This social media guide aims at promoting African knowledge (in particular about climate change adaptation).
This part of the guide is concerned with explaining what it means, practically, to promote African knowledge about climate change adaptation

What does 'promoting African knowledge' mean in theory?

Whose knowledge about Africa?

In his paper 'Which knowledge, whose reality' (2006), Mike Powell makes a strong claim about the tendency of many development agencies to promote development from a Northern perspective, particularly through "imposed standard methodologies for planning and reporting programme work on their Southern ‘partners’" (Powell, 2006, p.9). The author goes on quoting the book of Wallace et al.'s "The Aid Chain: Commitment and Coercion in Development NGOs" (2006) and the bias towards "valuing and favouring systems that are developed in the north, with their accompanying detailed explanations, models and practices over the local knowledge, concepts, language and understanding of civil society and staff in the south."

These claims were true of global development work in 2006. They remain valid of African development in 2012. Development work and research represents a large budget yet a lot of that budget is sourced through overseas development aid provided by bilateral and multilateral funding agencies. The stronghold of these agencies on the 'rules of development work' tends indeed to impose a strong bias - which is little explored or questioned - towards ideas, perspectives, operating modes, procedures and even evidence bases (upon which to take decisions).

However, it seems obvious that development, if meant to lead to long-term results, needs to focus on empowering actors and stimulating their ownership over development efforts. Development (and research for development) investments and activities subsequently cannot be disconnected from the realities, expectations, capacities and actions of the people that are intended as the main recipients of development (cooperation). Otherwise, those efforts lead to disempowerment and un-freedom. Following Amartya Sen's conception of 'development as freedom' (1999), all individuals are endowed with a certain set of capabilities while it is simply a matter of realising these capabilities that will allow a person to escape from poverty and their state of 'unfreedom'. Sen questions a fundamental assumption of development economics, arguing that income poverty should not be the single most important factor in determining development. Sen argues that in spite of a world of sheer abundance, there simultaneously exist populations living in a state of 'unfreedom', unable to realise their capabilities.

In an interview he provided to the Knowledge Management for Development Journal, Professor Kingo Mchombu (University of Namibia, Department of Information and Communication Studies) shared his opinion as to why African knowledge is not more central stage: "the first (reason) is the focus on information transfer activities without monitoring and evaluating how effective the information disseminated has been. In most cases, the information needs of the urban and rural poor are seldom taken into account when they are supplied with information to solve their problem of poverty. The assumption being that they know very little and that is why they are poor, thus the knowledge system of the urban and rural poor is totally ignored when supplying them with external information. Indeed often their very way of life and culture are held responsible for the lack of development."
Professor Mchombu further argues that (poor) African people already have an information and knowledge system and that any initiative pretending to support them should "identify gaps and ways of strengthening the information and knowledge system that poor people already have in place rather than try to replace it with an externally driven system."

This alternative perspective of development, applied to Africa, means that any initiative that is about Africa or for Africa but does not develop the capabilities of Africans themselves - preferably according to their own terms - is not promoting African knowledge, and as a result is likely not leading to long-term benefits and results for Africa and Africans. Promoting African knowledge can happen with a few practical safeguards, which relate to the meaning of considering social learning seriously.

Social learning in Africa - old wine in a new bottle?

What is social learning?
Social learningis not new; in fact it is one of the most ancient forms of human interactions. It relates to learning in groupings of people that transcend individuals and small groups. One of the key references for it is from M. Reed (2010). More recently, influential bloggers (in the field of knowledge management and social change) such as Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, Jay Cross and others have been conceptualizing social learning in the workplace. At any rate, these authors and thinkers attribute the following characteristics to social learning:
  • It concerns the concept of social learning itself and the conditions that favor its emergence such as interactions, critical thinking etc.;
  • It qualifies indeed as social learning only if it happens within a wider social unit than individuals such as communities or entire societies;
  • It occurs through social interactions between people such as conversations - whether online, on the telephone and other mass media or face-to-face;
  • It brings about change in the individuals involved, either a change of perspective, discourse or attitude/behavior;

While the social media revolution has incredibly amplified the potential for social learning through increasing spaces for conversations between ever larger numbers of people, much social learning was taking place before the social media made it compelling to talk about 'social learning' again. Social learning has been the basis of apprenticeship models (between a master and his apprentice(s)) and of exploratory group conversations (e.g. to respond to external challenges such as invasions, food security issues) and it has powered many group interactions, although that was not always the intention.

