Why journalists need to think like fighter pilots

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Journalism and America’s airborne military might have more in common than you might think, but not in the sinister, stealthy, death-from-above way. It’s a state of mind thing.

The shift that’s happening in how newsrooms have to think is redolent of changes that revolutionised air combat in the 1960s. A virtuoso fighter pilot called John Boyd walked away from the war in Korea and set about redefining air combat, starting with pilots’ thought processes. He knew that if could enable fighter pilots to streamline their decision-making processes in the air, and make quicker decisions on how to manoeuvre, they would less likely to be beaten in a dogfight. His theories, the OODA loop concept in particular, shaped the design of the F-16, and redefined how aerial combat was viewed. His thinking about thinking also trickled into the world of business, forming the basis for the ‘lean startup’ movement, in which the loop is not about a tactical combat manoeuvre, rather about product iteration, and rapid reorientation/iteration of product. (Read this great piece on John Boyd’s tactical thought for more).

Boyd’s thinking boils down to this: Agility, the ability to think and change direction fast, is prized above all else. Speed in a straight line is only good in a drag race, to win in an ever-changing environment, you must be able to parse all the information from your surroundings in an instant, and be free enough to act on them.

That’s a good way to sum up both the daily news cycle, and the broader changes journalism is going through right now. As journalists (and as media consumers, in many cases) we’re all exposed to greater torrents of fast-moving information than ever before – it’s as if our plane has sped up dramatically. Journalists need to rapidly identify the important and accurate signals from that torrent. If you’re in the business of making, reacting to or explaining the news, you need to organise the incoming information in a way you can sift effectively, be agile enough to shift your direction, and free enough to readjust at the same pace as the news. And, of course, all the old standards still apply too. Accuracy, legal obligations, grammar, tone – these remain crucial. On the slower scale, newsrooms need to be looking around to re-orient and innovate as new platforms emerge, as new routes to the reader gain traction.

What’s responsible for the change in pace? Speed of publishing, largely. Better tech. News consumption behaviours. And, of course, social media. There is no going back, either, so journalists need to do what John Boyd did, and

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rethink how their teams think. Newsrooms need processes with foster that fighter-pilot agility of thought, which make room for innovation, and they need people for whom coping with fast news is a matter of muscle memory. When the AP Twitter account was compromised in April, the teams who had people with that internal muscle memory avoided a very public news facepalm. The ones who got it (the selection pictured) are the kind of people newsrooms need to be hiring more of. They combine speedy social media nous with old-school news skills: a mix of skepticism, curiosity, a willingness to pick at something persistently, and the experience to to know when to slow the news process down at times.

That’s right – sometimes they might have to SLOW THE NEWS PROCESS DOWN. Boyd’s thinking, remember, developed the F-16. Not the fastest fighter in the sky, by a long shot, but the most nimble. In Top Gun fighter pilot terms, slowing the news down is like when Maverick tactically hits the brakes and watches the Ruskis fly right past into a position of weakness. It’s so crazy, it actually works.

How you hire these people, and where you put them, can prove tricky. Why would you label someone a social media editor any more? (Will Bloomberg & Reuters reinstate social media editors after being left without?). It could be argued that ‘social media editor’ is an anachronistic title already. Social is simply an integral part of what you do now as a journalist. If you’re hiring someone with special responsibility for social, they should be rolling it out to the entire team and then rejoining the newsgathering and news innovation at the core of the team. Social is now how you source, how you define the news agenda of the day. Your social graph is now your little black book – it’s what lets me ping that guy who can verify a pic from Tripoli airport in Libya, or how I can find out that the Taliban have been issuing statements about pink balloons. Social is also what makes news interactive and will be an integral part of any innovation in news delivery. If you’re not prioritising it, you’re not operating at full capacity. You’re that person who rang in the year 2000, still refusing to use email and demanding people fax you.

Stop being an luddite. Start being a fighter pilot.

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

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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.

