Using the internet for data research has become one of the easiest things for to do. Sites like Wikipedia are go-to source of information for many a school project, a quick read in your downtime, or just to quickly look up a specific topic.

But the repository of wealth has a number of challenges brewing below the surface which the millions of daily users aren’t aware of.  One of the biggest issues facing Wikipedia in Africa is that not everyone is even aware that the site exists, and if they do, internet censorship and/or connectivity often hamper fruitful research. That’s why some concerned bods are mooting the idea of alternatives to the online encyclopedia specifically to cater for local needs. On the real Wikipedia, no African language makes it into the list of “50 000 or more articles”. Even made-up language Esperanto does that.

There are more article on Wikipedia in Cornish (native speakers = approximately 500) than Zulu (native speakers = 10 million).

At the first ever Wiki Indaba, held in Johannesburg last weekend, managers and contributors from Wikipedia, Wikimedia and the Wiki Foundation came together to try adn to hash out issues and challenges that impede their growth in their respective countries – and also to seek solutions or brainstorm ideas that could be implemented to drive the portal to more visitors.

Wikimedia chapters are independent organisations founded to support and promote the various Wikimedia projects, but there are currently just 44 chapters in the world and South Africa is the only country in Africa to have one.  For growth to take place in each geographic region, it is up to these chapters to “empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”

So it is rather easy to see why it becomes a problem if Africa only has one official chapter. Without anybody paying attention to a certain geographic area, Wikipedia will have less of an impact on the community and it could also jeopardise the accuracy of created articles. While chapters are spread thin, some African countries have started with Wikimedia user groups, who “support and promote the Wikimedia projects in the offline world by organising meetups and other projects.” But even these user group need funding, guidance and rely on volunteers. Couple that with the fact that not everybody knows Wikipedia exists, it compounds the issue until it becomes incredibly difficult to break free from.

Where possible, Wikipedia Zero has been introduced in several countries, where mobile operators have teamed up the Wiki Foundation to provide free access to Wikipedia (13 countries in Africa). It’s a small step, but the bigger challenges faced by African countries are:

Ethiopia

The country sought out a number of bloggers to serve as Wikipedia editors, but as soon as the government learnt of their involvement, they were promptly arrested. According to Ethiopian representative Abel Asrat , the government linked Wikipedia to Wikileaks, which resulted in the arrests. The arrested bloggers have attracted some international exposure, as US Senator John Kerry highlighted their arrests in a recent address. Ethiopia also has a challenge in promoting the site, as awareness of the internet in the country is low.

Tanzania

There is no local Wikimedia chapter in the country, but according to country representative Paul Kihwelo there is a growing interest in Wikipedia from high school students. Creative Commons Tanzania (non-profit organisation devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share) and Open Knowledge (a nonprofit organisation that promotes open knowledge, including open content and open data) has an opportunity to grow in the country, but awareness of Wikipedia and Wikimedia plays a major role in its promotion. Attracting volunteers to edit the articles has proven to be a challenge, as well as a stable internet connection and bandwidth. Kihwelo concluded by mentioning the issue of funding, as there is often not enough cash for arranging community meet-ups.

Kenya

While Wikipedia is fairly stable in Kenya, one of the challenges are sustained edits with new contributors. There are over 100 languages in Kenya, said Alexander Wafula, but Swahili is the most widely spoken. Finding contributors to edit articles in Swahili are dwindling, and Wafula added that the citation of sources aren’t always obvious or readily available. But some of the country’s successes include Wikipedia in schools, several sustained community meet-ups, and a positive sensitisation for Wikipedia. Kenya does however, have the ability to access Wikipedia through the use of SMS.

Botswana

According to representative Mompati Dikunwane, Wikimedia in Botswana is still in a development stage, and discussions are currently on-going to create a Wikipedia chapter in the country. Dikunwane explained that it’s difficult for Wikipedia to expand, as there are a limited amount of venues for outreach activities. He added that the local Wikimedia community is going through a rough patch, which is hampering advancement. But they are planning to engage with other mobile service providers in the country to expand Wikipedia Zero, which provides free access to Wikipedia in schools. Currently only Orange Botswana supports Wikipedia Zero.

Malawi

Local languages in the country are often stigmatized, as many have a preference for English over other local languages. Representative Michael Phoya highlighted that poor comprehension and composition skills even for college students often contribute to the difficulties in expanding, and there is currently only two featured articles and four B-class articles from Malawi on Wikipedia. As with most African countries, internet connectivity is very problematic, expensive and penetration is low. Phoya explained that Malawi has enough content to enrich Wikipedia, and has plans to evolve into a Wikipedia and Creative Commons chapter.

Namibia

Representative Peter Gallert said there are no plans to create a Wikimedia chapter in Namibia, as there are only two editors (one for English, and one for German), and there are several internet providers who are making constructive edits already. Hampering connectivity, Namibia has almost no landlines, except in “German” towns, and mobile phone coverage is only available along the major roads. Compounding the issues, rural Namibia isn’t fully electrified, so mass communication is not useful as a reliable source.

South Africa

South Africa’s Bobby Shabangu explained that SA’s Wikipedia chapter has been in incubation for a while, but in 2010 it became more organised and was officially recognised in 2012, and also registered as a Non-Profit Organisation. The chapter managed to get funding from Open Society Foundation to hire its first employee, but unfortunately had no resources to make the bid for Wikimania 2014. The biggest challenge that faces South Africa is expanding the editing communities, attracting more editors especially in small local languages, and getting the Ndebele language Wikipedia up and running. The rep noted that it is the only local South African language that doesn’t yet have a presence on Wikipedia.

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.