Africa, knowledge, and the global North

Medici con la Africa Cuamm


Since Hecataeus, Herodotus, and later on, Bartholomew Dias, Livingstone, Stanley and Lugard, Africa’s stories, good and bad, have been written and told by outsiders. Explorers, missionaries, exploiters, adventurers; call them what you will. Each writer, objective or not, had their own agenda and did their own thing.

There is no doubt that Africa is endlessly fascinating, but why, in this day and age do the majority of sources for stories, news and information about the myriad presence of histories and societies that make up this multifaceted continent, continue to come from the Global North?

A lot of this has to do with the fact that the global north might just like writing a lot more than Africans do. Or more accurately it is that the global north has higher levels of education and social support that enables writers to flourish. However, the reality is more complex and pervasive.

Let's take one example by looking at just the physical image of Africa. Perhaps the reason that Africa appears to be less than the sum of anywhere else, in the eyes of both those from without and within the continent, is reinforced even in the simple tools that teach children their physical place in the world.

Due to the circumference of the Earth, and the difficulties of relating 3D onto a 2D plane, the standard map taught at schools around the globe, the Mercator Map, is wildly distorted. They particularly emphasize those landmasses closest to the Poles. (You can see this effect exaggerated in the landmass of Antarctica). This shows North America and Eurasia as being a vast tract of land.

However, if we look at the representation of the true size of Africa, we can see that the combined landmass of USA, China, India, Japan and all of Europe fits easily within the shores of Africa. The skew is not just in imagery. How can Africans across this continent and beyond really know about themselves, when only 2% of all published matter comes from Africa?

Even when you have been well and truly bitten by the thirst for knowledge, the astonishing inequalities in the geography of the production of academic knowledge is represented by the fact that the tiny country of Switzerland publishes three times more indexed journal entries than the entire continent of Africa. This 'concentration of knowledge production' is just one manifestation of the extreme inequalities in what Mark Graham at the Oxford Internet Institute calls the "geographies of knowledge".

In 2009, Eric Schmidt, later CEO of Google said: "We have an opportunity for everyone in the world to have access to the entire world's information. This has never before been possible. Why is ubiquitous information so profound? It's a tremendous equalizer. Information is power."

Information is power, but today, in Africa, the information available on the internet about this continent is entirely lacking, with the bare minimum or macro topics being thinly covered.

The layers of information that exist about place and history create context around modern understanding. Nowadays, just having access to Google alters our perception of our offline environment.

In the Global North, this layering is rich and fertile and constantly evolving and consistently being reinforced. In Africa, this rich geography of information doesn't yet exist. And it is not because there isn't the richness of knowledge, history or place, but, for a number of other reasons. There is in Africa little culture of contribution to the internet.

Now, the problem with this is that for those who are getting on the web across the continent, there is no content that reflects their reality; no intertwined meanings, clues, impressions, facts, to shape our understanding of place, and ourselves within that place.

Increasingly in Africa it is neither the elite nor the wealthy that are connecting, requiring information. The New Wave report states that in South Africa, 12,3m adults over the age of 15 use the Internet – one in three of the population (doubling over the last four years). In Kenya, this number is 26%, Ghana it is 13%, Botswana 19% - and growing (much faster than South Africa is). Increasingly too, the internet is mobile – with 71% of all internet users in South Africa accessing it via their mobiles. The top five reasons for first using the Internet are to:

  • get information;
  • socialize;
  • study;
  • do work or for business;
  • look for a job.

But what information are they getting? Let's look at Wikipedia, the largest and most used encyclopedia with 15% of all internet users accessing it every single day. It exists in 282 languages (including main of Africa's main indigenous languages), with the English version now boasting over 4 million articles. It is the most ambitious project of its kind, and a marvel of volunteer effort. However, Wikipedia's quest to accumulate the 'sum of all human knowledge' is far short of its idealistic goal.

Here is a representation of one day of editing English Wikipedia in 2011. It shows exactly who is editing Wikipedia.

Stats have shown that there are more active editors in Hong Kong than from the whole of Africa. At the moment, there are not enough numbers of editors from Africa to make a significant difference to the amount of articles related to Africa. The majority of articles that exist on Africa have been created by the wikipedians in the global north using references from their libraries and books. What are the implications of this? What does it mean for a woman in, say, Uganda? How does she find out about her cultural heritage?

If we look at geo-tagged articles on Wikipedia (indicating an article about place or an event) Europe and North America are home to 84% of all articles. Almost all of Africa is poorly represented in the encyclopedia, with there being more Wikipedia articles (7,800 out of 1.5 million articles) about Antarctica than any one country in Africa or South America.

In Africa the number of museums is estimated at over 1100, but the Africom Database lists 525. Of those listed on Africom, 26% have articles (and this does not look at the quality of articles) with 48% not being mentioned at all. To compare, of the 320 museums in Italy, 55% have articles on English Wikipedia – the figures for Italian Wikipedia will be much higher. So what can we do about it?

The WikiAfrica Project is an international collaboration. Its objectives are to leverage and use partnerships, support, technology and tools to:

  • get significant and quality content onto Wikipedia and sister projects;
  • foster a culture of contribution on the continent;
  • using a two pronged approach that;
  • challenges and supports individuals to plug in and contribute their;
  • specialist knowledge and passions to Wikipedia;
  • plug in to existing content and assist in getting it onto Wikimedia.


To date, 106 content partners in Africa and Europe have donated the knowledge they hold in trust for future generations to Wikipedia. Since 2006, the target was to achieve 30,000 contributions to Wikipedia by the end of 2012. At the end of 2012, 32,500 contributions were reached; and the work
is ongoing.

Technology is changing how people consume knowledge, but also what they can expect from it. With knowledge no longer implacably delivered to 'the people', but written by them; knowledge and layers of information are being stored, accessed, developed, aggregated and contributed to via a myriad of platforms. The Global North perception of Africa will soon no longer be acceptable to the half a billion people under the age of 18 that live on this continent. And nor should it be. But it is up to us to seize the technology and rise to the challenge. Only we can make that change and truly reflect what it is to be African on this continent in this day and age. Join the revolution.

Next time you access Wikipedia, don't just read!