In Focus, January 2004
Information is key to effective conservation: collecting it, making sense of it and doing something with it. Two former Reuters news service correspondents, a chartered accountant and others have teamed together to develop a news service about Africa that will work in all three of these areas in the first dedicated service of its kind.
"Africa's environment—one of the last great natural wonders of the world—is under threat on virtually every front, yet its future health has immense implications not only for ordinary Africans but for the entire world," says Jonathan Clayton, co-developer of the Africa Environmental News Service (AENS) project and former Reuters regional bureau chief in the Maghreb and Eastern Africa.
"Despite this there is not one information service focusing on its plight," Clayton says. "AENS will do this, helped by people all over Africa and new technology to bring reports from some of the most remote parts of the planet."
The developers believe that if development processes are to take place in an environmentally friendly way it is critical and urgent, both for Africa and the international community, that all those who participate in these processes are given access to relevant information about the environment. The service is ultimately expected to be of use to a variety of audiences ranging from national governments, researchers, the private sector and even tourists.
The service, now in its design and market research phase with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, is the first dedicated to environmental information about Africa and is expected to provide a resource that draws attention to the linkages between Africa's environmental health and its potential for sustainable development and alleviation of poverty.
You can help with the team's market research. Visit the sample AENS Web site today at www.aens.org, and share your opinion about it by completing the simple and short survey questionnaire highlighted on the home page. Your time will be well spent in helping the developers create the most beneficial service possible.
The prototype site has been designed to stimulate ideas and provoke feedback as part of the market research exercise. It is not intended to simulate or prejudge the look of the final product. We recommend you explore the site to see how it works before answering the survey questionnaire.
Historically, information on environmental and conservation issues in Africa has relied on land-based communication and therefore timely news and data has been limited to the major cities. The emergence of new communications technologies such as satellite and mobile telephone networks offer up a new opportunity to make up-to-the-minute information available to the widest possible audience.
Currently, fragmented coverage of African environmental news and information is available from a number of sources but they tend to be patchy and have little in the way of original information, according to AENS co-developer Aidan Hartley who met Clayton while the two were working for Reuters in Nairobi.
"It struck both of us that there was an enormous gap in coverage of environmental issues across the continent by the established media," Hartley says. "We saw that even conventional news stories, such as humanitarian crises, had environmental elements that were being ignored. That was the seed for the project."
The News Service
AENS will operate through a network of regional correspondents supported by analysts, creating an independent information and news service that will provide original, comprehensive and timely coverage of environmental issues across Africa.
The service will address mainstream environmental topics as well as casting a lateral net to ensure capture and coverage of issues that are not conventionally reported from an environmental angle. These will include:
An independent market research company has joined the team to help identify potential audiences and make sure their needs are met and ultimately incorporated into AENS' final business plan.
"More and more people in the independent sector now accept that the development and use of a research-based business plan greatly improves the likelihood of the project's success by anticipating market opportunities and pitfalls," says Purnima Chawla of Equals Three Communications, the market research company. "It is also increasingly being recognized as a hallmark of a high quality project and the professionalism of its executors."
AENS is developing three principal service streams:
The online service is expected to include different levels of entry. The first level, for example, could be viewed by anyone visiting the site and will provide information about the AENS service and summarized headlines of the principal breaking stories of the day. Other levels would include a password-controlled system for paying subscribers.
All subscribers would get a daily package of news and information in brief via e-mail that could be tailored to the subscriber's preferences. There will also be a weekly package with features and analysis, interviews and topical editorial pieces.
The Web site will also contain information on events, contacts, projects and employment opportunities, along with live video footage, links to other sites and an online discussion forum for members.
"Using emerging technologies, we plan to source and package original news and information as it breaks direct from the most remote parts of the African front line, and distribute it worldwide in real time," Hartley says. "In addition, we plan to host various issue-based interactive exchange forums and to create a Web-accessible archive of information and reports from various sources.
"We hope this archive will be a valuable resource to a wide variety of researchers, practitioners and other interested parties in this area."
Initially, the provision of environmental information and news will be the primary face of AENS. Over time however, the depth and breadth of archival information within its database could develop a critical mass of considerable importance.