Telling Africa’s stories without borders
The African Independent will change the narrative of how the continent is reported, Independent Media’s executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé tells Michael Morris.
Cape Town - When, as a recently graduated medical student, Iqbal Survé chose to do his elective stint at the infectious diseases unit at Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital in the mid-1980s – and spent a further six weeks at a clinic in rural Zimbabwe – it sealed what turns out to be a lasting affection for a country often in the news for its deepening contemporary crisis.
Zimbabwe, the executive chairman of Independent Media said without hesitation, is his favourite place in Africa.
The warmth of the people, breathtaking natural beauty and his experience of the quietude of its rural life touched him as a young man, and the affinity is with him still.
Beyond questions of affection, though, is his interest in Africa as a huge growing market, and sentiment is not a primary feature of his appraisal.
He makes no apology for viewing economic prospects, or the scope of returns on investment in the continent, with unsentimental alertness, asserting that his high ambitions in Africa are realisable if founded on good research and clear-headed planning.
In an interview on the launch of Independent Media’s new continental weekly, African Independent, and its allied multimedia platform, www.africanindy.com, Survé spelled out the vision of an “integrated” strategy he sees challenging agencies such as Reuters, Bloomberg and Agence France Presse, and social media giant Facebook.
The new 48-page tabloid went on sale here on Friday – and, if all went according to plan, also in the capitals of Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – with the promise of being “a publication for minds without borders”, and one that would convey “the full African story, as told by Africans, for Africans”.
Though edited (by Independent veteran Jovial Rantao) and printed in Joburg, the new paper will draw on content and syndication partnerships across African media, the mainstay of which is the Sekunjalo-owned African News Agency (ANA), set up after the closure of the South African Press Association this year.
Survé sees the new paper as part of a larger scheme.
“It’s print, it’s digital, it’s mobile. We think that within three years we will have an African social media site, a Facebook-like site for Africa, customised or nuanced for Africans, and also online video, as well as our satellite TV partnership with Africa 24. And, of course, magazines… we are busy with partnerships there.
“What’s common to all platforms is the content. It’s about how you distribute content, and if you can get the balance right between generating, sourcing and syndicating and packaging it on multiple platforms, you have a successful investment strategy.”
Survé believes commentators incorrectly saw the launch of ANA as the reincarnation of a traditional news wire agency.
“The business is not about replicating the service, but understanding where the market sits and what the requirement is. Our view is that it’s not about news wires services, but content syndication and social media.”
He said within less than a year ANA “has been valued at between $600 million and $1 billion as we have brought in investors who have bought 10 percent at that valuation”.
ANA, he said, is the core element of the company’s expectation that “in five years, we will be competing very aggressively not just with Reuters, Bloomberg and others, but even with social media engines such as Facebook”.
Wider African investments, he said, go with putting money into the South African operation, starved of investment under the former Irish owners.
“I cannot keep blaming the Irish, but they really did not do anything.”
Survé said he was pleased with achievements to date – the group’s digital capacity, launching new products, including expanding vernacular publications, a group-wide redesign initiative (in the works), and advances into Africa.
Economic viability rather than utopianism or ideological orientation is, he insisted, the foundational principle of expanding media interests.
“I don’t move without having a lot of information to back up our plans. Some of those plans go into the dustbin because they don’t satisfy the essential criteria, which are largely commercial. Fundamentally, what we are doing is a business, and it has to be sustainable and self-funding if it’s going to have any social function. You can have a utopian view of life, but you have to be realistic about doing business, or you end up making terrible mistakes. Business is also about risk, but minimising the risk and calculating well.”
A key feature of his approach, he said, is developing partnerships.
“Collaboration and partnership are vital. You cannot run a business as you did a few years ago. And in media, the virtue of partnerships lies in the diversity of content.”
It extends to other spheres of the operation, too, he said.
Survé recalled that while his “African strategy” team was working on the plans for the new weekly, “I sent them back probably six times to relook at the positioning, the mock-ups, the content, the advertising revenue, the circulation, all the key assumptions… and if I think back to the original distribution model, it would have cost more than the cost of the entire paper. At some point I said, ‘Why not partner with airlines?’ And that’s the model we now have, reducing the cost of distribution by 90 percent.”
The new paper is focused on Africa’s “influencers” – professionals, decision-makers, industry leaders, opinion formers. “You cannot print for the whole continent, and you don’t want to either. But allied to the print platform is the online element, which some 300 million Africans can access on their mobile phones or computers.”
On projections, Survé anticipates African Independent will be self-sustaining within a year.
“I insisted that at least 80 percent of the advertising had to be pre-sold before I gave the go-ahead, in order to achieve profitability in the shortest time. Of course, it’s only really when the numbers hit your till that it counts, but if everything pans out the way the team predicts, this will be one of the most successful print launches in the world.”
If the venture comes at a time of economic anxiety, Survé believes the medium to long-term outlook for Africa is bright. “It’s the fastest growing region, albeit off a low base, but by 2030 the continent will be a $2 trillion economy. It will have the highest number of skilled young people in the world, and, more importantly, there is going to be much greater integration within the continent, driven by massive infrastructure projects – in telecommunications, ports, rail and air links.”
“So we think, on a macro-economic basis, the fundamentals are there. With growth and inward investment over the next 20 to 30 years, people will be more educated and skilled, there will be more businesses, and with that will come a rising need for information, and space for advertisers to present their products, online and in print. For the policy-maker, the academic, the social activist, the business person, there is a need for continental news and information.”
To be trusted, he said, such content must be untainted by ideological or political agendas. Survé noted that most speculative commentary on his buying the Independent group from the Irish anticipated that “we would take a certain direction, and that did not happen. The direction I have taken is that you have to put all sides, and not have an agenda and not become involved in politics. And across the continent, that’s our policy too… don’t get involved, but report all sides, good and bad, and tell the whole story, the successes, the achievements.
“And that’s positive. Africa must start valuing itself. It has a rightful place in the global economy and politics, in society generally, in multi-lateral organisations. And we are positioned to be part of that.”
Above all, he said, “this is a business, in a highly competitive environment, and our competitors are not sitting back. The only law that matters is that if you meet the needs of the consumer, whether the business sector or the public, you will be successful. If you don’t you will fail”.
He cautioned against seeking “quick profits” through, for instance, BEE-associated deal-making – at the expense of building capacity.
“The reality is very few black companies have built capacity … because their business models have not required them to think long-term.
“If everyone focuses on what they are supposed to do, we will be successful.”