On 2 African innovation challenges – in news and architecture

You almost need a crisis where there’s real pain in a marketplace, for people to go out and invent something to solve it. Justin Arenstein of Anic

African Innovation Challenge in News

It’s called the African News Innovation Challenge (Anic), and it has $1-million to award in start-up grants by the end of this year. Anic, which was announced in October 2011, and had its soft launch last December, will formally launch this month.

Anic’s project manager Justin Arenstein says about encouraging journalists to innovate, “One of the ways that’s worked internationally is to dangle a very big carrot in front of them. It actually only took us two-and-a-half months to raise a million dollars.”

Initially the Omidyar Network (ON) put up $500,000 for the project. Established in 2004 by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, this organization invests in and helps scale innovative organizations to catalyze economic and social change.  One of ON’s beneficiaries is Kenya’s Ushahidi.

Anic will work like this: at the formal launch this month, Anic’s advisory council and judging panel will be announced. Arenstein says these two bodies already include people from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), and Google.

In February, a call for entries will go out. “We envision a two- to three-month window period, during which people will post their idea on a public forum, and we’ll casually invite the rest of the industry to help refine that idea,” says Arenstein.

Winners will be announced in the third quarter of 2012, and then the hard work really begins. “We’ve tried to learn from what people have done in the US and Europe and elsewhere,” says Arenstein. “We’ve looked at the innovation funds that seem to have had an impact, like the Knight News Challenge. They’ve learnt from what works best, and what doesn’t work best.”

Money given to Anic awardees will be released in tranches, with each project receiving between $12,500 to $100,000 depending on its scope. With the backing of the African Media Initiative, the Omidyar Network, the International Centre for Journalists, Google, the Knight Foundation, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the US Department of State, and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers – all of whom are contributing either funding or expertise – the African News Innovation Challenge has already garnered high-level support. Now it’s up to the journalists and media workers of Africa to meet the challenge.

Justin Arenstein

And they have a good example to follow, the one set by the Anic’s project manager himself. Justin Arenstein is a multi-award winning investigative journalist based in South Africa but also working in Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland. He is currently holding a position of consultant on Google’s media engagement and content development in Africa, including strategies for journalistic toolkits and digital journalism experiments, data journalism projects, and digital migration. He is also a Vice President for the Jo’burg-based Association of Independent Publishers, Southern Africa’s largest umbrella association for independent grassroots newspapers, magazines, and ‘alternative’ print media.

One of his previous activities was rapid response consultant on digital strategies, media sustainability, mobile media and investigative journalism for ICFJ teams deployed into Sub-Saharan Africa.

Arenstein also worked as the publisher of HomeGrown Magazines, a pioneering South African publishing house that produces a network of lifestyle, business and tourism titles in some of the nation’s most rural provinces.

Specialising in government corruption, Arenstein heads the region’s only investigative pan-African news agency, African Eye News Service (AENS). The service currently reaches an estimated 1,5 million readers per day through its Audited Bureau of Circulation (ABC) accredited clients in South African, as well as extensive international Internet readership, and smaller readerships in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Tanzania.

Arenstein is also the Africa member for a loose consortium of international investigative reporters, and spearheaded its most successful trans-national investigation yet tracking a suspected chemical weapon dealer and fraudster from Israel, to Switzerland, South Africa, New York and finally to his Las Vegas hideout, where US Marshals arrested him based on press reports. The dealer, Moshe Regev/ Regenstreich, has been extradiated to Switzerland where he has been sentenced to 11yrs jail.

Arenstein’s earlier work sent a South African senator to jail on child rape charges, got five provincial cabinet members axed for corruption, Mpumalanga’s legislature speaker and deputy speaker jailed on fraud charges, a provincial wildlife parastatal CEO and senior political party officials arrested on corruption charges, blew the lid on a national fraudulent vehicle licence syndicate, uncovered a fraudulent government consultancy scam and resulted in criminal charges against a range of senior government and political party officials.

Arenstein’s reports also prevented three separate illegal deals that sought to secretly alienate public assets worth US$9,2 billion.