A (not so) new imperative for social learning?
The necessity, at work, to become ever more productive, competitive and innovative (in the corporate sector) and to become ever more relevant, efficient and effective (in the public sector and in civil society) in the face of complex issues has pushed forward participatory methods to bring people together and increasingly to stimulate their capacity to work and learn together. In development work and research also, social learning has thus become more important and has expressed itself in various ways - even before the social media wave:
  • Traditional conflict-resolution mechanisms based on exploratory conversations;
  • Multi-stakeholder processes involving a wide range of actors and disciplines to develop a better understanding of complex issues and 'wicked problems' and come up with a bigger pool of competencies and experiences to deal with them;
  • Conversations, workshops and meetings that aim at challenging thinking and transforming participants;
  • Use of drama, games and theater that have a similar aim;
  • Action-research initiatives where a regular cycle of discoveries is reflected upon and informs the theory of action (and further research);
  • Mentoring and apprenticeship models;
  • Exchange visits and study tours between communities of groups focusing on the same issue but at different levels of maturity in their initiative;

In Africa
In Africa too, social learning has taken various forms, since the dawn of humanity. Storytelling is an important feature of social learning and it has a very solid tradition in Africa, the continent of 'griots' (West African saga storytellers). Storytelling relies on face-to-face or at least verbal/aural interaction and it has been at the centre of many expressions of collective action in Africa: conversations under the palaver tree, apprenticeship models, rain-making ceremonies questioning the late advent of rainfall etc. The more modern (and work-oriented) forms of social learning have also permeated Africa and most of them are in use. Radio has allowed social learning at a wide scale for a number of years and, more recently, the incredible growth of African mobile telephony are developing further opportunities for social learning on the continent, to the extent that some African Universities are also embarking on the social learning bandwagon, such as Rhodes University and its programme on social learning and global change.

Naturally, the advent of online social media has exponentially multiplied the potential for social learning, by bringing down barriers of time and space to get in touch with other people around the globe. In Africa too, in spite of a weaker online presence, there is much interaction online through social media, not least through mobile phones.

There still are many barriers to sharing (and promoting) African knowledge, as noted by Professor Mchombu (2006): fostering a culture of knowledge sharing among community members by overcoming information hoarding tendencies (with people still living according to the proverbial "knowledge is power"; not knowing what it knows (it is not rare to undervalue the vast resources of knowledge among community members); retraining agencies which support African communities to accept participatory, two-way communication approaches; the shortage of local content which matches the needs of the rural and urban poor, local languages and, of course, problems of connectivity; blending information and communication technologies with existing information and knowledge sharing system so that they are not imposed by external agencies and simply perpetuate exclusion and powerlessness.

What does 'promoting African knowledge' mean in practice?

The dominant framework of development is Northern-biased. This situation may take a long time before it is reversed in favour of recipient countries such as African countries. The ideal picture of an initiative authentically promoting African knowledge may thus not be the norm. Changing behaviour might take a long while, but taking small steps can already help to revert the imbalance in development.

Any initiative that pretends to genuinely promote African knowledge should therefore at least consider the following questions, if not act upon them:
  • Who is launching the initiative with whom?
  • Who has been consulted or is involved in taking decisions about the initiative?
  • What source of knowledge is considered highly in those decisions?
  • What evidence base is considered to take those decisions?
  • What language is used or what languages are allowed to work around the initiative?
  • What processes, tools and approaches have been chosen for the initiative, on what criteria and assumptions?
  • How comfortable are the initiative proponents, partners and intended beneficiaries with the processes, tools and approaches?
  • Is there room, for the people involved, to review and adapt the course of the initiative and to take progressive ownership?

These questions are not uniquely targeted at Africa and Africans. They also relate to the various stages of the knowledge cycle that was briefly evoked in the introductionand will be explained in more details in the next sub-section on 'Social media to promote African knowledge, along the knowledge cycle'. Promoting African knowledge indeed can be done in various ways at various junctions and each stage of the cycle adds one piece to support the promotion of African knowledge:
  1. Exploring effective African needs;
  2. Identifying African knowledge and expertise available;
  3. Developing African knowledge (not knowledge about Africa);
  4. Sharing and disseminating African knowledge;
  5. Putting African knowledge to practice;
  6. Evaluating or assessing African knowledge (and putting it back to exploring new needs)

Social media play a crucial part in this knowledge cycle picture, yet lessons learnt from the past teach us to not "throw the baby with the bathwater". Online social media are incredibly powerful and are showing that social learning is a solid engine for innovation and collective action. However social media also have their limitations and can better be implemented together with other 'more traditional' social learning approaches as highlighted above.

We can conclude that effectively promoting African knowledge can work by paying attention to the questions above and by letting Africans themselves take the reins of their own knowledge and how they wish to share it. Social media can play a very useful role here but should ideally rely on existing African practices and preferences (also for other tools and approaches), while keeping the idea of embracing the unknown change that social media bring forward (and thereby challenge established norms and traditions).

[1] Reed, M. S., A. C. Evely, G. Cundill, I. Fazey, J. Glass, A. Laing, J. Newig, B. Parrish, C. Prell, C. Raymond and L. C. Stringer. 2010. What is Social Learning?. Ecology and Society 15 (4): r1. [online] URL: