The coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching consequences for all aspects of life. A number of countries have implemented partial or full lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus and people are staying at home, and going online. Many activities that we once did in person – shopping, business meetings, going to school, birthday parties or catching up with friends – are now happening on the Internet. Cultural institutions are no exception to this and there is an increasing trend towards providing digital access, exploring things like digital exhibitions, virtual reality and the live-streaming of events.
Extending the reach of cultural institutions into the digital realm has long been a core aspect of our work at McNulty Consulting but our iAfrika project has experienced considerable traction and growth in the last six months. iAfrika is an African knowledge platform that provides access to information in African languages, currently in isiZulu. In the past few months its articles have been read upwards of 180,000 times in February, over 200, 000 times in March and over 300,000 times in April. These figures are considerable compared to larger and more established isiZulu language platforms like the isiZulu Wikipedia and Isolezwe, the third-largest newspaper in South Africa.
We recognise that digital cultural solutions for Africa must be tailored to institutions with smaller budgets, audiences with basic mobile devices and users with limited data with which to access digital resources. As such, iAfrika, which we have been developing over the past few years, is a mobile-first, scaleable and cost-effective solution.
iAfrika: an African knowledge platform
Based on McNulty Consulting’s theory of change, iAfrika focuses on:
- Digital skills training: people learn in their own, African languages
- African language content: trained contributors create digital African language content
- Relevant information in African languages: African language speakers read about aspects of their history, culture and identity in their own languages
300,000 in one
We started the iAfrika project in January 2019 as an isiZulu language prototype and carried out a successful pilot project, partnering with public libraries in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Since 2019, iAfrika has seen exponential growth, including 300% increase in pageviews (the number of times the articles were read) in one year from April 2019 – April 2020.
In April 2019 the ±700 articles on the iAfrika platform were read a total of 100, 835 times. In April 2020, the first month of the South African lockdown, South African cultural institutions were closed to the public. However, the libraries on the iAfrika platform continued to provide remote access to information and the now 767 articles on iAfrika were read a total of 304, 549 times in one month (yes, that is over a three hundred thousand times in one month!).
In April 2020, iAfrika received visitors from 52 different countries. Nearly all (93.75%) of the visitors came from the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the regions of South Africa with the most isiZulu speakers. This highlights two important things. Firstly, it is a great example of cultural institutions, like libraries, extending beyond their physical walls to provide remote access to information that is culturally relevant and language-specific. Secondly, it shows that even though we are physically separate from one another, we can come together in a digital space, like iAfrika, to learn about and discuss our shared languages, histories and cultures.