Bringing the Digital Media Revolution to Africa: How Innovative Local Publications are Positioning Themselves for Rapid Growth
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, the world has experienced a shift in how it interacts with media companies and platforms – for good or for ill. During the global lockdown, as people’s need for clear and accurate information became more urgent, some media outlets – including both traditional and social media – were responsible for driving fear and disseminating disinformation, while others focused on educating their audience about the dangers of the coronavirus, or feeding them useful COVID-related information and resources. The power the media industry holds is sometimes underestimated, but it would be hard to deny the role it has played in the pandemic – either by exacerbating audiences’ anxieties and confusion over the virus, or by attempting to advance the public’s understanding of how to navigate the crisis safely.
However, the media’s dual impacts were in evidence long before COVID-19 began, in both developed and emerging markets. In many parts of the world, media outlets are distrusted and oftentimes harshly criticised for being politically biased, tone-deaf and, in some instances, racist. In Africa, for example, some legacy media houses are regularly accused of writing with political, cultural and gender bias, while overlooking many topics of critical importance to the public.
In response, a new generation of media publications are shifting from the norm, tackling taboo topics such as domestic violence, drug abuse, homophobia within religious communities, war and terrorisim, and gender inequality. As Africa’s youth population grows, more of these unconventional media publications are rising up to the challenge of reporting on issues and conversations that both local and foreign legacy publishing houses are too biased or afraid to tackle head-on. Despite the inherent difficulties facing the media industry on the African continent—from harsh regulatory policies and social media bans, to corruption and questionable leadership—a growing number of digital outlets are committed to telling Africa’s story in a way that is true, fair and transparent. Furthermore, though there is a lot of untapped potential in Africa’s media space, these new digital outlets are on track to make a profit and achieve commendable audience growth. While some legacy media houses – particularly foreign ones – remain dogged in their antiquated coverage of Africa as a desert continent plagued by war, famine, poverty and other crises, these African digital media publications are changing the narrative and choosing to amplify the other side of Africa—the positive side. And they’re doing it by linking the journalistic and storytelling strengths of traditional media with the youthful energy and global reach of social media.
The influence of social media in Africa
In the last five years, social media has emerged as a provocative method of dispensing news and information in Africa, free of the influence of the region’s governments – which have often successfully pressured legacy publications to alter their coverage.
The broad influence of social media on the continent is surprising, given its relatively limited number of users. As of April 2022, there were an estimated 5 billion people using the internet worldwide. Of these 5 billion internet users, an estimated 4.6 billion – around 93% – are active social media users. But in Africa, internet penetration stands at roughly 43%, compared to a global average of about 66%. But even with the slow climb to wider internet adoption in Africa, digital social networks are helping African media achieve wider audience reach.
In fact, social media’s influence has been significant enough to cause governments to enact partial or full internet bans in recent years. In Nigeria, for example, social media—particularly Twitter—was the primary communication and information dispensation tool used in the #EndSARS police brutality protests of October 2020, and over 150,000 people worldwide watched the Nigerian government open fire at peaceful protesters on Instagram Live. As the protests surged on, millions of people around the world, including Jack Dorsey, Rihanna and Beyonce, lent Nigerians their support. Eight months later, the government would impose a seven-month Twitter ban after a tweet by president Muhammadu Buhari was taken down by the platform for violating community guidelines.
Since 2015, 32 African countries have blocked access to social media; and 12 of those happened in 2021 alone. To take a few examples: For 16 months, the Chadian government restricted access to social media outlets after its president, Idriss Deby, announced constitutional amendments that would allow him to stay in power until 2033. Togo blocked social media on its 2020 election day. During a lengthy period of mass protests against autocratic leadership in 2019, the Sudanese government blocked social media access and cut off nationwide access to the internet – and a similar case occurred almost two years later after a military coup took place in the country. And, more recently, Uganda and Eswatini both blocked social media and cut off internet access in order to “ease tensions.”