African Innovation Challenge in Architecture

Further north of Southern Africa, there is currently only one higher-level architecture school  in the whole of Francophone Africa. Located in Togo – Ecole africaine des métiers de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme (Eamau) in Lomé – is a small African school with thousands of African problems.

In 2004, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme began restoring the Great Mosque in Mopti, Mali. The restoration expanded to include sanitation, street paving, healthcare and other measures in the neighbouring Komoguel district. Since 2006, the Programme has extended its work to Timbuktu, where it has restored the Djingarey Ber mosque (See SinS article The Festival in the Desert by Intagrist El Ansari to learn more about Timbuktu). But this is a grain of sand in the vast desert of rapid African urbanization facing local architects.

Francis Kéré, an African architecture guru, is convinced that sustainable architecture is the future for AfricaBorn in a remote village outside Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, Kéré has come a long way. He founded an architectural practice in Berlin, has become a sought-after international lecturer and has won a series of awards. Kéré is a holder of the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Regional Holcim Award 2011 Africa Middle East (an international competition for projects in sustainable construction). And for some Africans he has become a hero of sorts, not merely “making it” in Europe, but actually choosing to invest in African people. 

Opera in the African savannah

He is currently developing an opera village in Laongo, about an hour away from Ouagadougou, known as Operndorf Afrika or the “Remdoogo”, designed by the late German film and theater director and artist Christoph Schlingensief.

“This is an absurd but also highly interesting work, because it is a “plastic” social creation,” explains the architect. Never meant to be an opera in the European sense, the creative space in Burkina Faso is envisaged to provide stage for African performance and embrace various forms of creative expression including a film school, a theatre school and a recording studio.

Are there currently in the country the kind of professionals who will cater for the needs and requirements of such a space? According to Kéré, “Burkina Faso is a major center for African film production. Think for example of FESPACO, the biannual Pan-African Film & Television festival which is No.1 in Africa or the theatrical production of Ouagadougou. In recent years a major music festival has been developed as well. So I believe that the required specialists are indeed available.”

Chinese trends in African architecture

In the past Europe used to be the prototype for development in Africa, today it is China. Africans travel to China to buy cheap building material and they observe how the Chinese construct their buildings. Europeans invest much more time and thought in determining whether Africans need this kind of relationship. But in this they forget how impatient Africans are. Africans want speed and efficiency, they want to see results fast. This “gap” has come to be filled by the Chinese. (See SinS video We understand pictures. A Chinese in Zimbabwe)

Sustainable architecture

Francis Kéré’s Regional Holcim award-winning project – Secondary school with passive ventilation system, Gando, Burkina Faso.

Preoccupations against sustainable architecture are still strong. Many people regard building with clay as non-innovative. Soil or clay is still regarded as the “poor people’s” material.

In my own work I use clay in a way that produces a solid and long-lasting result but governments are still hard to convince. People have to recognize the upsides themselves and pressure officials for an expansion of such projects. But at the same time one can’t just wait for governments to be “forced” into sustainability either. This is where private institutions come into play, institutions that will support and promote this kind of work. Unfortunately, though, I haven’t seen any of them yet! I wonder where those major foundations with their recognizable names are, Bill Gates foundations etc.

Donor challenge

The inauguration of the school in the OPERNDORF AFRIKA. Like the secondary school in Gando, it has a double roof with a vaulted ceiling and airy windows, which brings down the external temperature of up to 40 degrees Celsius in the shade to about 25 degrees inside the school in a natural way – and this without the aid of electricity. The school aims to take on 50 local children each year, offering classes in film, art and music.

The impression this situation leaves you with is that nobody is interested in trusting Africans with their own development. The inclination is for dependency to be perpetuated. Perhaps this is related to the fact that organizations which “make a living” out of development projects in Africa, fear that once Africa grows stronger they themselves will grow redundant.  They claim to wanting to help, but how can they ever help when they repeatedly avoid teaching people to help themselves?

In my ten years on all my projects combined I have not spent more than 200, 000 euros. Yet every single one of them has proven award-winning and has been praised internationally. Were you to visit any of them, you would be impressed by their functionality. And still, no big organization has ever approached me to work with me. I have no idea what they’re waiting for.


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