$4.7 Million Data Journalism Initiative Launched in Africa

Justin Arenstein
Code For Africa
Published in
6 min readAug 13, 2015


African data journalism is set to receive a $4.7 million boost as part of a major new initiative that will help civic technologists work with newsrooms across the continent.

The three-year programme at Code for Africa (CfAfrica) initially targets newsrooms in three regional ‘hub’ nations, in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. It will expand to include Tanzania in 2016, and will also tap into CfAfrica’s digital experimentation in newsrooms elsewhere in Africa.

The initiative grows out of a series of successful pilot projects by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). The new $4.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) will scale these successes in the hub countries. A consortium of other donors, including Omidyar Network and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, are funding related CfAfrica activities elsewhere in Africa.

The BMGF grant has enabled CfAfrica to recruit some of the continent’s most innovative digital news pioneers as ICFJ Knight Fellows, including the former editors-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa and Star newspaper in Kenya, along with a former executive producer from the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The grant will also:

  • Underwrite the establishment of Africa’s first cadet school for data journalism, in South Africa, in partnership with Code for South Africa and the School of Data.
  • Pioneer sensor journalism and drone journalism projects across a number of countries to give citizens ‘actionable information’ on issues ranging from air and water pollution, to poaching and natural disasters or civil unrest.
  • Embed civic technologists and data journalists in newsrooms to help explore ways to improve journalism by using data-driven content, mobile platforms and audience engagement technologies to create ‘cross media’ stories such as LivingWage.
  • Expand on CfAfrica’s successful data literacy d|Bootcamps, which were pioneered in Kenya in 2012, and have since seen African technologists share their expertise at events in 25 countries across the world, from Nepal and Moldova, to Bolivia and the U.S.A.

The new initiatives will seek to amplify the 90+ projects already in CfAfrica’s portfolio, ranging from popular mobile-based citizen reporting apps and data investigations, to water sensors that help rural villagers avoid cholera. It will also sync with a separate new $1 million innovation fund, that will replace the pioneering African News Innovation Challenge later this year, and will strengthen the continental network of 30,000+ enthusiasts in Hacks/Hackers Africa who bring together journalists and technologists to collaborate on media projects.

“In many places, the media has lost touch with real people. Our aim is to make journalism relevant again to ordinary people. Journalism needs to tackle the issues that keep people awake at night: like how to keep your children safe, healthy, and educated,” explains CfAfrica chief strategist Justin Arenstein. “To do that, media organizations have to discover what their audiences really care about and then develop journalism that gives the audience actionable information.”

Arenstein founded CfAfrica as an ICFJ Knight Fellow three years ago along with the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and Hacks/Hackers Africa. Arenstein will lead the expanded ICFJ Knight Fellows team at CfAfrica, who include:

  • Chris Roper, former editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper and former editor-in-chief of 24.com, the continent’s largest online content site, who will serve as the team’s data editor.
  • Stephen Abbott Pugh, a former executive producer at the UK’s Guardian and former head of digital projects for the UK Parliament, who will design and supervise audience engagement strategies.
  • Catherine Gicheru, former founding editor-in-chief of Kenya’s Star newspaper and an international award-winning investigative journalist, who will drive the initiative in the East African nation.
  • Raymond Joseph, a longtime South African editor, newsroom consultant and social media strategist, who will lead a new data journalism training program, or “cadet school,” in South Africa.
  • Babatunde Akpeji, a Nigerian multimedia journalist and citizen reporting expert, who will head the project in Africa’s largest nation.

The team of ICFJ Knight Fellows will be supported by in-country teams of civic technologists, who help run local innovation labs. Code for South Africa and Code for Kenya both already operate CitizenLabs. New labs will be established in countries where none exist. All resources created by the labs, including software and data, plus training resources, will be available for free re-use elsewhere on the continent.

“We want to lower the barrier to entry, by taking some of the risk out of digital experimentation. One way to lower costs is to make re-usable technology or data available. Another way is to help media partners build new business models on top of their new digital services. We’re aiming to do both these things,” says Arenstein.

CfAfrica’s new data editor, Chris Roper, helped transform the Mail & Guardian from a ‘print first’ organisation into a ‘digital first’ pioneer over the last three years. He intends using his business strategy insights to help other publishers develop robust revenue models.

“It’s always been true that great journalism needs to fund itself, but this is even more of an imperative in digital media, where data becomes a transmitter of editorial meaning, but at the same time a source of revenue. Telling great stories is expensive, and media houses need to see business as well as editorial benefit before they’re willing to invest,” explains Roper.

CfAfrica’s new engagement strategist, Stephen Abbott Pugh, worked on some of the global media’s largest ever data-driven stories, including the Wikileaks US embassy cables leak, and more recently helped the UK Parliament deepen its engagement with citizens. He intends to use his insights to make sure that CfAfrica’s work reaches as many people as possible and that audiences have the tools to help shape the news or public discourse.

“The reality is that the majority of people across Africa are still offline. But many have access to mobile phones. We will be looking at how use SMS and radio, in combination with open data and other civic technologies, to transmit personalised and actionable information to people when they need it most,” says Abbott Pugh. “We will also try give people the tools to make their own voices heard.”

ICFJ’s vice president of programmes, Patrick Butler, says the Washington D.C. based organisation will help CfAfrica build synergies and knowledge sharing with similar initiatives elsewhere in the Global South, including through ICFJ programmes in Latin America, India, and Pakistan.

“Some of the most exciting innovation in the world is happening in the Global South,” Butler said. “Because ICFJ is working throughout the world, we are able to link innovators working in different regions so that the best ideas can bear fruit across the world, not just on one continent.”

Media organizations interested in hosting technologists or working with CitizenLabs to build digital projects should register their interest here.

Civic technologists or data journalists interested in applying for one of CfAfrica’s Innovation Fellowships should register their interest here.


Code for Africa is the continent’s largest network of civic technology and open data organisations, with partner programmes in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. CfAfrica builds digital democracies that give citizens timely and unfettered access to actionable information that empowers them to make informed decisions and that strengthens civic engagement for improved public governance and accountability. CfAfrica is custodian of the continental Hacks/Hackers community, is incubating the continent’s largest investigative journalism initiative, the African Network of Centers for Investigating Reporting, and manages a number of prototype funds, including the $500,000/year Sandbox Fund, the $500,000/year ImpactAfrica Fund, and the $1m/year InnovateAfrica Fund.

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is at the forefront of the news revolution. Our programs empower journalists and engage citizens with new technologies and best practices. ICFJ’s networks of reporters and media entrepreneurs are transforming the field. We believe that better journalism leads to better lives. For more information, go to www.icfj.org.



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).