Journalism closes a door, brands open a window

via noodlepie on flickrI got involved in a tete-a-tete over the concept of journalists as entrepreneurs on Twitter on Wednesday. The essence of it was the question of whether or not journalists should stick to journalism, and not worry about the selling/entrepreneurial part of things. If they stick to journalism, the argument went, they will be better placed to maintain the quality of their work. I disagreed (you can read the whole thing here).

That discussion was about individual journos, selling their own wares, largely in the news sphere. We didn’t tackle the broader ‘grand repurposing’ of journalism. Marketeers have come to realise that rather than trying to convince journos to ‘print their stuff’, they’re going all in and hiring them to do what they do naturally, then piggybacking on it and basking in the reflected glory. They call it brand journalism. Bizarrely, it often offers journalists, photogs and filmmakers the freedom to do the stuff they’d desperately love to do. For money. I know.

This repurposed journalism, in which journalists are hired to create great content for magazines, websites and even TV channels conveniently  owned by brands, is on the rise. It’s the advertising world’s rising MO and an area in which smart companies are willing to invest heavily and build big, creating talented teams to turn out top-quality content.

They’re hiring, and hiring fast. (Net-a-Porter are hiring right now, so are Patagonia). Take Patagonia. They now have a team of ten journalists, developers, designers and an editor-in-chief creating their blogs, websites and tumblrs. It seems to be working.

From Digiday:

Patagonia does not rely on outside agencies for any of its marketing, another unique aspect of its approach. “By doing things ourselves, we are just removing the layers,” Boland [Bill Boland, Patagonia’s digital creative director], said.

“Proving ROI isn’t a big challenge,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is that we have more content than we could possibly publish, which makes it hard to figure out what gets in and what does not.”

The whole project, every fullstop and pixel, exudes ‘Patagionaness’. They even take counter-intuitive environmental stances against their own product from time to time. Damn hippies. Minor scuffles aside, it’s clear that Patagonia’s editorial team are advocates for the company and its philosophy – they speak the language of their customers, they are wholly into it, which is why the whole thing works, and why they have become magnets for relevant content.  And that’s crucial if brand journalism is to to be practical, and credible. Jez Frampton, CEO of Interbrand, spoke of the importance of that in the content marketing context. It’s essential that everything that emanates from a brand newsroom is in tune with that company’s ethos.

‘Every message from a brand is viewed in the context of that brand: its market position, personality, values, competitive stance etc.  In other words, it shapes the way we interpret the message, and in a world where our communication with brands is increasing exponentially, a clearly articulated and defined brand becomes even more important.’

Translation: If there’s a sniff of your team being false, or trying to be something you clearly don’t believe in, the reader will shred your credibility in a bloody marketing pogrom. The media houses with a strong brand and who understand their brand, are the ones that are surviving, and that’s not restricted to fashion houses or FMCG entities. The FT and the Economist are thriving. Al Jazeera is spreading like nits in a kindergarten. They are all well-defined brands. And then there’s Red Bull. Originally a fizzy drink made (so the urban myth goes) with the stimulating freshness of a bull-testicle extract, Red Bull is now a global media empire (which just happens to sell a beverage).

From Mashable:

‘Lately, every conference PowerPoint on the future of advertising or PR seems to mention Red Bull as a — if not the — shining example of a brand-turned-publisher, what every future-leaning agency encourages its clients to emulate.’

Red Bull has gone from emblazoning other people’s events with extreme soft-drink bunting, to running the events, ending at a point where it producing high-grade expeditionary documentaries, magazines and the rest off the back of their extreme lifestyle advicates and has become a global leader in content marketing. They sell drinks on the side. No-one would question the quality of the film, photography and interviews they produce. Their team are outstanding. The content they create is stunning.

‘It [the Red Bull behemoth] recently released a feature film, The Art of Flight. The movie cost a reported $2 million to make, but when it hit iTunes in 2011, it parked atop the charts for more than a week — bringing in $10 per download.’

