UPDATE: The first video below was erroneously a duplicate of video #3. I blame the shoddy connection I had – I am thrilled that the videos made it up to YouTube at all, frankly, and it took me an hour and several tried to get this post to publish, so I had some version-control issues. Anyway, I’ve fixed it so that vid #1 is now the proper first part, in which we talk about the persistent power of radio.

The more I learn about how the media operates in East Africa, the more I think this is going to be a fascinating area to watch over the next few years. The conditions here are ripe for some really interesting changes – we are going to see in this microcosm what the effects are of empowering a population that is still stuck with only one-way information flow (largely via radio – please see video #1, below) to suddenly leapfrog into the ubiquitous mobile web-fueled connectivity that we see in places like Japan, Korea and (to an extent) China.

BACKGROUND: A couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the CEO of Fana Broadcasting. At that time, I was told that the plan was to install 4G mobile connectivity throughout the country. I have since learned that the contract looks like it is going to be awarded to a giant Chinese telecom company. This is not necessarily good news. The suspicion among the journalists is that the infrastructure contract has been given to the Chinese because they have pledged to include many of the down-and-dirty spyware and censorship features that are common to the internet behind the Great Firewall of China. Also: it is rumored that the Chinese outbid US and European companies for this huge contract, because the government of China is (illegally?) subsidizing the work, secretly funneling money under the table to the ostensibly private-sector telecom company, to allow it to do billions of dollars of work for 1/20th the price. Conspiracy theories abound here; in the absence of any hard facts or verification, people always assume the worst.

At any rate: the plan is to wire up all the major cities and towns with 4G wireless internet service. One of the big reasons expressed for that is that the Powers that Be have noticed that on just about every roof, you can see a satellite dish. Those dishes are bringing news, information and TV programs into households from TV providers outside of Ethiopia. They want to jump-start their own domestic news and entertainment industry, to start to produce high-quality content, to lure audience away from these international sources. Part of this is to foster a sense of national unity: to expose Ethiopians to news, movies and TV series that star Ethiopians, speaking Amharic, and referring to matters that are of concern to Ethiopians (and eventually, to citizens of the surrounding countries, none of which really has their own video/web content production infrastructure). Part of it is to start building up the kind of media-production capabilities that might allow Ethiopia to start exporting its culture to the international marketplace; from what I have seen here, there is certainly an opportunity for the kind of smart, dedicated artists here to start changing the international perception of this place, which is still stuck in the famine years.

Anyway, in the first part of the interviews I did with Samson Tesfaye, for his show “Movers and Shakers” on AfroFM, we talk about what things are like in the present day – where the vast majority of the rural populations in Ethiopia still rely on what they hear over the radio as their main (perhaps only) source of news and information.

The next part of the interview, we focus on the impact of social media in East Africa. At this time, Sami says that social media is not having the kind of disruptive effects we see in North Africa, where the Arab Spring is still very much alive and kicking, or to the south in Kenya, where the technology scene is vibrant and lively.

Finally, the last part of the interview, we focus on what kinds of changes the internet and social media can make on really big issues – such as economic development. It’s interesting to note that the way that the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was constructed; apparently, it has safeguards in it that serve to try to minimize or eliminate the excessive accumulation of capital at any one point along the value chain.

Translated to human: that means that they have set up market systems where the middlemen are not allowed to price-fix things to rip off the subsistence farmers – while also (trying?) to prevent the buyers from being gouged. If we were to run this past any of the “bare-knuckle” capitalists in US or European markets, they would no doubt scream to the high heavens about Marxism and restraint of freedom, etc. etc. But here in East Africa, the locals have seen way, way too many slick-talking Westerners come in with their gospel of the basic holiness of “The Market” and the “Invisible Hand”, and how it will benefit everyone … only to find that in reality, all that high-minded rhetoric is only camouflage for the same old thing. The buyers use their greater wealth to manipulate the markets in such a way as to impoverish the people at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, while ensuring that any profits from the labor of those people only accrues to the inside traders. Corrupt politicians are paid out of the excess, while the ordinary people suffer.

If the intellectuals I have come into contact with here in Ethiopia (journalists, bankers, traders, businessmen, academics, even mid-level bureaucrats) are bitter about this cycle, I think they rather have good reason to be.