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Peter and I met again with Ben White of Africa Interactive on Tuesday. I’ve been impressed by Ben’s team’s work to establish a growing network of citizen journalists in Africa. Africa Interactive’s goal is to have a local network of reporters who can act and write independently, and make money through their work, utilising new digital routes to publication. Its home page video describes it better than I ever can.

It’s immediately clear that this network of reporters can enhance the way that NGOs describe local water and sanitation projects, before, during and after they get funding. You’ve probably gathered from our ‘movie theme’ marketing images that we’ve always considered movies to be a fantastic way to bring water and sanitation work to life. Akvo is being designed so that movies can, over time, play a big role in our matchmaking system, which matches funds to projects, and in Really Simple Reporting, which provides a simplified stream of project updates via tools such as SMS and video.

Films don’t just provide a great way to describe solutions, but they help an NGO set out the objectives without being forced to into admin-laden form-filling bureaucracy. And on the basis that a film of a community with no proper sanitation is followed by a film of the same community with sanitation is a powerful report – a way to capture actual changes to physical infrastructure and a way to document social change.

Over time we see films helping to expand the number of people willing to fund small-scale water and sanitation projects. Only so many are organised to review reams of reports, or even the more tabular data that will be in Akvo’s matchmaking system. A film can inspire and engage at a whole new level. Especially if the film is online, so all you need to do is share the link.

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Ben White (left), commercial director at Africa Interactive. Luuk Diphoorn (right) of Akvo. Delft, Netherlands, 24 June 2008.

Two films in two weeks?

We struck a deal on the spot with Ben. Africa Interactive will commission its mobile reporters to visit two of our first-phase projects, with the goal of producing video output inside two weeks from go-ahead by the community involved.

The first film will focus on a project managed by Akvo partner Simavi. Already matched to funds, it’s in Arusha, Tanzania, and will provide clean water and sanitation in a local primary school. The local partner is CBHCC (Community Based Health Care Council). The project is in the startup phase and will be one of the first to go live on Akvo later this summer. It could be a prime candidate for a follow-on film later as they start using Really Simple Reporting (RSR). Simavi has confirmed the school principal and the NGO representative will be helping us get the insights and material needed.

We are exploring several options for our second film, from our list of 17 initial projects this summer. We should have it confirmed in the next few days. It’s important we don’t force a film crew on a community – they, and the supporting NGO, need to want it.

Africa Interactive can offer this kind of film-making at a price that makes it attractive to funders, we think. Would you, for example, prefer to invest in a €10,000 schools project that had a written description online, or a €10,600 schools project that combined a written description with a film report on the situation, the implementing team, and capturing the views of the people who will benefit? All of which you can share with others online to get their buy-in, and to follow progress. I know where my money would go.

Creating new networks of reporters around the world who show sensitivity, understand context and can (sometimes) bring humour and optimism to play around the world has long fascinated me. Finding a different way to work with reporters is crucial for an open source project like ours. Just as it costs too much to send in specialist auditors to monitor every project, sending a film crew over from, say, the Netherlands or the United States, with the right experience and ability to get around from Europe would cost at least €15,000.

We’re looking forward to testing this out. If we can prove the process works, we’ll be building local capacity to report on water and sanitation projects in a repeatable, sustainable manner. I’m now away until 15th July. Over to you guys, Ben. Look forward to seeing what you can do.

Related reading: From posters to the real thing – Akvo gets set to make movie history

UPDATE: The team delivered! See the films here and here.