Remember a time when brands used to pay for ads in the traditional media? Step through the looking glass into the Red Bull content pool. It’s a place where the traditional media can go to pay for professional content produced by people who once tried to sell you fizzy can of caffeinated cough mixture which they advertised in the traditional media. Dizzy? You should be, particularly if you work in the traditional media. Former advertisers selling you the content you once used to use to sell them advertising? It’s like someone invited you to dinner, got you drunk, and then stung you with the bill. Red Bull describe their content pool thus:

‘A one-stop gateway to our full media catalog: plug-and-play web clips, documentaries,news piecesphoto shoots, the latest interviews, and accompanying editorials. With over 50,000 photos and 5,000 videos, the Red Bull Content Pool is the finest dedicated global content source in existence for sports, culture, and lifestyle material.’

Red Bull are streets ahead of most brands looking to get into this game, and there’s a frantic game of catch-up being played.  Everyone wants in, but the road to creating a newsroom from scratch is daunting.. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Newsweek/Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty said brands need to be more like newsrooms:

For messages to be heard in 2020, brands will need to create an enormous amount of useful, appealing, and timely content. To get there, brands will have to leave behind organizations and thinking built solely around the campaign model, and instead adopt the defining characteristics of the real-time, data-driven newsroom — a model that’s prolific, agile and audience-centric.

That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. Agility and timeliness are particularly challenging, because it means your creative wordsmiths also need to be skilled at monitoring all the relevant incoming news and/or social media signals to find whatever it is they should be reacting to. Digiday provide a dose of reality.

Any publisher will tell you that operating a newsroom is an expensive, arduous task. It’s also incredibly difficult to do well, especially if it’s not your business.

Amen, brutha. (Sorry, SISTA). It’s tough. Say you’re a clothing retailer, your core competency is, well, clothing. Not editorial (exceptions aside). There’s an enormous skills gap. It’s a gap into which journalists should be leaping to make a buck. Some are – in the form of companies like /Newsroom and networks like Contently, springing up to fill the content gap. As newsrooms shut their doors, there are windows opening in the world of brand journalism. But journalists may be reluctant to break in. In fact, they may board up the holes. Why? More to follow.

Should the C-suite learn to tweet?

CEOs of big, successful corporations largely don’t tweet. Fact. And that’s probably not going to change. Anyone who tells you that they should be active and public on social media probably has a vested interest in them doing so.

Does that mean that CEOs and senior execs shouldn’t understand the medium and what it offers? Hell no – McKinsey’s report on the social economy brings big-buck, bottom-line evidence to the table, showing that companies can unlock billions of dollars in value & productivity from effective use of social media, both internally and externally. But actively using social platforms, responding to it, scanning it constantly – that’s something a CEO or senior executive could probably do without.

Advocates of social media have taken a crowbar to the boardroom door of late to see if they can smuggle social media into the C-suite, armed with reports and opinion pieces all bent out of shape to show the world’s most successful businesspeople why they should use social media personally. An article by Ryan Holmes (headlined ‘The $1.3trillion price of not tweeting at work‘ – headline may not be his) bemoans the fact that of the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 20 (sic. – it’s 19) are on Twitter. Of those, nine are ‘active’ – i.e. have tweeted in the last 100 days. The article leans heavily on (but skims only a few tidbits from) that deep, analytical report from McKinsey which outlines untapped billions of value that could flow from the ‘social economy’.

Holmes says that the boardroom doesn’t want to know about social media:

As social media spreads around the globe, one enclave has proven stubbornly resistant: the boardroom. Within the C-suite, perceptions remain that social media is at best a soft PR tool and at worst a time sink for already distracted employees.

Maybe. Do they need to? Also maybe. The McKinsey report figures suggest that 53% of senior executives, at the level of vice-president or above, are using web 2.0 tech. In another McKinsey survey of executives at 4,200 companies around the world, 70% said that they were using social technology in some ways and 90% of those said they were seeing some degree of business benefits.

