22 Digital ‘Watchdog’ Projects Win $1-million In Funding & Technology Support

Projects will use ‘leapfrog’ technologies

Justin Arenstein
Code For Africa
Published in
9 min readFeb 2, 2017


Seed grants for leapfrog technologies

innovateAFRICA.fund has selected 22 digital projects for $1-million in seed grants and technology support to tackle issues as diverse as fake news and frontline war reporting, as well as innovative ways for watchdog media to use ‘bots, drones and sensors to improve their reportage.

The projects, which include both digital journalism and civic technology ideas, were selected from 736 applications from across 49 African countries. Each proposal underwent an intensive two-month technical review process that concluded this week with a final evaluation of the 73 strongest ideas by an independent jury of international experts (see a list of the judges below).

“The world is facing challenging political and socio-economic realities. We need the media and other civic watchdogs to provide the checks and balances needed to help us navigate an uncertain future. It has therefore been fantastic to see not just the superb quality and range of entries, but also the diversity of ideas and collaboration that innovateAFRICA has fostered across the region,” says juror and Omidyar Networks director of investments for Africa, Ory Okolloh. Prior to joining Omidyar, Okolloh cofounded the pioneering Ushahidi crowdmap platform, along with a string of other ‘hacktivist’ initiatives.

The 22 innovateAFRICA projects will spend the next month refining their implementation plans and budgets, before receiving seed grants of between $12,500 and $100,000 each along with engineering support from Code for Africa’s civic technology labs across the continent, and business development and other strategic mentorship from global experts at the Media Development Investment Fund and Global Editors Network.

“We’ve selected some of the brightest innovators in this space to experiment with leapfrog technologies, but the real focus is to help teams build real-world solutions to real-world problems that can immediately be adopted and scaled by mainstream media companies and civil society,” explains innovateAFRICA founder, Justin Arenstein.

innovateAFRICA is currently the largest fund for digital journalism experimentation in Africa, and is managed by Code for Africa, as part of the International Center for Journalists’ (ICFJ) wider data journalism initiative in Africa. Arenstein is an ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow.

While only 22 projects qualified for seed funding, innovateAFRICA will also help the other 51 shortlisted projects explore alternate funding, industry partnerships and community-driven collaboration.

The winning projects target a number of common themes: from ways to use new technologies such as drones / sensors / satellites to produce real-time reporting in difficult-to-reach places, to new ways to harness artificial intelligence (AI) and web robots (‘bots) for improved news gathering and audience engagement. A number of projects will also strive to improve visual storytelling in Africa, combining cartoon illustrations with viral video techniques, along with data visualisations and immersive storytelling that includes 360° and virtual reality imagery.

“These projects represent exciting new approaches to tackling the challenges that face today’s media, both in Africa and around the world. The increasing threat of fake news is particularly troubling because it undermines the free flow of credible information that underpins modern societies,” says Jerri Eddings, a juror and senior program director at ICFJ. “We need innovative solutions to such problems, and it is heartening to see that innovateAFRICA has surfaced so many creative ideas for facing these challenges.”

The grantees are:

afriBOT, by the European Journalism Centre & The Source (Namibia + Zimbabwe): “We will build an open source newsbot to help African news organisations deliver personalized news and engage more effectively with audiences via messaging platforms.”

africanDRONE, by WeRobotics & UnequalScenes (pan-Africa): “We will establish Africa’s first drone journalism hub, in Tanzania, as the basecamp for the continent wide africanDRONE community of certified drone journalists, mappers, and story-tellers.”

ATLAS, by Quartz Africa / Atlantic Media (pan-Africa): “We will bring Quartz’s chart-building and data visualisation platform, Atlas, to newsrooms and organizations across Africa for free, and will build a database of Africa-focused data sources and visualisation templates to make data journalism more accessible.”

Blast Tracker, by Sophie Tremblay (Tanzania): “We will establish Africa’s first investigative sensor journalism initiative, installing underwater microphones along Tanzania’s coast to track and map explosions from dynamite fishing in real-time, supported by camera drones to speedily identify and track boats involved in the explosions.”

