Fighting digital colonialism

2007-11-20 00:00

The West's race to colonise Africa has come and gone, leaving turmoil in its wake. Now the same countries, with the United States as a newcomer, are racing for control of Africa's information, says Africa Media Online director David Larsen (37). It is what drives him in his ambition to ensure Africa retains control over its information.

"What I am seeing wherever I go is a new colonialism," he says. "It is a digital colonialism designed to feed the digital economy.

"My passion is that we, as a nation and a continent, own the information we have and prevent our heritage from being plundered by the world."

Africa Media Online is a Pietermaritzburg-based company that creates online archive systems to help people organise collections of media (such as photographs, film and sound) and make them accessible to an international audience on the Internet.

Africa Media Online is majority owned by the BEE group Kabusha Technology Investments, while the Larsen Family Trust and local homeopath Dr Rouen Bruni hold the other shares.

When I enter the company, which shares a restored Victorian-era building with former partner The Blue Box, I find the open space almost deserted.

"Most members of our team are in Grahamstown digitising media for the International Library of African Music, which will be the biggest collection of its kind in the world," he says. "We are developing the site to store music and images."

Larsen shares the responsibility of running the company with his wife, Rosanne, who runs www. africanpictures.net — their site dedicated to the storing and selling of professionally captured images.

“I supply images that genuinely portray African life, taken from the perspective of other Africans, as opposed to the perspective of the rest of the world," Rosanne, a mother of three, says.

"Working with Dave has largely been to support his vision, but has become something that I thoroughly enjoy too. I believe in the things that he feels 'called' to do. He has always thought big and needs people to get around him to make his ideas reality."

Larsen's Christian upbringing and his hunger for knowledge have been major influences in his life.

"I grew up in Nqutu at the Charles Johnston Memorial Hospital, where my father was working as a rural doctor," says Larsen, who is currently an elder at the Pietermaritzburg Christian Fellowship.

He matriculated at Hilton College in 1988 and graduated from the University of Cape Town with a bachelor of arts in social anthropology and environmental and geographical sciences.

"My interest in religion grew during this time and, after finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to shift my academic interest towards Christian studies," he says. "I got into Regent College in Vancouver [British Columbia, Canada] and did a diploma in Christian studies, followed by my masters.

“Regent was at the cutting edge of philosophy and critique of culture, which examined very successfully the shift from modernity to postmodernity in the West," he says. "My degrees have helped me think very carefully about society and culture."

He returned from the U.S. and married Rosanne in 1995, but Larsen was then unsure about what he wanted to focus his career on and, after meeting journalist Peter Ferraz of Splashy Fen fame, he decided to become a journalist.

Larsen studied night courses in journalism and photography at Cape Town Tech and his lecturer got him a job as a part-time sub-editor at the Sunday Times.

"When I moved to Pietermaritzburg in 1999, my passion intensified to provide an affordable platform for people in South Africa to record and share their stories," Larsen says.

“In March 2000, I met with The Blue Box director Paul de Villiers.

“We started talking about archiving images and he phoned me up the next day to say he was interested in the idea," Larsen recalls. “We then began Africa Media Online and it took a whole year to set up the first version of the system. Since then we have slowly built the layers of the company."

Africa Media Online was initially a website that aimed to sell articles from African journalists and pictures from African photographers.

Larsen noticed how visual imagery was becoming more important than textual information.

"Nobody wanted the text so we had to shut that system down."

Larsen says one of the most challenging years was 2005, when he stepped up his company's capacity.

"We bought the top-of-the-range Fuji electronic imaging scanner, which enabled us to digitise hard-copy media at very fast speeds," Larsen says.

“In one project, we had to scan 60 000 images in six months and, as a result, our team was working 16 hours a day."

In 2006, Larsen bought De Villiers's shares and this year formed the limited company with Kabusha and Bruni.

“Sandile Swana, who runs Kabusha, is our executive chairman and brings a lot to our company,” say Larsen. “He's a very sharp businessman.”

Significant organisations that the company has provided online archiving systems for include the Baileys African History Archive, which holds all the old Drum magazine material; the National Library of South Africa; South Photographers, which represents the work of famous photographers such as David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim and Santu Mofokeng, and independent photographers such as Rajesh Jantilal who provides images for The Witness.

In 2006, the company started Africa's first media thesaurus, the African Archival Thesaurus, for associating keywords with pictures so clients could search for them. They are working on a project to have the thesaurus translated into the major trade languages of Africa.

The company also trains professionals to become experts in the visual revolution, bringing an expert over from England to run classes in digital imaging around the country.

• For more information see www.africamediaonline.com or www.africanpictures.net

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