The management team is on board, and the benefits are likely to be rolled out through their teams and entire companies, so why are we still cribbing that the very tippy top of companies aren’t tweeting madly? Is it just that high-performing top-tier execs don’t use social tech in the platform-promoting way that the social tech world would like them to use it?

Granted, personal Facebook & Twitter use is low among Fortune 500 CEOs. Just 3.8% of them are on Twitter, a tiny sliver when compared to the 34% of Americans who use the platform. But then, that 34% of Americans aren’t running the world’s most successful businesses. Another ‘social CEO’ survey in CEO.com said ‘CEOs lagged far behind the general population in terms of social media participation’. But then, the general population lag far behind CEOs in terms of career progression, don’t they? So why worry?

What the figures for CEO Twitter usage may also fail to take into account is that any CEO who guards his or her valuable time would arguably be best served by ‘lurking‘ on social media platforms rather than actively engaging. Could it be that @SlickLover45 is actually the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s second-largest company, just hanging out on Twitter, silently watching and absorbing during thin slivers of available time? When one’s time is so valuable, how that time is used becomes increasingly important, and the most effective CEOs are often the ones who manage their time best. To this end they have PAs, secretaries and team leads who redirect low-level distraction away from the chief. Focus is everything.

Adam Brault is not a Fortune 500 exec, but is the founder of a software company &yet, and he gave up Twitter for November 2012 to take time out and reappraise his relationship with the platform. The key takeaway from his time off? The value of uninterrupted thought.

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought. That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths … I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

Don’t think that Brault is a good enough example, when we’re talking about bigshot executives? Fine, but it’s a mode of thought put forward by former Paypal CEO Peter Thiel, who advocated ‘extreme focus’ when he was the boss there:

Thiel developed an unorthodox, extreme philosophy on focus and prioritization. Instead of focusing on five things, or three things, the magic number is one. You only focus on one singular thing. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls, Thiel “would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative.”

Jack Dorsey, former Twitter boss and CEO at Square, breaks his week into focused days, with each day taking a particular theme.
Naturally, he and current Twitter CEO Dick Costolo are both on Twitter. Twitter, however, isn’t in the Fortune 500. Yet.

While they largely shun Twitter, CEOs are above-average users of LinkedIn, the global professional network, with 129 of the Fortune 500 bosses boasting active LinkedIn profiles – 25.9% of Fortune500 CEOs, compared to just 20.2% of the general population. Making and maintaining a walled garden of valuable personal connections is seemingly of greater benefit to them – which would lend you to believe that if a CEO wanted to use Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and wanted to mimic the utility they saw from LinkedIn, they would be best served by a private, locked account. High-level executives do not, as a rule, crave the intrusion that comes with public profile. In a lengthy interview with Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, he said that he couldn’t even identify the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who has a negligible profile in comparison with that of Steve Jobs’ high-profile successor. Exxon Mobil is number two in the Fortune 500. Would you suggest that the lack of a social media presence is impeding Rex Tillerson from doing his job effectively? Hardly. For some CEOs in some sectors, being in the public eye will be beneficial. For others, it’s counter-productive. There are plenty of CEOs who choose to be online, and visibly so. Others will shun it, personally, and yet run companies which have an effective and useful social media presence, and whose business development teams roll it into their research and outreach programmes.

Holmes again:

Without a push from the top, many of the biggest companies have been slow to take the social media plunge.

McKinsey again suggests otherwise. Their report showed 62% of Fortune 500 companies as active on Twitter. In fact, the same report says that only 31% of the Fortune 500 had no social media presence in 2011. In contrast to the perception, it’s the world of small business that is lagging behind. Only 31% of America’s SMEs were on social media in 2011.

