What role will media play in shaping Africa’s growth?

As a seasoned Swiss born globetrotter who — after years of working in large corporates around the world and who in 2007 quit his job at Goldman Sachs to become an entrepreneur in Africa, my view from the ground is that “Africa” doesn’t yet exist.

Africa is not USA or China. Africa is not a country nor a nation. It is as richly diverse and complex a basket of individual countries that are as different from each other as Norway is to Portugal as is to Vietnam.

It is a continent that doesn’t exist as a whole so naturally any talk of growth of “Africa” is almost nonsensical. Almost.

But we live in the real world. In the real world we do have to make generalisations even if they are on a practical level rather tricky (image you were an investment manager for a fund that wants to invest in “Africa”, you’d have to go country by country and sector by sector, etc). Ipad sales volumes in South Africa are not ipad sales volumes in Tanzania or Mozambique (beautiful countries by the way, if you ever decide to visit them).

In the real world there is an Africa that has been shaped by international media and visitors. It has been shaped over many a stories over even more many a years around scandals around gross corruption, lack of an educated workforce and crisis after crisis (whether conflict or healthcare related). This “let’s help the poor” perception of Africa is not completely unwarranted of course: there are problems aplenty on the ground. But there is a reality that is changing fast on the ground (I fully accept that it doesn’t change equally for everyone as yet, but at least the trend is in the right direction save for a few hotspots such as Somalia or Zimbabwe).

But as with many things, reputation and perception are things that take a long time to change… and the gap between reality and perception has never been any greater than today. And that gap is possibly the best thing that can happen to Africa. It is the ideal space for opportunities and entrepreneurs who want to try and take advantage of those opportunities (that is, if you have the courage — and you do need courage — to get off your economic couch in Europe, USA, etc to tackle the standards delivery roller coaster that is Africa).

But how do the entrepreneurs around the world find these opportunities? This is where the “media” — that same media that created or helped create that international perception of Africa as a “basket case” — is playing an incredibly pivotal role, whether intentionally or not.

So how is “media” contributing towards changing Africa’s perception for the better and in the process assist in the growth of the continent?

I am not a media specialist nor do I have any businesses in the media space. I am a Swiss entrepreneur and investor who one day quit his job at the economic comfortable couch of Goldman Sachs and moved to South Africa. I have even an impressive string of start-up failures behind me in my short 7 year tenure in Africa. My view is one not one based on special interests or hidden agendas, but one based on observations and conversations with colleagues, partners and people around Africa through our operations around the continent. I even did an MBA in South Africa with the idea that it would be the fastest way to try and understand how to do business locally (and create a network… and believe me: in Africa networks are everything. Trying to do due diligence on a company in Africa on the basis of public information is a challenge and a half).

So the following is my view of why media is playing such a crucial role for Africa.

In any efficient economy (efficient meaning where everyone knows everything — efficient market hypothesis and all that) there would not be a need for media as an intermediary. But Africa is far from efficient. Really far. People and infrastructure are still ridiculously stretched and since the purchasing power of individuals is on average still very low (but growing) investments in reliable infrastructure to cater for the needs is lagging behind. Media is playing the same role in Africa that banks once did in Europe when they were the intermediaries and facilitators between those who needed capital and those with capital. No doubt one day the role of media as intermediary will diminish but in Africa that is still high on the responsibility index.

Media, in my view, will do 3 things for Africa:

  • Increase transparency
  • Improve crisis intervention
  • And improve education.

… and I suspect the above not for the same reasons that you may be thinking.

Increase Transparency.

In plain English this means making it more and more difficult to get away with corruption in the long run. As international firms increase their interests on the continent the tolerance for a cupboard full of skeletons will decrease and make it less likely that those with a corrupt past will be engaged. How does media do this? Yes, reporting on corruption and graft is one type of story, but they are temporary events that — as with many news events — often generate a bit of huff and puff and then slowly disappear into google’s search recesses. No, the reason for media’s contribution here is that reporting on large underhanded deals and informing the public about the kind of moneys that passed into the corruptee’s hands will increase the level of envy and avarice by those who were either not included in the deal or who feel they didn’t get enough out of the deal. Envy is a wonderful trait because it keeps a check on one’s ability to show off without repercussions. And if you have a lot of wealth it becomes difficult to not show off. Stories about wealth, toys, houses, trips etc (witness Mugabe’s extravagantly spending wife as a cliché example) are generating the kind of dissent that will make it more and more difficult to trust your friends and thus make it more difficult to be corrupt and get away with it if you haven’t shared your pie generously enough with them. Even in South Africa, where politicians used to buy themselves ultra-luxurious vehicles to travel around, It is becoming increasingly embarrassing to be seen in a luxury vehicle when close to half of the population is without a job.

Improve crisis intervention

… our should I say prevention? We all know that prevention is better than cure, but prevention often carries a cost to it that is difficult to justify politically in the face of lack of crises (think of how often you visit your dentist when you feel no need and instead book an appointment only on the onset of pain).

