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If we don’t own our story, Africa will lose its sovereignty

Media

If we don’t own our story, Africa will lose its sovereignty

Since 2007, APO Group, a media relations consultancy and press release distribution service in Africa and the Middle East, formerly known as the Africa Press Organisation (APO), has carved out a unique niche for itself. The founder of the group, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, talks about the importance of the African media in telling Africa’s story, which is in danger of being hijacked by foreign media organisations.

Although many media groups in Africa have been suffering from dwindling advertising revenues and balkanised revenue models, APO Group and other media relations businesses have been thriving. APO Group has enjoyed a 60% year-on-year growth in 2018 with turnover doubling in the last two years alone.

Pompigne-Mognard expects a 40% year-on-year growth over the next four consecutive years. This is proof, he says, of the interest Africa generates among the business community at large and a desire by multinationals to capture an ever-greater market share of the African opportunity.

Today, 85% of APO’s clients are foreign companies, international institutions or multinationals looking to expand their work and business on the continent. “There are over 400 American companies and 350 German companies in South Africa alone,” he says. The demographic and macro-economic factors point to sustained growth, he adds.

“Growth is from a low base and the market is large and rapidly rising. these two factors therefore point to much scope for accelerated growth,” he points out. “For example,” he says, “a client of ours, a late entrant to the African market, is setting aside a fair chunk of advertising and PR spend in the millions of dollars – to gain market share. Their CEO has been given a target to increase revenues tenfold in the next five years!”

He also points to the art market to validate his thesis. Africa today represents 0.2% of the global contemporary art market. African GDP as a percentage of the world’s is 2%: “Some will see this 0.2% as insignificant but to me it shows the scope of growth that is possible. A bulge in demand for African art has led to considerable growth in the past three years and in turn has inflated the price African contemporary art commands today.”

Pompigne-Mognard is in a position where he can gauge the pulse of the continent and what companies are doing. While companies will go to his organisation to communicate positive news stories or positive developments, he still feels the trend is definitely a positive one.

Through his organisation, he drums up the opportunities that the continent has to offer and says that despite the economic slowdown, companies are still positioning themselves to take advantage of the inevitable rapid economic growth that the continent will rediscover and also to establish their place in what is still a nascent continent economically.

Problem of sovereignty

Pompigne-Mognard started off his career as a journalist and it was as a foreign correspondent for Gabonews, where he was struggling to find a single source for African related news from European businesses and institutions, that the idea to offer a press release distribution service came up.

It was following discussions with the former President of the African Development Bank, Donald Kaberuka, that he also realised that Africa had to have a platform to tell its story and amplify its message – and that the dissemination of news was intrinsically linked to the development agenda.

“What does concern me however,” he says, “is the strength of the African media and its overall influence amongst Africans.” He quotes a recent study by Ipsos, the polling and market research company, that says that the Nigerian elite and educated classes were more likely to watch international news channels than Nigerian ones.

“If African people are watching more African news on international news channels such as the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera than their own local media, then we have a problem,” he says. “We have a real problem in terms of sovereignty. We also have a problem because the African journalists will have no other choice, in 10 years’ time, than to work for international media.”

While he is pleased that organisations such as the Washington Post, BBC or even CGTN are opening or extending their offices across the continent – the BBC’s Nairobi office is its biggest outside of the UK – he argues that “if we continue delegating our stories to others, we will be heading towards catastrophe”.

And right now that is the trend that he is seeing, with a diminishing share of advertising revenue going to local media houses, making their situation that more precarious. “And once you relinquish the news story to others,” he argues,” you are effectively relinquishing some of your sovereignty and that poses a great danger, both nationally and continentally.”

He has no issues with multinationals or others operating on the continent. On the contrary, he says, his business depends on them, and “when they enter African markets they create a demand for many ancillary services, rented office space, advertising and communication, jobs etc”.

But the current situation is a grave one. And as any PR or communications firm knows, it can only prosper with a thriving and diverse media industry. Although there has been a rapid increase in the use of digital platforms tailored to social media, PompigneMognard believes these new platforms on their own cannot tell the proper African story or change the narrative.

“In any case, even on these platforms, these new entities are dwarfed by the larger organisations,” he says. What social media has done, he says, is to enable smaller organisations to have a greater reach and greater influence.

Media groups such as OkayAfrica, or even personalities such as Julie Gichuru or Jeff Koinange have managed to acquire a large following and are able to use social media to reach out to a global audience and put a different narrative out there.

Social media has also been used effectively to campaign against IP theft. We saw this in the world of fashion where campaigns were successfully launched against global brands using African patterns and styles and claiming them to be their own. Zara retracted some designs for example, when there was a massive backlash on social media for having stolen designs by South African designer Laduma.

Louis Vuitton was also accused of copying the Basotho blanket. But he is not sure that individuals have the same legitimacy as media houses as such when it comes to owning the African narrative.

A real threat

“Despite the power of these platforms,” he adds, “I am worried that the best African talent, when it comes to journalism will be condemned to work for the BBC or CNN. “And the day the Nigerian people are learning about what is happening in their country from an international media house, then the continent will no longer be in control of its destiny.”

Who should be leading the charge on this? Should we be creating a fund or subsidising African media? PompigneMognard doesn’t offer a solution but strongly believes that this threat is real and not enough is being done to confront it. Communicators on the continent, he feels, need also to be a lot more adept at using photos and videos.

“My company is talking to a global image provider as they are looking at ways to acquire African related content. They know that there is a demand and their stock is very limited. At APO Group, we offer our clients the possibility to integrate multimedia content (photos and/or videos) into their press release.

This service was a great success in 2018, with the number of press releases accompanied by videos or photos increasing by 35%. “We need to influence our storytelling through the right choice of images. And that can only happen through the provision of images that truly represent the African story.” NA

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