While problems with Internet access and media literacy still plague Uganda, developments such as falling costs and innovative citizen reporter programs are helping more people take part in and benefit from digital life.
From Miriam Ohlsen’s desk in Kampala where she works as Deutsche Welle Akademie’s country representative in Uganda, she keeps an eye on the various projects and activities carried out with partner organizations around the country. In an interview with the #speakup barometer team she talks about her take on digital participation in Uganda.
How would you judge the status of digital participation in Uganda?
Miriam Ohlsen: Internet access in Uganda has steadilyincreased in recent years, giving people more ways to get online and participate in digital life. This is partly because mobile network providers have expanded their services to remote areas. At the same time, the cost of using the Internet has gone down.
Affordable smartphones from China have flooded the Ugandan market. Mobile network providers are have lowered their prices for Internet packages in the last few years. For example, mobile provider MTN charges 1000 UGX (around 20 euro cents) for 100 MB of data. However, this is still expensive for many Ugandans, 27 percent of the population lives under the poverty line of $1.25 per day.
The younger generation living in cities, where a growing middle and upper class is willing to pay for so-called “Data Bundles” can connect and communicate on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
Where is the greatest potential?
In a 2014 media usage study by the DW Akademie, young Ugandans complained that traditional media was not providing them with enough information relevant to their lives. The music, sports and lifestyle stories on offer in newspapers, radio and TV weren’t meeting their communication and information needs, the study found.
Uganda is the second-youngest country in the world after Niger; around 75 percent of the population is under the age of 30. These young people are eager to actively shape their futures and are often working in the informal sector, but an official youth unemployment rate of around 80 percent, the threat of looming poverty and a bleak outlook on the future are ominous problems.
Young people want information that can help them shape their lives, the DW Akademie study found. They want a place where they can discuss issues such as employment and education, connect with each other and develop and implement ideas together.
The Internet also allows for direct dialogue between decision-makers and the population. Putting important information online also makes public processes more transparent.
Digital media is opening up new fields of employment. App developers, onf
ctech entrepreneurs and digital trainers are increasingly in demand, such as organizations like The Outbox, the Design Hub or HiveColab in Kampala.
What are the biggest obstacles?
There isn’t a single answer to this, it depends on where you are. There is a big gap between the country and the city in Uganda, and depending where you live, the challenges look different. In rural areas, the biggest issue is simply accessing the Internet. Even though there is a lot being done to improve infrastructure, it hasn’t happened everywhere. The Internet also remains a luxury that many Ugandans cannot afford.
The situation is different in the cities. More people have Internet access there and have the technical ability to participate in digital spaces. However, regardless of where you are, there is a significant lack of fundamental media competence. This is especially the case when it comes to critically examining information, producing content and protecting individual data online. It starts with young people sharing their private lives on Facebook. They can also easily become victims of fraud because they are not cautious enough in their online activities and with their information.
Hate speech and fake news pose another big problem. Most Ugandans’ Internet use is limited to social networks. The full potential of the Internet as an educational and participatory medium is not being realized. Political decision-makers also play into this dynamic, and they can have big reservations against digital media. Engaging in direct dialogue with citizens or providing information to the public – either on or offline – is often considered more of a threat than a good thing.
And of course, for the Internet to make a difference, citizens must be media literate. They must know how to access and use these new tools in an effective, safe and responsible way.
What are some examples of innovative projects in the field of digital media?
Using a combination of traditional and digital media, the DW Akademie in Uganda is working on creating opportunities for information access and participation among young people between 13 and 24 years old. This is well illustrated by a citizen reporter project, conducted in cooperation with our partner, Centre for Media Literacy and Community Development (CEMCOD) und Uganda Radio Network (URN).
Nicholas Barigye is 22 years old and lives in Nansana, a small town close to Kampala, where he is training to be a plumber. He is also one of 277 citizen reporters in 10 districts that have been selected and trained by CEMCOD and URN. Using his mobile phone, Nicholas shares information about his community with the local radio station, Radio Simba FM 97.3 in Kampala. He calls a free hotline at the radio station or writes a text message. A software developed for this at the radio station saves Nicholas’ reports, along with his name and phone number. Journalists at Radio Simba can access the reports and get in touch with Nicholas to verify the information, develop the reports further and use them in programming.
Nicholas' work focuses on daily events in Nansana and many of his reports look at public service delivery. Some of the issues he has researched have sparked debate and even led to positive changes. For example, he reported on a single mother who had to obtain a private loan of 200,000 UGX (40 euros) to pay for school for her five children. After she was late on a repayment, a group of men stormed the small restaurant she runs in Kampala and threatened to seize all of her possessions. Nicholas filmed this incident, which caused the men to stop what they were doing. They offered to give Betty more time to get the money, which she was then able to do.
Radio Simba reported on the incident, which led to a discussion about the shady practices of private lenders. The Ugandan district government shut down ten private lenders in response and is now examining the whole private loan sector much more closely.
Dick Nvule, deputy news editor und mentor for community reporters at Radio Simba, is very enthusiastic about the project.“Our programming has improved as a result of the stories reported by community members and the station has increased its outreach in terms of listeners and content,” he said. “We’ve seen officials address problems such as bad roads, poor drainage systems, water scarcity, inadequate police services in some areas, and poor health facilities, among others.”
As a citizen reporter at Radio Simba, Nicholas gives a voice to people who had formerly been shut out of the public debate. He has earned recognition in his community because his reports have led to positive change. “I am youth leader in my home zone," said Nicholas. "The reason I’m proud to be a community reporter is that I’m no longer looked at as a useless young person but am involved in decision-making in my community.”