One thing that Holmes, CEO.com and McKinsey agree on is the value of social media to large companies. Ditching email in favour of social internal comms networks like Yammer, mining social media for data, customer insights , sales routes and feedback can deliver directly to the bottom line. Nielsen know it’s valuable. Harvard know it’s a source of competitive intelligence. The McKinsey report is a chunky one (160 pages before you hit the bibliography), and it’s worth reading in full. It avoids the pom-pom hyperbole and superficiality of many pseudo-surveys which offer paltry insight and serve as attention-getting PR cannon-fodder.

Of course, if as a CEO you’ve frittered away the time you’d spend reading an insightful report updating your status on social media, you can just read the executive summary.

Before signing off, here’s a real-world example of how having the fop floor office fully connected to the outside world is a double-edged sword. Dan Cobley, MD of Google in the UK & Ireland, racked up 411 comments on one post on his Google+ profile over the botched delivery of Google’s Nexus4 phone. It’s an example of how customers were able to give direct (and vehement) feedback directly to the top tier of management, but also an insight into how distracting that direct connection could be.  Is it the MD’s job to be dealing with customer dispatch gripes? Answers on a tweet.

Karibu Kibera

 

Before going any further, the word Karibu means ‘welcome’ in Kiswahili, and it’s one you’re likely to hear on a regular basis here.

This post issues after a flying visit to Nairobi, where I arrived on Friday after a long journey from Dublin with delays at both ends. In Amsterdam our engines wouldn’t start. In Nairobi, the visa queue moved with all the urgency of cold honey. Thereafter, things picked up pace. Less than twelve hours after stepping off the plane, I was in Kibera meeting with the Kibera News Network team. KNN film news in Kibera as it happens, videoing the footage on small Flip cameras and uploading their edited clips to Youtube. They’re often the first on the scene, and get some great interviews from major events that would otherwise go unnoticed. They deserve more attention than they get.

The KNN team came to my attention through Map Kibera, one of the projects I’ll be examining in detail as part of a project funded by a Simon Cumbers Grant. ‘What you measure, you’re more likely to improve’, an athlete once told me. Map Kibera has helped civilian teams measure every inch of the Kibera slum, mapping resources, sanitation facilities, black spots for crime and everything in between, quite literally putting Kibera on the map. Go to Google Maps, and Kibera’s a blank, just as it is on Kenyan government maps. It is a vast nebula of humanity, hunkered under a wavy canopy of rusting tin rooves and a hum of commerce, music and motorized mayhem. Nebulous things are hard to map, or so the excuses run.

We spent yesterday talking to several Kiberan residents about some aspects of their lives in the city. I passed on what little filming and photographic skills I had to help them with their interviews, and together we set about putting together some material for an upcoming project of theirs. I also introduced them to two Kodak zi8 cameras donated by the good folks at Storyful, which they’ll add to their arsenal.

There was a group of eleven of us tramping around Kibera at times, so I won’t name everyone, but the KNN team was hugely hospitable. They were fun, welcoming, and rightly proud of their home town and the people within it.

Kibera, for its troubles, fulfils many of the slum sterotypes. The houses are small, dark and close together. The roads are muddy. The sewers run as trenches in the middle of alleyways, shallow and fast in some spots, deep and fetid in others. It’s not a nice way to live at times, and the KNN guys, all Kibera residents, acknowledged the problems their home faces. Their whole raison d’etre is to draw attention to the highs and lows of Kibera life in the hope that the good stuff will be recognised and the bad stuff rectified.

Highlight of the day was meeting a man called Mike Aziz. Mike was a KNN interviewee in a story produced by Joshua on a fire in the area. I recognised Mike and we bumped into him at one point when the KNN guys were filming some material on that topic. He was gobsmacked (as were the KNN crew) that I knew his face from an online video, and we interviewed him in English for the piece.

On to Mombasa, where I’m currently visiting Komaza, a sustainable forestry NGO based in Kilifi. I visited Kilifi in 2003, and plenty has changed. More on that, Map Kibera and the rest a little later.

Editors/producers interested in contacting Markham for material from Kenya & Tanzania, please email Markham (dot) Nolan (at) gmail (dot) com or call +254-732-580-147.