‘Bot Starter-Kit, by HEI-DA.org (pan-Africa): “We will develop an easy-to-use sensor journalism starter-kit for small to medium sized African newsrooms, that will include hardware/software, to help journalists establish their first ‘citizen data’ projects.”

#CartooNews, by AfriCartoons (pan-Africa): “We will digitize the existing AfriCartoons archive of 1,000s of news cartoons and will redevelop our existing fanbase of 400,000 people on Facebook to supply African online audiences with ready-made and bespoke graphic content: editorial cartoons, comics, animations, caricatures, illustrations, and line-drawn infographics.”

CHECK, by PesaCheck & Meedan (Kenya + Tanzania + Uganda): “We will implement a cloud-based workflow system and collaborative workbench for the regional PesaCheck fact-checking network to improve news verification in three East African countries.”

CitizenScience, by Open Data Durban (South Africa): “We will create a citizen science network in Durban’s shantytowns that uses air and water quality sensors to boost data-driven science journalism and real-time civic activism, through a network of clubs at schools and civic labs for adults.”

DollarStreet Africa, by Gapminder Foundation (Kenya + Nigeria + Tanzania): “We live in a globally connected world. But we do not understand it, and it scares us. DollarStreet will expand its use of photos as data to show how people on same income level live very similar lives across Africa and the globe.”

ENGAGE, by the Engage Video Group (South Africa): “We will use our proven expertise at creating viral audiences around social video to build an African version of Buzzfeed/Vice that combines hard-hitting journalism with video-first formats.”

FOI Portal, by mySociety and Article 19 East Africa (Kenya): “We will launch East Africa’s first online portal for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in Kenya to help journalists and citizens use new access to information legislation to create high-impact public interest stories.”

FRONTLINE, by African Defence Review (South Africa): “We will transform the well-established African Defence Review (ADR) into an African version of https://www.bellingcat.com/ that uses satellite images and other digital ‘open intelligence’ sources to shine a light on African war zones and the murky economies that fund conflict.”

Graphic Journalism Hub, by ONA Systems (Tanzania): “We will establish Africa’s first Graphic Journalism hub for visual storytelling, using graphic novel / comic animations, to produce news as mobile-optimised social video and graphic novels for multiple African media partners.”

Hospital Helper, by Health-E News (South Africa): “We will create South Africa’s first geo-data tools and journalism for checking the safety / health rating of your local hospital or clinic, based on official government audits or inspection results.”

InfoFinder, by AfricaCheck (Kenya + Nigeria + South Africa + Senegal): “Africa is awash in unverified data. We will further develop AfricaCheck’s ‘info finder’ tool by expanding the number of pre-verified data sources to help media and the public to check claims.”

LiveWire, by Grass Root Nation (South Africa): “Mainstream media is out of touch with grassroots communities. We will build on our popular petition and community mobilisation tools to create a crowdsourced ‘PR Wire’ service that alerts mainstream broadcast and print media about mass events (pickets, marches, protests) by grassroots communities.”

MembaO, by Code for Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone): “We will build West Africa’s first data-driven platform that uses parliamentary records and investigative research to strengthen citizen oversight of elected politicians and Parliament itself.”

MeshNews, by Outernet & DataZetu (Tanzania): “Much of Africa is still offline. Outernet will harness satellite and radio technologies to broadcast digital news and interactive data journalism content to rural audiences in Africa who don’t have traditional Internet coverage.”

NewsBot, by Atchai & Star (Kenya) & Punch (Nigeria): “We will pioneer rapid-deployment news gathering tools using Facebook / SMS based chat-bots, that will help journalists quickly collect opinion data and eyewitness accounts though polls and surveys.”

Overlay, by Paul Watson (formerly of Storyful) (pan-Africa): “We will tackle fake news and ‘post-fact’ information in the news reportage by creating a journalist-sourced verification information network integrated directly into social media platform timelines.”