In any country regardless of its level of perceived sophistication, getting accurate and timely information is a tricky affair. In Africa — for all the amazing things this continent has to offer — the challenge is even more exasperated. When a crisis breaks out — think of all the true cliché’s such as uprisings, terrorist attacks, looting, health crisises, droughts- it is imperative to get quick and accurate information. Media in this role has and always had a great role to play (I recall watching US senators follow CNN on the invasion of Iraq for timely reporting). In Africa that role is ever more important as it can be the difference between literally life and death in some areas. Not just in terms of conflict and preventing it escalating it, but also in highlighting desperate causes.

With Africa’s rising middle class, comes a rising expectations from government. For all the critique (often justified) about African governments competence, in their defence, governments on the continent do not yet have the tax base to support all those expectations and thus limited resources are juggled around. Media’s attention can sometime act as the catalyst for investment and attention to plights that were previously ignored. Yes. It is often in the form of a short fix, but at least it is something (take the extremely horrible example of ebola and how it is forcing governments to look at the dismal state of their primary healthcare facilities). In the interest of full disclosure, we are involved in trying to make an impact in this fight (www.theebolaproject.org) against the pandemic.

So media has a role to play in the tackling of crisis, but in reporting and disseminating the information it also acts as an educator to other areas where there is risk of a similar potential outbreak. When a dictator is overthrown because the population has had enough of their politicians looting of the country (hello Egypt) you’ll see a lot of other wannabe dictators start to squirm in their seats. It may not depose them, but it sometime leads to a stir of resource mobilization and a hint of reform… and once you give a taste of freedom to a person it is very difficult to put it back in the bottle.

Improve education

No. I am not talking about educating the population and helping them through schools. Neither am I referring to online education (though I am sure that will play a role as Africa leapfrogs the fixed telephone infrastructure and is on track to become a truly predominantly mobile continent).

I am talking about the raw type of education. The education that allows people to know when they are being fooled around. The kind of education that allows — at least on a very basic level — to bypass censorship and attain other perspectives on any form of brainwashing (for example, there is a subtle drive in South Africa to try and mute the press, and the more it is tried, the louder the press is getting and the bigger the hunger by people to hear the truth). I am referring to the usual culprits of social media, radio, etc. but also to the rising demand for news, in whatever form (look at the rising tide of cheap scandalous newspapers such as The Sun in South Africa with such headlines as “my wife was eaten by a crocodile”). Many of course are junk news items, but they are news. In all their ridiculousness they cast light on many areas that were once dominated by tradition (think of some rather crude practices some as female circumcision, etc).

I am talking about grapevine education. I am talking about raising the wisdom bar of those who never had the opportunity to attend school or the information highway infrastructure we so often take for granted. If you need any proof just look at the rise in smartphones being sold in Africa. Or look at the pressure carriers in Africa are under to provide free content (in South Africa some of the cellular network providers offer free Twitter and Whatsapp traffic… which may sound trivial in the context of a European pocket, but in Africa with a person’s EUR 30–150 a month salary it means a lot).

But most of all I think media will improve education because of that beautiful human quality we know as peer pressure, especially amongst the passionate younger elements of Africa’s demographic (if you want a positive shock, try googling “Africa’s demographic dividend” — where the rest of the word is worrying about an ageing population median, Africa’s upcoming youthful age distribution is one of its biggest opportunities (and challenges in equal measures). It is not a scientific study, but if there’s one thing I notice in my daily interactions across the spectrum of youthful characters, is that no one individual likes it when their friends know more than they do. This peer pressure coupled with free access to information (free twitter for example) might — just might — raise the educational gap a little faster than we anticipate.

Yes. I know I am an optimist (though be warned: as an entrepreneur I have to be realistically optimist lest I go out of business). And I am fully aware that the road ahead is anything but smooth… but my sense on the ground is one of incredible energy. Of opportunities. Of possibilities. Of space for many people to collaborate to solve problems. A sense of rising appetite for Africa and the amazing people in Africa to rebrand themselves not as a “basket” case but as innovators, inventors, problem solvers. A hunger to show the world that the billion people continent people often dismiss as a recipient of donor funding and as a safari destination is in fact a rising powerhouse of innovation (just think of the challenges a business needs to face here: volatile infrastructure and skillsets and yet they have to deliver a standard consistently… there is some truly astounding innovation happening here which has led to names such as MTN, UTi, etc. The 8th largest media company in the world is a South African one (Naspers which own substantial chunks of software such as WeChat, etc). The 2nd biggest brewery group in the world? South Africa. The entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX: a South African.

Here’s a toast to Africa, its amazing people and the role of media has to connect the same people and make them into one. Here’s to the possibility of a united powerhouse called Africa.

By York Zucchi, Swiss investor and entrepreneur in Africa since 2007. Failed banker. Chief Coffee Drinker in the entrepreneurial space.

LinkedIn http://za.linkedin.com/in/yorkzucchi and Twitterhttps://twitter.com/YZP

This article originally appeared at the University of St Andrews (Scotland) “Africa in Focus” media summit.

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