Making your research accessible

Q&A: Kudzai Makombe on Social Media (Regional Director, IPS Africa)

By 8 July 2014

Here at Research to Action, we love to gather new opinions and insights into approaches to research communication and uptake. This week, I was fortunate enough to quiz the Regional Director of the Inter-Press Service (IPS) Africa, Kudzai Makombe, on her thoughts about the rise of social media and the smartphone across the continent.

Kudzai has worked in the development sector for 19 years as a development communicator. Her other roles include Consultant Gender Advisor at SADC Parliamentary Forum and Communications Specialist at UNIFEM Zimbabwe Project Office.  Here’s what she had to say…

1. Could you please give us a brief background on the roles you currently hold and  have held at IPS, SADC and UNIFEM?

I have always worked as a development communicator and, whether I’m dealing with gender, environment, media or whatever, I describe myself as a development communicator….At UNIFEM (now UN Women), I communicated gender equality and women’s rights to policy makers by acting as a sort of “interpretor” between women’s rights organisations and their constituents on how policy affects their status and plight and the policy and changes they would like to see.

At the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF), I used similar methods and knowledge to enhance women parliamentarians’ and political parties’ capacities to potentially change the status quo through influencing and realising legislative changes. A large part of this was building the confidence of women MPs to question and challenge on gender issues and women’s rights that are part of their own lived realities but which they may not have been able to articulate in language framed for parliamentary debate.

Inter Press Service (IPS) is a development news agency that has been around for 50 years this year. In Africa we work with an ever expanding and contracting pool of stringers across the continent to develop their capacity to report on development issues from an African perspective.

2. What’s your favourite social media tool, and why?

I’ve been a late developer on social media and up to now I’m not so up-to-date. A part of this is my private nature. I am a human being and have difficulty merging the me that is a communicator by day and a private individual by night (night and day being relative terms). So, while I’m confident in coming up to people directly in person and asking them difficult questions and translating the responses for wider audiences, I’m not necessarily confident about floating my own opinions to the general (and unknown) public. Is this a confidence concern? I hope I’m not alone and many people relate to this.

I admire those people who are free and able to voice their opinions widely and are happy to let the world know what they think without pausing to consider and reflect and second guess themselves for days afterwards (then deleting tweets and facebook posts on further consideration). I need to think and reflect about what I feel and believe on a subject before sharing my thoughts, so social media is challenging for me.

My favourite social media tool is WhatsApp because I can create my own specific groups, my favourite being family. My family is spread all over the world and is a veritable United Nations. So, for example, during the Fifa World Cup, we can watch the same game and comment, celebrate, commiserate, mock each other’s choices and be viciously competitive and petty in real time without switching on our computers — only relying on our trusted smartphones always nearby and charged. I love it because even my mom and dad who are in their 70s can join in and family events can be celebrated across the globe with photos, voice and video. I’ve encouraged them to get smartphones and we are communicating every day through WhatsApp in a way we never could before.

In Africa, the smartphone is the way forward and the availability of affordable models is making it possible for most to communicate fast in multimedia.

3. You managed the external facing communications at UNIFEM – was there a heavy emphasis on social media at the time and has this changed in the last six years?

We are talking only six to seven years ago. The technology has changed so fast and so significantly its hard to describe. At that time our primary tool was listserves (does anybody know what that is?). I dont want to see a long email newsletter drop in my in-box. Now we’ve got HTML newsletters where you have a brief abstract with an engaging image and a link to the rest of the story if you want to read it. And plenty of tools like Paper.li that let you create and edit these in an instant. What a joy!

4. What’s the biggest barrier to social media use: language or accessibility?

It’s neither. The great thing about social media is that it’s accessible to so many more people. The lowest income people can access social media. In Africa the cellphone providers are constantly innovating methods so anyone can access Facebook, Twitter or instant messaging even on phones that are not smartphones. There is an incredible amount of innovation going on on this continent. Check it out. Smartphones are also coming in at more affordable prices on the continent and where I get my hair done the hairdressers are all using phablets (phones that are tablets) and are way ahead of me. Language is no issue! Zimbabweans are pushing FB posts in Shona and Ndebele, Nigerians in their own languages and dialects. South Africa — how many different languages. People are communicating as they are meant to — in the language they best express themselves in and on the subjects that matter the most to them. Feel left out? The Google translate people just have to work harder. But maybe its also about keeping the conversations amongst yourselves without the interfering static background noise.

5. What social media platforms are most popular in Africa now? How do you see this changing in the future and why?

SMS and Facebook were wildly popular and still are. WhatsApp is growing in popularity. You only need to have a smartphone and you can be in the loop. Unfortunately the developers make it increasingly difficult by demanding updates that require more advanced operating systems (read expensive latest smartphones) and more memory for you to update these apps at the expense of others. The first thing people ask when they get your cellphone number is: “Are you on WhatsApp?”. WhatsApp is so useful if you can get data on your phone (and in most countries you can) and/or you can access Wifi. Best part is that if you’re no use or interest to me I can block you easy peasy, especially if you are using up my data with your pointless “Hie” (Sic) messages…

6. How smartly do journalists in Africa use Twitter as a story sourcing tool?

We’re still learning how to use Twitter to identify story ideas and sources and to tell the short and long story. The better we get at this the better our stories will get. But it is still limited because not all the people journalists want to talk to are on Twitter. Data mapping tools that allow us to track where comments are coming from are phenomenal however, allowing us to map where who is saying what is (if this makes sense). We need to make greater use of this to track the reach of stories, issues and opinion on topics so as Africans we can begin to see the interconnections and differences and share ideas and opinions. I’d love to see an automatic geographic mapping tool developed by a young African innovator in the next innovation round. If it already exists please let me know.

7. You have worked a lot with researchers making academic documents accessible to a range of audiences. What role should social media play in this process?

Here, social media is only as useful as it tells the story in short story format. Lots of people are into data visualisation but only a few are able to tell a story using data visualisation meaningfully.  It looks pretty at first glance but lately I’m seeing data stories or infographics that I’m scratching my head to translate the meaning of. My favorite, which never fails to elicit debate and comment is “information is beautiful” detailing where the rich world’s spending priorities are. We still have a lot of work to do in telling the story simply, visually. This was a jaw dropper for me. Other great examples include the Praekelt Foundations data stories. Check them out.

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG/FreeDigitalPhotos.net