Despite these roadblocks, public criticisms of African governments have thrived on social media, with new media publications taking the lead in sharing these stories with the world. A number of African journalists have been the victims of insidious threats and intimidation, and these tactics have succeeded in shaping how some of the continent’s media houses portray African leaders in their publications. Some of these dangers still exist today, but Africa’s new generation of news publications have been emboldened by the visibility, opportunity and privacy that the internet offers.
Africa’s changing media landscape
Big Cabal Media is one of the new media innovators that are transforming Africa’s news landscape, by working at the intersection of media, culture, technology and people. Our sister publications—TechCabal and Zikoko—are taking on big conversations that traditional media publications have shied away from for decades. TechCabal covers the impact of technology and business in Africa, chronicling how African operators in various countries – starting with Nigeria in 2013 – have adopted and leveraged technology to change how Africans live, play and work. From hard-hitting interviews with industry leaders to exposés of emerging challenges across the sector, TechCabal has its finger on the pulse of Africa’s technology ecosystem. Zikoko, on the other hand, is a youthful publication dedicated to amplifying the voices and experiences of young Nigerians and other Africans. It tackles often-uncomfortable topics such as money struggles, black tax and dating in Nigeria.
In the process, we’re navigating a global shift in how people interact with each other online, and how they access information, factual or otherwise, via media channels. With the growing popularity of short-form video apps and open social media platforms, almost everyone has a voice online that gives them the freedom to share their own version of the truth. But today’s internet users also expect media houses like ours to fully embrace these digital tools, driving frank conversations and producing compelling content that can be consumed and shared quickly and seamlessly. For instance, TechCabal embraces gifs, memes and humour in its TC Daily newsletter, and also incorporates in-house designed feature images into our original stories on the website. Zikoko creates zany TikToks – which usually feature Zikoko writers – and witty YouTube series with relatable characters and storylines played by Big Cabal Media staff writers.
We operate in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which boasts over 100 million internet users – most of whom can afford to purchase low-data internet plans. TechCabal and Zikoko’s primary readers are citizens and residents of the country, and in some ways both publications have become a voice for Africa’s exciting technology ecosystem and the continent’s rapidly-rising youth population. Our goal with the sites is to reveal the humanity behind Africa’s emerging economy. African cultures are diverse and brimming with youthful energy; the new crop of African storytellers featured on sites like ours are using new media and digital technology to showcase Africa’s potential. Our publications exist to give Africa’s growing youth population a voice and outlet, and to record the historic milestones and changes taking place in the continent’s technology ecosystem.
But beyond telling compelling stories and disrupting a sector steeped in tradition and conventional storytelling, new media houses like ours have a chance at profitability and meaningful success. Big Cabal Media is one of the few media startups that have raised seed funding in Africa’s current funding climate, in which media houses are scarcely funded and are generally overlooked compared to other digital sectors on the continent. In 2021, African fintech startups raised over $2 billion in funding, accounting for almost 50% of the total amount of venture funding that poured into Africa last year. While other sectors like edtech, clean energy and health are slowly catching up, Africa’s media industry still has far to go in terms of getting a slice of the funding pie.
Big Cabal Media is part of a small crop of new African media houses taking on the challenge of growing and creating revenue in an under-funded sector. Our peers in the industry share this goal – and they’re also gradually gaining traction with audiences and funders. For instance, Stears Business, which launched its premium subscription model in July 2020, raised $600,000 in seed funding in April 2020 — a first for a media publication solely focused on data reporting and financial news in Nigeria. And The Continent, a South Africa-based media publication, was designed by Simon Allison – its Editor in Chief – to be distributed via WhatsApp and Signal: As of last year, it boasted over 11,000 subscribers.
With video, visual creative storytelling and podcasts on the rise around the world, Big Cabal Media is poised to pioneer the new media movement in Africa and prove that digital media publications have huge potential for growth and profitability on the continent. A digital revolution is happening in real-time across the global media industry, as everyone from Baby Boomers to TikTok-obsessed Gen-Z creators are using social media and other internet technology to tell their personal and professional stories. It’s time for entrepreneurs and funders to accelerate that revolution in Africa.
Photo courtesy of Big Cabal Media.