OpenGazettes, by AfriLII & the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (Nigeria): “Government gazettes are a goldmine of actionable information. We will liberate Nigeria’s gazettes by digitising and turning them into structured searchable data for free access by journalists, activists and business users.”

DECLARE, by Media Monitoring Africa (South Africa): “We will create Africa’s first interactive site for journalists and media organisations to disclose their interests to help combat conflicts of interest and to help fact-checkers identify credible media professions in their fight against fake news.”

“Journalism is no longer just about reporting the news. It is an industry that has evolved as significantly as any other — from banking to taxi hire — and has as many challenges. Not least of these is how varied the ways people access their news, be it via mobile, radio or via the web. Just as varied are the many new fields journalism needs to report on, including newly opened government data. The advent of drones, data-journalism and mobile have fundamentally changed what journalists can do, and how citizen journalists can contribute,” says juror and publisher of Stuff magazine in South Africa, Toby Shapshak. “The winners this year represent a broad range of smart ways to solve all of these new challenges and new opportunities; and wonderfully demonstrate Africa’s renowned problem-solving reputation.”

innovateAFRICA runs alongside a $500,000 companion fund, impactAFRICA, which makes story grants of up to $20,000 for journalists to get out into the field for pioneering digital reporting projects. impactAFRICA has just announced its second cohort of 13 grantees.

Both initiatives have partnered with CFI, the French agency for media cooperation, to boost involvement of digital pioneers across Francophone Africa through a series of digital journalism and civic technology workshops. Participants at the events, including similar d|bootcamps hosted by Hacks/Hackers in Anglophone Africa, received help to build project teams and to develop project ideas. Both organisations will continue to offer assistance to innovateAFRICA applicants in the coming months.

innovateAFRICA’s partners include Omidyar Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the CFI, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), the Global Editors’ Network (GEN) and the World Bank.


Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the custodian of innovateAFRICA and is the continent’s largest independent digital journalism and civic technology initiative. It operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in five countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds innovation fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens. In addition to fellowships and tech labs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year innovateAFRICA.fund and the $500,000 per year impactAFRICA.fund, which both award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs. CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDING portal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICA data portal, the sourceAFRICA document repository and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics. CfAfrica is an initiative of the ICFJ.

International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is at the forefront of the news revolution. Its programmes empower journalists and engage citizens with new technologies and best practices. ICFJ’s networks of reporters and media entrepreneurs are transforming the field. ICFJ believes that better journalism leads to better lives. Over the past 30 years, ICFJ has worked with more than 92,000 professional and citizen journalists and media managers from 180 countries. ICFJ work through strong local partners, such as Code for Africa, and a network of dedicated alumni. For more information, go to www.icfj.org.


1.) Jerri Eddings: International Center for Journalists (ICFJ)

2.) Mohamed Nanabhay: Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF)

3.) Ferial Haffajee: Huffington Post (South Africa)

4.) Taiwo Kola-Ongunlade: Google NewsLab

5.) Ory Okolloh: Omidyar Networks

6.) Azubuike Ishiekwene: Global Editors Network (GEN)

7.) Toby Shapshak: Stuff magazine

8.) Antoine Laurent: Fonds Pour l’innovation Numérique de la Presse (FINP)

9.) Samir Abdelkrim: StartupBRICS.com

10.) Florent Youzan: Agence Française de Coopération Médias (CFI Médias)

11.) Fatoumata Niang Niox: Jokkolabs Senegal

12.) Wilfried Rütten: European Journalism Centre (EJC)

13.) Craig Hammer: World Bank (Global Media Programme)

14.) Rosemary Okello-Orlale: Ford Foundation

15.) Nasr ul Hadi: ICFJ India

16.) Anthony Wafula: HiVOS East Africa

17.) Juliana Rotich: Africa Tech Ventures

18.) Sameer Padania: Macroscope



Justin Arenstein
Code For Africa

Investigative journalist working with #CivicTech and #OpenData. CEO at Code for Africa (CfA) + African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).