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Pondering Africa’s digital camera

March 10, 2010  »  Uncategorized3 Comments

Is phone-graphing the future?

Years ago, Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, a documentary author, aptly predicted that “Digital cameras will allow us to re-create the African collective memory.” For one, he felt that digital cameras that filmed video were less intimidating than camcorders and would allow more intimate moments to be captured. More importantly, however, Mr. Bakupa-Kanyinda saw the need for Africa to chronicle Africa’s triumphs and failures. Such a thought directly ties into the need for local content. Of course, photographs of Africa have been taken for years, but relatively few Africans were able to take photographs of their own lives due to the lack of film development options. The digital camera was therefore expected to provide a new outlet for sharing history and highlighting important issues. It would also provide entertainment and close the communication gap. However, the digital camera has manifested itself in a slightly tangential form to what many predicted. Market research on the presence of the traditional digital camera in Africa is difficult to find and costs a substantial sum just to browse.

Still, we don’t need statistics to show how the mobile phone (and now smartphone) has become an all-in-one for personal media. Will “phone-graphing” entirely prevent the more conventional (and more cumbersome, but fully-featured) digital camera from taking hold in Africa? Probably, at least until broadband really takes hold. But the question is, does it matter if camera phones are the norm?

  1. Historically, many African memories have been passed down orally rather than visually. Film photography has been largely absent due to cost (and climate). Consequently, to many Africans, an image is an image if it is 1.3 megapixels or 6 megapixels in resolution. The significance of the image is in the emotions and mental images it evokes rather than the physical detail on the screen.
  2. Given Africa’s infrastructure and burgeoning mobile market, it is easier, quicker, and cheaper to send images via SMS rather than by email. This rings especially true in rural areas.
  3. Energy is often difficult to come by and disposable batteries are not common. It is much more efficient to charge one device – a mobile phone than to find energy for a phone and separate camera.
  4. Many picture-takers do not own the computer they use to access the Internet. Accordingly, there is no need to store digital images on a computer. It’s simply a matter of logistics and security concerns. Plus, USB flash drives are relatively scarce. Instead, the phone serves the purpose of mobile hard drive and means of display.
  5. The wealthy, urbanites, and most university students generally have better Internet access and are exposed to Western culture (like Facebook, for example). Even this relatively small demographic does not need a large digital camera. Computer screens tend not to have resolutions much greater than 1.3 megapixels – the resolution of an average camera phone.

Questions/concerns regarding the mobile phone as the source of digital photos:

  1. Potential foreign investors (or even everyday citizens in these nations) may not be as inspired by poor quality images. Do vibrant images cause a stronger emotional response? Or, have we become conditioned to feel this way?
  2. Broadband. First, will landlines or mobile broadband be the method of networking? More landlines could very well mean more computers, and therefore traditional digital cameras. However, a reliance on mobile broadband will be more conducive to smartphone usage years from now.
  3. As time progresses, will Africans adopt Western practices such as owning both a camera phone and a digital camera and using the two devices for different purposes? At what point will the economy support such spending?
  4. What happens if the camera’s memory becomes full? Will people delete “less important” memories or will they store them on an e-mail server or on a computer?

eLearning Africa to the Rescue: Thanks to this organization, there is a great way to “re-create the African collective memory.” eLearning Africa is sponsoring an African photo competition to show how ICTs are changing the way Africans live. Winners will receive either a camera, camcorder, or iPod and the stories behind their photos will be included in eLearning Africa’s monthly newsletter. The deadline is April 26th, so there is still plenty of time to enter. So far there are 53 submissions; many depict children, education, or mobile usage. Very interesting stuff.

Extra frustration: Try a Google search for ‘Africa digital cameras’. The top 30 results are ALL commercial – most involve cameras for using on safari (go figure) and some relate to purchasing a camera in South Africa. The E-Policy Africa site looks promising, and claims to be a resource for policy makers, but offers next to no information and links to a Canon distributor. An image search gets us closer to some meaningful information about digital camera usage in Africa, but again falls short. I need something more than images of African boys holding a digital camera for the first time (not to say that is not a moving sight). The most useful image links to a 2007 article on South Africa’s first NEPAD school, but all we learn is that this school received digital cameras. Someone out there must have detailed information on the situation of African digital photography.

  • Uffe

    Any news regarding no. of camera and camera phones in Africa. Working on a UNICEF project where this no. is of great importance.

  • Number of cameras is difficult and I haven’t seen any statistics on this. I do know, however, that there are approximately 500 million mobile subscriptions in Africa…Many of these phones are very basic, and can only perform voice calls or text messaging. So, the number of camera phones in Africa is somewhere between 100-300 million and growing, but off hand I can’t find a specific number.

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