When TechCabal launched ten years ago, mostly covering startup activity in Yaba, Lagos, it was more of a passion blog than the pan-African publication it is today.
According to Tomiwa Aladekomo, CEO of Big Cabal Media, publisher of TechCabal, not only has the publication grown in reach, but also in the maturity with regards to the content that it covers.
“From Yaba, TechCabal eventually started covering Nigeria and then the rest of Africa. Additionally, the coverage started to go beyond just startups and into a broader tech picture that includes everything from the global tech industry to banks, telcos, and regulations,” said Aladekomo.
As TechCabal grew, so did the African tech ecosystem, which had started to become more appealing to international venture capital firms, circa mid to late 2010s. As the capital flowed in and interest surged, the industry saw the upspring of tech media publications who saw the value of covering the African tech ecosystem.
Some of these publications include Disrupt Africa (launched 2016), Techpoint (launched 2015), Weetracker (launched 2018), Ventureburn (launched 2012) and Bendada.com, launched in 2018 by Benjamin Dada. Dada, who started his dabble in journalism through blogging and freelancing with another Nigerian tech publication for the better part of two years, started Bendada.com to fill what he saw as gaps in tech coverage with incumbent publications.
“After that time blogging as a freelance journalist, I figured that the only way I could control the quality, pace, and a whole bunch of things about my tech coverage was through my own publication. I started out as the sole writer and then people started reaching out to write for the platform, and because I already had some experience with running a Medium publication, I allowed it.. And that’s how Bendada.com became what it is today,” Dada tells TechCabal in an interview.
In order to motivate a business case for the publication, in an ecosystem where competition was already strongly competitive, Dada had to think of an alternative model which went beyond just news publication.
“When I started out on my own thing, I had to figure out how to make revenue. It was a toss up between content creation and just traditional news publication. In the end, I chose the route of content creator, which is people would pay me for the time and expertise I put into putting together a story about them or their business, because whenever I put out a story like that, it would help them acquire customers or promote their offering to the audience. We started with mostly interns and freelancers but we have since grown to have full time staff which is great progress,” added Dada.
Running a digital media brand in the midst of a digital media downturn
At the start of the 2010s, digital media boomed as venture capitalists started to see the value in backing publications which told the stories of technology startups and their mostly eccentric founders. However, the past few months have seen the industry, especially in the US, going through a rough patch.
Layoffs and shutdowns have been the order of the day as executives try to find profitability models to sustain their businesses beyond journalism. Fortunately, Africa’s digital publications have not experienced these challenges, and there is much optimism that they won’t.
“I think African digital publications are not going to fall to the same fate as the US ones because most of them were not built off of VC money. This means they are not under pressure to achieve difficult growth rates and other pressures which come with the backing of VCs,” Dada says.
But even for the few venture-backed publications on the continent, he believes the peculiarity and sheer amount of opportunity that is present in tech media in Africa will allow them to weather the digital media crisis storm.
Some of the tech media brands that have raised venture capital in Africa include Big Cabal Media, publisher of TechCabal, and Stears Insights.
“The media brands who have raised capital obviously have deeper pockets, connections, networks, and are able to explore numerous revenue channels which helps them diversify their stream beyond just traditional media revenue baskets. I believe there are a lot of low-hanging fruits which can be reaped with the backing of VC capital. I think the only challenge now will be for maybe newer entrants into the media space, who need to figure out how to establish themselves in a competitive market,” says Dada.
Newsletters, the new frontier?
As the news publication space has grown to near saturation over the last few years, a new frontier in the African tech media space has opened up: newsletters. Some prominent newsletters in the industry include Communique, Notadeepdive, TechSafari and Afridigest.
Newsletters have proven to be a hit with readers, with many growing their readership to significant heights. They particularly enjoy the advantage of not being shackled to a corporate setup, which has seen some tech news publications constantly accused of favouritism and bias in their reporting.
When Caleb Maru, who stated that he has no journalism background, started TechSafari, he did not anticipate that it would blow up to the proportions that it has today.
“The whole media thing came almost as an accident. I was just trying to understand the tech ecosystem in Africa and I wanted to force myself to learn so I figured the best way to do that was to actually just write about what I was saying and to share that publicly, and force myself to put stuff out there and hopefully get people responding and sort of crowdsourcing the learning,” Maru told TechCabal.
Maru, who has lived in Australia and had his first interaction with the African tech ecosystem through his startup Entry Level, which helped people get tech jobs in Africa, adds that he has also been investing in early stage startups for the past year and a half.
After writing a few stories in his newsletter, he realised the knowledge gap that existed between people outside the continent and the African tech ecosystem. Additionally, through his newsletter, Maru was able to stoke interest in African startups from foreign investors who would sometimes ask him for introductions.
“I realised that some of the stuff I posted just went super viral and I was like, there’s no platform which tells African stories to the world. That is when I decided to double down on the efforts I put into the platform. At the moment I post like twice a week and the response has been great, to say the least, “ said Maru.
For Emeka Ajene, publisher of Afridigest, newsletters in the African tech ecosystem are more complementary to the work done by the traditional publications, than competitive.
“You have to understand that there is a dichotomy in tech media in Africa. On the one hand, you have news publishing which is done by the publications. On the other hand, you have analysis of the ecosystem which is where Afridigest and the other newsletters come in. At the end of these days, both of these points of coverage are important in painting a complete picture of the African tech ecosystem,” Ajene told TechCabal.
The competition, he believes, is mostly among tech publications themselves, and has intensified as global publications like Semafor, TechCrunch, Rest of World, and Quartz have entered the African market through their correspondents on the continent.
