A good news man in Africa

In Britain, journalism's reputation is at an all-time low. Elsewhere, it is easier to see its potential as a force for good. Simon Kelner reports from Tanzania on a project that has visibly improved the quality of local life

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The Independent Online

Cut through a wattle forest, the dirt track to Lupembe does not afford the visitor from Europe an easy ride. From the nearest main road, it's a three-hour, bone-jarring journey – "an African massage," my companion said – to the heart of Tanzania's tea-growing country, through countryside that is more reminiscent of northern Europe than of Africa. It was the tail-end of the rainy season, and the verdant, rolling hills spoke of Derbyshire or the Dordogne.

We were now 13 hours by road from the bustle, humidity and ubiquitous Premier League football shirts of the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam. But despite the remoteness and the poor living standards in the village we visited – limited access to running water and dwellings built from mud – there were very clear manifestations of a community connected to the wider world.

Everyone, it seemed, had a mobile phone and the only visible commercial activity here was based around mobile communication.

There was a shop where you could pay to have your battery recharged and at least two other establishments advertised themselves as part of the M-Pesa network, the mobile money transfer service which millions of Tanzanians prefer to traditional banking. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the people of Lupembe and those like them – Tanzania has a population of 45 million and the vast majority live in rural communities – have anything other than a rudimentary grasp of what's going on beyond their immediate surroundings. In one of the least urbanised countries on Earth, the concept of regional media does not really exist: there are very few local newspapers and most local radio stations are music-based.

The inhabitants of Lupembe, however, are lucky. The newspaper Kwanza Jamii – the translation from Swahili means "Community First" – was established as part of a charitable organisation in 2010, and it has taken its vocation very seriously. Based in Njombe, the nearest big town, the newspaper has a mandate to serve the interests of its readers in a sizeable and remote catchment area – the paper circulates anywhere within 60 miles of its main office – and, for Lupembe, this has had very tangible benefits.

The individual tea growers of the area had long felt exploited by the major corporations and had been manoeuvred into a disadvantageous position through restrictive contracts and anti-competitive practices.

The newspaper took up their case with a series of campaigning articles and gradually things began to change.

In his office – a basic shack whose only decoration on the walls was a licence to serve drink – the village leader told me: "It was the first time we felt that people were on our side. We never thought we had any rights, but the stories in the paper gave us the courage to fight." As a result of Kwanza Jamii highlighting this issue and the new demands of the growers, the buyers agreed to a price rise of 20 TZS (1p, or 10 per cent) for a kilo of leaves. As a result, more money has come into the local economy and villagers are now taking it upon themselves to build more water pipes and a new dispensary.

"This has only happened because of the paper," said the village chief.

Njombe is a bustling town with a population of around 100,000 and one major road, either side of which all the area's commerce seems to take place.

There is still a colonial influence here, where the British established the first company farming wattle trees, used in the production of creosote. The jaded countenance of the nearby Kibena Country Club can't disguise the colonial glory days – most evident in the honours boards around the bar proclaiming, for instance, who was the squash champion in 1960. The town has become home to Ben Taylor, an urbane, softly-spoken Mancunian who first came to Tanzania in 1999 as a volunteer directly after leaving university. He was meant to stay for six months, but it turned into six years. After completing his Masters, he returned to the country to work for WaterAid and it was during this time that he properly fell in love – with the country, and specifically with a Tanzanian woman, now his wife – and that he also became dismayed with the way civic life was organised.

"I began to see a lot of NGO anti-poverty initiatives in a different light," he explained. "So much thought was put into coming up with new ideas and so much money was being directed into implementing them and yet a huge amount of this effort and expense was wasted because of petty corruption on a local level and a lack of accountability." This insight was epitomised by an NGO project in a nearby village which would provide iron sheets for roofing to women who had been widowed through HIV/Aids. The village leader was asked to draw up a list of deserving cases. "What could have been a very worthwhile project," says Taylor, "became an exercise in sexual corruption, the village leader only including on the list the names of women who would have sex with him."

A disenchanted Taylor resolved to find a way to fight this type of abuse of the system. "I realised that if those in authority felt they were being scrutinised," he said, "it would be much harder for them to abuse their position."

Taylor quickly arrived at the solution to the problem: a newspaper. He has no background in journalism, but is a firm believer in a newspaper's role in holding authority to account, in scrutinising the activities of local politicians and in engaging a community in the democratic process.

He left WaterAid in 2009 to set up a charitable organisation called Daraja (the Swahili word for "bridge"). A year later, he hatched Kwanza Jamii, with the help of the DfiD-funded Tanzania Media Fund. The paper, which publishes once a fortnight, quickly earned the favour of its readers (paid-for circulation is around 3,000, but readership is many times more given the propensity in Tanzania for people to "rent" newspapers by the hour) and the respect of those in authority. Within a year, Taylor had launched a second edition of the paper, based in the more prosperous market town of Iringa, some three hours towards Dar es Salaam.

By shining a light on poor practices at clinics, or the misuse of funds directed to schools, or the improper sale of community-owned, the Kwanza Jamii papers have fulfilled their ambition to spur the authorities into action, and to improve the living conditions of the community.

At the same time, local politicians have felt the heat of scrutiny. Even the District Commissioner of Iringa, an imposing former army officer and not the sort of man with whom you'd pick an argument, was grudgingly respectful of the paper's role.

While he felt that newspapers' main purpose should be educational rather than investigative, he admitted that the focus on social issues helped him to "know what people had in mind". Independent journalism is still in its infancy here – freedom of the press in Tanzania is a relatively recent concept, going back only to the mid-1990s, when the country emerged from the hegemony of a one-party state – and newspapers do not attract the brightest and the best. Someone said to me: "If you do badly at college, you become a teacher. And if you do really badly, you become a journalist."

I was in Tanzania as a representative of The Journalism Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established by Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of The Independent, to demonstrate that free journalism is a fundamental plank of democracy and can have a direct and positive effect on people's lives.

Ben Taylor's project proves this beyond argument. We are now working with Taylor and Kwanza Jamii to raise funds in an effort to extend the reach of his papers, to bring community-first journalism to more people in the poorest areas of rural Tanzania, to educate, engage and empower them and, ultimately, to help change lives.

See www.thejournalismfoundation.com for more details on how you can help make a difference. Simon Kelner is chief executive of the Journalism Foundation