Takeaways from 2020 and 2021

2020 was just super tough for everyone. For us at Africa Media Online, however, there has been a significant amount of silver lining to that dark cloud. We managed to survive large projects being put on hold, digitisation markets drying up, an Eskom power spike that damaged servers, a key component of our Preservatio digital archiving system (that we had outsourced to another company) failing, and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdowns. And we have emerged stronger and wiser, gains that were consolidated in 2021. Looking back, as tough as that year was, we are actually grateful because we are definitely better for it.

These are the three main takeaways from the past two years:

  • We have the right vision
  • We have the right team
  • We have the right systems

The Right Vision

From early days in Africa Media Online’s history, in the early 2000s, we defined our vision as “Africans telling Africa’s story”. From the beginning we knew we lived in a world where both in the media sector and in the heritage sector Africa’s story was told to the world most often by those outside of Africa. We wanted to build a digital trade route to enable African’s to present their stories to the world. It has been thrilling to watch how globally the world has become more and more open to a diversity of voices. Of course this is part of the socio-cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity where, at least on the surface, diversity is valued more highly than dominance, pluralism than narrow interests, yet we are grateful we have played a small part in creating openness to voices from the majority world.

Kenyan photographer, Julius Mwelu captures a portrait of a Ghanaian cheerleader

I can think of two examples immediately, one in the media world and one in the heritage world. World Press Photo, for the first time in their almost 70 year history has regionalised their competition and exhibitions to ensure a diversity of voices. In 2020 I watched a documentary of the engagement between a Maasai community and staff at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Sadly I could not find the film online anymore, but here is an article about it. It was fascinating to see the different worldviews that the two parties brought to Maasai artifacts.

On top of popular global culture becoming more open to a diversity of perspectives, COVID-19 proved to be a catalyst for openness to African storytellers. In a time of lockdown with global travel restrictions, it was Africans who had to tell Africa’s story. Our vision, we have seen, of African’s telling Africa’s story and building a digital trade route to enable that, has become increasingly relevant.

The Right Team

The pressure cooker of 2020 forced us to consolidate our team and ensure we had the right skills on board. Dr Nicki Kirby was an absolute Godsend. In 2019 she had already started to revolutionize the management of our digitisation projects. And during lockdown in 2020 she managed to flatten the backlog of projects that had been built up tying up numerous difficult to resolve loose ends.

Sandile Swana
Sandile Swana, CEO of Africa Media Online (Pty) Ltd flanked on the left by Bandile Sizani, Operations Manager at the company, seen in front of the building where we have offices.

Rosanne Larsen took full control of the financial management and with the help of wise advisors steered us through the season of severe constraint that lasted for 3/4 of 2020. In 2021 Bandile Sizani moved progressively into the role of Operations Manager and has done wonders in getting the right team members in place in our production team.

Alberto Simões has been a steady and wise leader heading up the IT team. When the IntraDoc Search that we had outsourced to another company failed and numerous meetings and much effort to solve it did not come to fruition, Alberto stepped in and together with others solved it in a couple of weeks creating our own system from scratch that we can manage ourselves.

And finally, in 2021 we welcomed on board our new Chief Executive Officer, Sandile Swana, who in the course of the past year has set us all on a new trajectory toward efficiency, effectiveness and growth. That has allowed me to shift sideways into my core gifting, innovation, marketing, and sales as Director of Business Development, which I am relishing.

The Right Systems

What is unique about Africa Media Online’s service is that we are not just storing derivative access files that can be engaged with online. We are in the business of creating and storing millions of preservation quality files for the long term. Doing that well is a whole other order of complexity. We have been working on this for over 20 years now, getting better and better at it every year.

Installation of Bundu generator
A team from Neilson Electrical installing a Bundu generator at the Africa Media Online offices in June, 2021.

In 2020 and 2021 we made significant advances in terms of our systems. The system for managing digitisation projects down to the fine detail (and there is a lot of that) that Nicki put in place has proved spectacularly reliable up to the point of ingestion. And in 2021, Rui Meira, under the supervision of Alberto, developed and deployed the ArchiVault Generator, our new ingestion and generating system. That came online in November and December last year and has, at last, given us the capacity to automatically ingest hundreds of thousands of media files seamlessly without human intervention.

In June 2021 we installed a diesel generator (we did our absolute best to get permission to install a solar system, but could not get permission from the body corporate) that automatically kicks in when the power goes out and which supports not only our IT systems but our whole office allowing us to keep working flat out on your projects even when Eskom is not online. Prior to that, we had an inverter that could keep us going for 2-3 hours. Now we can manage 20 hours without having to refuel.

All in all we feel like we are starting to gain significant momentum now and have a whole lot more developments planned. You can see these on our Preservatio Roadmap. So here’s to you in 2022, a good, safe and productive year to us all.