Plans for an online encyclopedia of African traditions and culture were announced recently. The project, which has been dubbed the "Africa's Wikipedia" has potential, but still faces a lot of challenges.
The African Traditions Electronic Encyclopedia (ATEE) has been dubbed "Africa's Wikipedia." The project, which aims to be a database of African traditions and culture, was announced at a conference on e-learning in Kampala, Uganda. If getting an interview with the ATEE's initiator, businessman Gaston Donnat Bappa, is anything to go by, launching Africa's online encyclopedia could prove daunting.
Bappa lives in a village. And the closest location for him to access the Internet is some 20 kilometers away - at a "telecenter" set up by the Cameroonian government. Like much of rural Africa, there is no electricity in Bappa's village, and there are no phone lines. But Bappa is optimistic.
"Africa is the main continent on which this century will be focused in terms of development and the economy," he says. "Anyone who has sense is going to invest in Africa."
Information is there
Munya Chiura, a partner and consultant at RTS Global believes that an "Africa Wikipedia" can work in some countries: he points to South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Tunisia for their Internet penetration rates, Nigeria for its vast population, and Rwanda and Botswana because they are progressive in their approach to technology.
Several Africans in various countries have turned to the Web to set up blogs and pages discussing their culture and traditions: blogs like Zimbokitchen, One Nigerian Boy for fashion, and Zedhair are some of the many online pages that catalog African traditions and how they are evolving today. But a one-stop site for information on African traditions and culture is missing.
"There is a need for a resource where you can get information on all the various cultures within Africa," says Chiura who also helped set up a tech hub in Harare last year.
Any online African encyclopedia would also have to draw on some of these sites to provide comprehensive information.
"It's a rather monumental task to try and have a website (encyclopedia) that deals with that because it's a lot of content, and we do have our differences - even in the way we prepare food within Africa, so I think it needs to be very specific," says Chiura.
Partnering with mobile operators could allow the initiative to gain traction, or as a government initiative or some larger initiative, he added.
Internet giants could help
Bappa plans to have contributors from different countries provide content, and he is working on getting major sponsors on board, including the Microsoft Foundation, Wikipedia and the Cameroonian government. He believes they can play a crucial role in setting up the infrastructure required for the African encyclopedia.
Internet giants Google and Facebook, along with Microsoft, have all announced plans to help improve Internet access in Africa - most of the projects focus on getting Internet access to schools and universities.
Last year, Facebook announced Internet.org - a joint venture with mobile phone companies, with the aim of bringing affordable Internet access. The project aims to go beyond Facebook Zero, which aims to make a stripped down verson of the platform available via certain mobile operators in certain countries to allow them to access Facebook without using up their data volume.
At some universities in Ghana, SpectraWireless has launched a broadband network that uses TV White Space. It is one of the initiatives funded by Microsoft's 4Afrika Initiative, which aims to increase access to technology.
Cultural shift needed
But any success of such a system will also need a shift in African societies.
"I think it needs more of a maturity and education," says Chiura. "As people get more accustomed to the idea of crowdsourcing, I think it will be much more heavily used. And I also think that when we look at it in the context of Africa, people are more concerned about the day to day challenges that they have."
He believes the African diaspora can also play a role in creating content and using it because of their interest in their own culture and traditions.