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Kenya, M-PESA and Independent Media

by Nancy Scola

The stories coming out of Kenya since last month's disputed presidential election have been upsetting ones, pitting the young and ignored against both an aging political class and an establishment press that kowtows to the urban elite. One bright spot? In the midst of the turmoil, Kenya's media activists are using cutting-edge mobile technologies to give voice to the voiceless. They're aiming to prove to their compatriots that an "alternative press" can challenge the politics that insists upon keeping many Kenyans unheard.

John Bwakali is both the director of Kenya IndyMedia and a friend of a friend. Using email and IM, John and I have been chewing over the new ways that Kenyans are consuming and creating news. First, the context. Just after post-election violence erupted, the President Mwai Kibaki's contested government ordered a halt on all live TV and radio broadcasts. From many Kenyans, tapping the Internet for the latest was no real option. Home Internet access in Kenya is often either wishful thinking or prohibitively expensive -- about $150/month in a country where per capita income is less than twice that.

What happened is that Kenyans from Eldoret to Mombasa turned en masse to communicating via SMS -- what you might more often call text messaging. What John calls the "cell phone revolution" of recent years has left few people more than a step or two removed from a mobile; either they own one themselves or can make use of that of a relative or friend. While making mobile calls is still pricey, texting costs just a few cents. And so we find that Kenya's news is today "circulating mainly by means of SMS messages," as Reporters Without Borders has reported.

One way to think about the cell phones and experienced thumbs scattered around Kenya is as a distributed information network laying in wait for just such a moment. Ethan Zuckerman has written brilliantly on how cell phones can be powerful tools for social activism. Just one example Ethan cites: when not tied to monthly service plans, mobiles are often usefully anonymous. Such pay-as-you-go plans are popular in Kenya. As John told me, "Post-paid is mainly for the rich. The masses use … pre-paid."

But a downside of pre-paid service revealed itself when Kenya's troubles made even leaving the house risky. Pre-payers found themselves unable to get to the shops to buy replenishment cards. Luckily for them, Kenya is home to an impressive cutting-edge mobile tool: M-PESA, the world's only system for sending both minutes and money via SMS. (The "m" stands for mobile. Pesa is Swahili for money.) Airtime minutes automatically load onto the phone of their recipient. The cash is collected from one of the many M-PESA shops dotting the country.

John Bwakali and his fellow activists are doing something with M-PESA that's both simple and clever. Here's how it works. In partnership with an Illinois IndyMedia branch, Kenya IndyMedia solicits contributions of either cash or airtime minutes from not only within East Africa but from around the globe. Text messages with sufficient minutes attached are sent out to potential interview subjects, who then ring up one of IndyMedia's reporters. With the interview recorded, either John or a fellow activist then trudges over to one of Nairobi's cyber cafes. Paying about $1 an hour for Internet access, they're interviews are posting posted online for all the world to hear. Some of these SMS-enabled recordings have appeared on the Kenya IndyMedia website. Others are now airing on international radio.

There's certainly something to the idea that Kenya's post-election violence was particularly explosive because the country's marginalized many felt completely silenced. As John put it, they thought they had "spoken through their vote." "Now, given the widespread belief that the election's results were rigged, "they feel that there is nothing more to lose, so 'what the heck.'" But what these alternative media activists are doing is making the most of some unusual SMS technology and the occasional Internet hookup to allow those voices to be heard. I'll let John have the last word: "One of the few silver linings that I am seeing in this violence is the huge possibility we now have to unveil alternative media as an … approach that belongs to the masses."

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