Art, Culture, Books and Travel

Crowdfunding saved Timbuktu’s manuscripts. What’s next?

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Woman who used modern means to protect ancient treasures wants to revolutionise funding of Africa’s cultural projects

Thomas Gruner didn’t know Timbuktu was a real town when it was drawn to his attention by the hacker community. They had seen a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo called T160K to raise money to protect several hundred thousand historic manuscripts that had been evacuated from the al-Qaida-occupied north of Mali but were now at risk of rotting in the humid climate of the capital, Bamako.Gruner, a young programmer from Olympia, Washington state, wanted to do his bit to help. So, naturally, he wrote a game. If visitors to the T160K web page played it, they could hold umbrellas over photographs of the rescued texts, many of which date to the time of the European middle ages. It was trivial but diverting.

“I thought if I could make something that was fun, people would start sharing it, and we could get T160K more active on social media,” says the unabashedly geeky Gruner now, sitting in the shared office space in Seattle where he sometimes works. The game – and the Indiegogo campaign – delivered: tens of thousands of dollars given by more than 1,000 donors bought dehumidifying agents to save Mali’s manuscripts anew. It was an innovative use of a very modern phenomenon, crowdfunding via the internet, to protect something very old.

Now the woman behind T160K is relaunching it with a bigger team and expanded remit: to find money for other cultural projects in Africa. Stephanie Diakité, a 56-year-old cultural development specialist who helped her friend, the Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara, evacuate the manuscripts, wants to revolutionise the funding of culture in Africa by connecting communities, often in different parts of the world.

“It was amazing how many hackers got interested in the Timbuktu manuscripts,” says Diakité. “They were fascinated by it. There was one – her handle was hackerbabe – who said something like, ‘Hey, guys, these people are like doing sthg with real words, so let’s help em!’ Then we got this huge whoosh of contributions.”
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Commercial operations such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter have been around for at least five years – but a growing number of organisations are experimenting with crowdsourcing as a philanthropic tool. The San Francisco-based not-for-profit website Watsi finds donors who help fund healthcare around the world, the principal criterion being that the medical intervention will be life-changing. Community Sourced Capital, also based in Seattle, is attempting to solve the problem of banks’ unwillingness to lend money to entrepreneurs by crowdsourcing small business loans. “It’s an amazing model,” says Tony Dowler, T160K’s CEO.

The first wave of T160K projects include raising money for Ethiopia’s first professional circus, Debre Berhan, a bid to save the endangered Fendika music club in Addis Ababa, and financing for Instruments4Africa films documenting Africa’s disappearing musical traditions. There is also a bid to raise $100,000 to catalogue the Timbuktu manuscripts, which are now in exile. The team hopes to build a community of interested donors around each project, who will inform each other and T160K of any progress.

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