out the context around what he was seeing. The trip, it was claimed, generated five times the traffic of a long-form piece from the Guardian from a similar trip to Mozambique.

It took a leap of faith from Save the Children, but it cost them little more than the airfare for a high-profile online newsmaker, and the gains in terms of engagement and understanding of the crisis were manifest.

View Burkina Faso Trip in a larger map

5. Kony 2012

One year, 96million views. Whatever your thoughts on how they went about it, it is a phenomenon, and it should redefine non-profit comms for the future. NGO folk still understand that they struggle to get beyond the ‘black babies’ or ‘eyes ‘n’ flies’ narratives, but this film blew through those stereotypes, for better or worse. It stands alone.

Trade delegation

Heading north-east to Thika to interview a coffee cooperative, I took a matatu (Hiace bus) from central Nairobi early on a Thursday morning. As I headed off, I had no idea that the road I took would be one of the most interesting things I observed that day. The ‘Thika Road’ has acquired legendary status in the Kenyan press. It is being seen as a major victory for the Kenyan government, a sign of Kenya’s movement into the future. When it is finished, sometime in 2012 if the hype is to be believed, it will become a main artery to the north-east from the Kenyan capital. There is no doubt that it will be one of the best roads in the country.

Despite only a few hundred metres being visibly paved with tarmac at this stage, it is already being hailed as a shining jewel in the Kenyan infrastructure, one other African countries hope to mimic. But it’s also a triumph that the Kenyan government can take little credit for.

The smart move, it seems, has been to get the Chinese build it, to delegate the job.

SinoHydro are overseeing the project, and their countrymen are clearly visible in their blue overalls, dotted among groups of Kenyan labourers as foremen, or driving shiny 4X4s.

What’s completed of the road, or even that which is in a halfway state, is of good quality. The road network at large, in comparison, is a slapdash criss-cross of pockmarked byways, and reflective of that is the battered national fleet. All vehicles become old before their time, aged by the terrain and kept alive through the palliative care that passes for mechanical maintenance here.

The sight of a Mini Cooper, of which I’ve seen only one, is a bizarre folly. Among the clapped-out, or soon-to-be clapped out vehicles bouncing around Nairobi, a glitzy, expensive little hatchback built for smooth city streets makes little sense at all.

But the Thika road will add to the Tsavo Highway (The Nairobi-Mombasa stretch known as the ‘China Road’) a second high-standard stretch of motorway across Kenya, built largely by Africa’s favourite trade partner – the Chinese. To overly compliment the Chinese influence puts one at risk of belittling African workers, their ineptitude an inferred corollary of the efficiency and capacity of the high-powered immigrants.

A more optimistic analysis would suggest that Kenya may merely have spotted a good thing, a source of skills transfer and, at the same time, infrastructure. Much-needed infrastructure.  Kenya has a long way to go to bring its road network up to scratch, by employing Chinese help to get it done, the by-product could be a drastically upskilled construction force. And that model is replicable across a variety of sectors.

And to the cynic, it highlights the continuance, best use and positive reversal of a tactical choice that has been a long-standing favourite here, from colonial times on to the present day. Delegation.

But that simplifies things far too much. The fact is, China and Kenya’s trade relationship pulls them ever tighter together as time passes. It has done more to enable commerce and development, the visible sort, than anything other international intervention on a surface level. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, many of them cheap Chinese knock-offs of familiar designs. Their ubiquity has led to a price war between operators, opening their use up further to customers. The number of motorbikes on the streets has increased by a factor of five, nearly all of them ersatz Chinese brands that would struggle to sell a single unit in Ireland or the US, where top-line marques have things cornered off. The short-lived phones, the bikes, and the tuk-tuks that now pepper the cities, are an environmentalists nightmare. There is no way of recycling end-of-life phones in Kenya, meaning they end up on the side of the road, leaching heavy metals into the watercourse, and  all of the bikes are two-stroke affairs, spewing particulate matter into an already smoggy atmosphere.

But they are a new vector to prosperity for many Kenyans. Someone who can stockpile enough Kenyan shillings to buy a motorbike can become a revenue-generating piki-piki motorcycle taxi driver. Phones allow access to markets (an anomalous term – see this quasi-relevant post) and save on unnecessary journeys, a godsend when two valuable hours or more could be lost making a redundant trip by foot.

So the bikes, the phones and the roads (along with myriad other examples including the toilet roll in the header shot) are all representative of something that China has cottoned on to ahead of all other countries: Africa is not merely a pauper continent, it is an extremely valuable market. The margins may be slim and the RPU low, but there are millions of people on the continent, heretofore abandoned by global commerce.