“The entrance of players like TechCrunch and Rest of World is a welcome development because it elevates the quality of the discourse about African tech and puts it in front of the world. Additionally, it’s also great for talent in African tech media and they are able to elevate their careers with these globally recognised publications,” added Ajene.
More maturity, more problems
African tech media coverage has evolved past the fundraising news which made up the majority of the publications’ content in the 2010s, to more in depth analysis of the workings of startups and other elements of the tech ecosystem. This maturity, however, seems to have created a disconnect between the media and other ecosystem players including founders and investors.
This week, founder of the now defunct Web3 startup Lazerpay, Emmanuel Njoku, shared screenshots on Twitter of a conversation with a journalist. In the tweet, Njoku complained of the “spamming” that he has been subjected to by the journalist, who had reached out to enquiry about Njoku’s willingness to share the Lazerpay story.
The comments on Njoku’s post showed how much polarisation tech ecosystem coverage in Africa can foster amongst the industry elements.
Whilst some commenters sympathised with the journalist and stated that they were simply doing their job, others regarded the messages as a form of harassment of someone who had just gone through a tough time. Some even went as far as calling the journalist’s inquiries inappropriate and borderline tabloid-y.
According to Ngozi Chukwu, a TechCabal reporter, this unfortunate disconnect is bound to happen as coverage of the African tech ecosystem matures beyond covering fundraising news to in-depth analyses about the workings and failings of startups in the ecosystem.
“In the early days of the startup boom, you had a situation whereby founders and their startups were mostly heralded and mostly covered as deity-level changemakers both by the media and their audience. But as the ecosystem grows, there is more emphasis on coverage which also dives deep into the business case of the startups, something that is obviously bound to attract a pushback by the said founders,” said Chukwu.
Indeed over the course of the past year, there have been a plethora of stories by African tech publications covering the not-so-rosy doings of ecosystem players including sexual impropriety, alleged fraud as well as business failings, among others.
“On the topic of ecosystem coverage, I have to side with the media. The problem with founders in Africa is that they seem to want their bread buttered on both sides. On one hand, they want the media to cover their fundraisings and product launches but when it’s time to answer hard questions about their businesses from the same media, suddenly they are the bad guys,” stated Ajene.
However, Ajene added that though the media has a right to cover startups and founders critically, journalists and publications need to do so accurately, and abide by journalistic ethics.
Idagu David, Africa Regional Consultant at PR and Communications firm Allison+Partners, advises that instead of taking to social media to engage in spats with journalists, startup founders must invest in the requisite PR expertise, either inhouse or externally.
“As a founder, the worst thing you can say to a journalist is that you have no comment on a story. This creates a vacuum which can be filled with any information. It is important to relate with journalists in such a way that even if their coverage is negative, you still own the narrative and your perspective is clear. This can only be done through an engagement with a PR and communications professional,” David told TechCabal on a call.
What’s next for African tech media coverage?
The importance and value of media coverage in the African tech ecosystem cannot be overstated. Media coverage allows both insiders and outsiders of the ecosystem to understand and appreciate its successes and failures, and learn how the latter can be avoided in the future.
Just like the ecosystem itself, the media has to grow and adapt in order to efficiently and effectively report news. According to Dada, publications and independent journalists who place value in the accuracy of their reporting will stand the test of time.
“I think the trust that each platform has built over time will be a differentiator and a distinguishing factor. If overtime you continue to erode the trust your audience has in you either by conflicts of interest or bias in your coverage, it is bound to backfire. It might seem like people don’t care but that population that doesn’t care is always a very tiny, tiny fraction,” he tells TechCabal.
For Aladekomo, the ability to incorporate emerging technologies into newsrooms will determine which media businesses are able to endure the test of time and remain relevant.
“I think the single most important trend that’s really going to shake up our industry is probably AI. I think that’s gonna have a major impact on what the media looks like in the next 18 to 24 months. It is going to affect the building, distribution and monetisation of media products and as BCM, we are going to think very intelligently about how we adapt it to our advantage,” he added.
Aladekomo further alluded to the importance of editorial talent in fostering the strength in coverage of tech in Africa.
“I think one of the dangers in our industry is that when things get tough, people start to slim down their newsrooms and start to cut their investment in editorial. And I think that our takeaway from the publications that I’ve done is that it is easy to cut away at your newsroom until there’s no newsroom anymore. When there’s no newsroom, there’s no product. My view is that it is better to invest significantly in the quality and skill of the editorial talent.”
Maru believes that in the future, there is bound to be a power shift in African media from publications to independent journalists covering the ecosystem.
“I think that we will probably see a bit of a power shift towards figures rather than institutions, just because people can connect to people better than they can to brands. The rest of the world really wants to know what’s happening in the ecosystem and I think they would find it easier to connect with a person than a brand whose coverage might be influenced by external factors like sponsorships etc. So I think that’s where we’ll see things shift,” Dada explained.
According to Ajene, the ability to diversify revenue streams will determine which African media players will be able to stay afloat in the future.
“In Africa, just programmatic advertising and subscriptions are not going to cut it because for the former, the return is very low compared to other regions and for the latter, it is difficult to scale because the majority of consumers have very limited disposable income. With that in mind, to sustain a media business, it is vital to think beyond just those two revenue streams and businesses who figure that out have a better chance of success,” he concluded.
Regardless of who you ask, there is an overwhelming consensus about the value that media coverage adds to the Africa tech ecosystem. Of course, there is some polarisation with regards to the objectivity of the coverage but in a relatively nascent ecosystem, that is bound to happen.
As it matures, the African tech ecosystem will attract attention from all over the world, and to ensure thats its stories are told as accurately as possible for the benefit of progeny, it is vital to have a media painting an accurate picture of the innovators, regulators, startups, and other players, warts and all.