Kenya may not have oil, it may not have strategic importance, but it has 40 million consumers and a growing middle class. And despite our prolonged ‘engagement’ with the African continent in Europe and America, China somehow got to them first.

Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant.

All Change

Things change quickly here. It’s seven years since I’ve been to East Africa, but even in 2003, things were moving quickly.

My first visit was as a greenhorn 21-year-old, working for a tiny Tanzanian NGO.

Those two months were among the most isolated of my life. Internet access was sparing and expensive, but fast where it existed. I wrote emails home in rough form on a .txt file, and took a floppy disc to the local internet cafe to copy and paste it home.  Mobile phones were non-existent. Land lines were appallingly bad, and exorbitantly priced for international calls. This was pre-Skype, if you can imagine that. Shocking stuff.

Just two years later, in 2003, I came back for a sailing event sponsored by Safaricom, Vodafone’s Kenyan guise. I arrived in Arusha this time, to catch up with those I had met the time before, and cadged a lift to Nairobi and on to the coast with another competitor, Rob Allport.

Rob worked with the Maasai as a vet, and we picked up a hitchhiker in red Maasai robes to give him a lift en route to Nairobi. During the detour, I saw another Maasai man sitting squatly on a rock on the side of the road. He was draped in the same tartan-like robes and held a dark herding stick in his left hand as he gazed out over his animals. With his right hand, just as we passed, he dipped inside his robes, and pulled out a Nokia 5110, and proceeded to check his text messages.

In two years, Kenya & Tanzania had gone from being a land of paltry phone connection for the average person to being one where every man who could count goats was hooked up to the grid.

In the seven years since, things have sped up further. The two main operators in Kenya, Safaricom and Zain, are locked in a bitter mobile phone price war, and smartphone growth in East Africa is at rates not seen anywhere in the world.  Phones ping constantly, ubiquitously. The average Kenyan spends 25 per cent of their disposable income on communication, and do their banking, pay bills and open savings accounts using their mobile phones (the largest phone operator became the biggest deposit-taking bank almost overnight when they introduced a service called M-Kesho, allowing phone users put small amounts of money aside for a rainy day). Ireland was once the global leader for mobile payments. Now it’s Kenya.

Vodafone now use Kenya as a testing ground for new developments. If it can work well in Kenya, the thinking goes, it will work anywhere.
GPRS internet coverage for phones now extends deep into rural areas. Komaza, the sustainable forestry NGO who I’m currently visiting, hope to use simple phone internet forms to allow farmers send instant alerts for crop infestations. For example, when a farmer sees an insect problem, their Komaza facilitator can take a geotagged photo of the infestation, and email it back to HQ, where they’ll identify the insect, contact the local sprayer with directions to the exact tree and information on what chemical and concentration to use to treat the outbreak. This means the gap between identification and treatment can be reduced from a week or ten days to just 24 hours.
If you track the difference in connectivity in those first two years, then the following seven, Kenya’s jump is pretty impressive. They’re on a par with Ireland in some ways, ahead in many others. Check back on Kenya in ten years more, and you’ll be staring into the future.
Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.

PS: Click through to expad.ie/map to follow Markham’s Simon Cumbers Journey in a Google Map.

COMPUTER DEVELOPER

NGOs that are really good and efficient should survive and grow, and those which really don’t add value and can’t be competitive should wind up. You’re wasting money that could be applied to the poorest people in the world in a much more efficient way. Unless you can do it efficiently, I don’t think you should be in this business.

Sunday Business Post, August 3, 2008

CHARITY IN A PC WORLD

Cormac Lynch’s charity supplies computers to the poor in Africa, but he admits his capitalist instincts are the reason for his great success.

The Irish love to play games that involve degrees of separation. For example, plenty of us can map out, in three or four steps, a link to the likes of Bono with little effort. Dubliner Cormac Lynch, founder of Irish charity Camara, is a master of the art – taking us from the world’s poorest people to the world’s super-rich in two short steps. Continue reading “COMPUTER DEVELOPER”

Sister Sister

Ah, the wireless. Sure where would you be of an aul winter evening without the magic box in the corner?

I’d spent a long time looking for this old radio documentary I cobbled together for a college project when, finally, it appeared in an old clippings folder.

It’s an interview with my dad’s aunt Peggy, a Loreto sister who spent 43 years in Kenya with the order as a teacher. She crossed paths with Mother Teresa and taught a child,Wangari Maathai, who ended up winning a Nobel peace prize. Not a bad lifetime’s work.

I’ve started doing some podcasts for another website, and thought I’d throw this one up here for the record. Enjoy.