Characteristics of African media markets
by Guy Berger, Paper for workshop convened by Forum Media and Development,
15-16. September, 2006. Academy Eichholz Castle, Germany: “Money matters. How
Independent Media Manage to Survive”.
This paper assumes that an overview about African media markets like this is intended for
a purpose. That purpose is to highlight obstacles and opportunities for growth in these
markets. This indeed is a topical issue, not least because of various initiatives in the wake
of the recommendation in the March 2005 Blair Commission for Africa that “Independent
media institutions, public service broadcasters, civil society and the private sector, with
support from governments, should form a consortium of partners, in Africa and outside, to
provide funds and expertise to create an African media development facility.” African
media markets and how to develop them is a highly relevant matter.
The insights contained in this paper draw from recent academic research as well as direct
personal experience of having been an editor who has also served as business manager on a
weekly newspaper in Cape Town. It is also based on insights gained from teaching media
management on numerous short courses for Southern Africans in the past decade. Lastly,
work by colleagues in the Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute at Rhodes University, a
facility founded by this author, has also been valuable in contributing to the perspectives
herein. At the same time, it must be stated that this paper is to a large extent impressionistic
rather than “scientific”. Further, when the term “Africa” is used below, it designates mainly Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa and more correctly Southern Africa. Of course,
even Southern Africa is also very diverse, as is discussed below.
2. Mapping which markets?
If we take the word “markets” literally, the term refers to the competitive exchange of
goods and services, and size and speed are usually important factors. In regard to media,
this refers to the whole gamut of transaction relationships that go into the sustained
reproduction of a media enterprise. There are very many of these, especially if one includes
various services to that enterprise. Thus, African media depend on the exchange of
numerous commodities – and the relationships that enable these (i.e. “markets”). Much like
those elsewhere in the world, therefore, African media markets can be assessed in regard
? Finance (capital markets) ;
? Facilities (newsprint supply, PCs & software, printing presses, studios, etc);
? Audiences and/or consumers ;
? Advertising, advertorials, sponsorships;
? Promotions and events;
? “Pipes”/frequencies/cables/transmission masts;
? Points of retail sale;
? Reception devices (eg. Radio sets);
? Skills (editorial, business, legal, accounting);
? Services (eg. Market research, business intelligence, consultancies, training, etc.)
? Editorial content (freelancers; news agencies; syndication arrangements)
It can be acknowledged that progress in some markets can be relatively independent of the
state of others. For instance, it is not uncommon in South Africa newspapers to find
shrinking audiences and yet increasing advertising. However, on the other side, the
interdependent character of many markets also means that problems or limitations in one
market can have a major negative impact on prospects in other markets and therefore the
media as a whole. For example, it is hard to build the audience market for TV if there are
weaknesses in the transmission services or receiver set markets. Thus, a holistic approach
is needed if we are to grasp what it takes to develop media as such.
Theses principles apply to African media no less than to many other countries. However, at
the outset it must be stated that the continent in general is very, very far from the 24/7
ubiquitous media commodity exchanges found in Western countries. There are also many
other particularities. One striking one is in regard to the market for editorial content, i.e. the
buying and selling of information to go into the media. Such commodity exchange does not
exist in many African media outlets in regard to international news. Instead of the
commercial purchase of content, there is substantial piracy (intellectual property theft
rather than market exchange). This is thanks to the availability of much content on the
Internet which is reproduced without permission, acknowledgement or credit.
Also found in Africa, unlike Western countries is a particular character to the markets for
content whereby news-makers have to pay for content to appear - in the guise of editorial.
This is in the illicit exchange when journalists demand or receive an honorarium from the
source in order to cover a particular story. Called “soli” (from “solidarity”), “gatu” (from “gratuity”), or most commonly “brown envelope journalism”, this is an all too common feature within African media markets in West and even Eastern Africa. In some countries,
such as Angola, a different kind of content market exists (in embryonic cultural form): This
is in the attempt by sources to extract money in exchange for information they are being
asked for. This amounts to a kind of “cheque book” journalism in extremis, although it is seldom that journalists and media houses in Africa are in a position to pay sources for
information. In summary, in some areas, African media bypasses markets and simply
plagiarises content; in other areas sources become “markets” for journalists to exploit, and
journalists are regarded as “markets” by some sources. Needless to say, such market and
non-market relations are not conducive to either credibility or to the development of the
wider market for the media. What all this points to are some of the peculiarities of African
media markets, which is a theme developed in the next section.
3. The big picture: Africa in comparison to developed countries’ markets
Perhaps the major point highlighting the distinctiveness of African media markets
concerns the small state of the industry in much of the continent, which contrasts with
much else in the world. In advanced media markets, where there is often
information/entertainment overload, it is evident that media enterprises tend to “follow the market”. For example, they have to give the audiences what they want, and also advertisers
what they want (i.e. particular kinds of demographics, editorial vehicles and editorial
environments). But in Africa, which is so far from being media dense, it is more a case of
“build the market” (in the above example, amongst both audiences and advertisers). It is
sometimes remarked that no one really knows exactly what audiences in Africa want, not
even these people themselves, because there is so little exposure to a range of alternatives
out of which preferences can be formed, identified and exploited as a market. In other
words, “audiences” as constructs are not something that pre-exists in many African media markets. Much more so than in developed countries, such social classes have to be created
from scratch (not just renewed or recreated). And in this quest although there may be major
“gaps in the market” (in terms of the sizeable hunger for various content by African
publics), the business constraint is whether there are (viable) “markets in the gaps”. The
extent of poverty in Africa militates against answering this positively, and there are other
factors (such as language, see below) that further make for complexities in developing
A second distinctive point about African media markets is in terms of drivers. According to
one theory of Western media economics, the starting point of successful media is (a)
appropriate editorial, which then attracts (b) interested audiences, and these in turn enable
the enterprise to then secure (c) advertising. In turn, the advertising revenue funds the
production of further editorial, so enabling a virtuous circle to revolve. Of course, some
people would argue that in practice, the real starting point of much Western media is
advertising, not editorial. In other words, that media development in advanced capitalist
countries is driven by the potential for advertising growth, which starting point then leads
to the production of a tailored media product that will garner the audience for whom
advertisers are searching. The editorial “idea” thus comes second in this scenario.
Furthermore, in this model, the customers of most media businesses are not in fact the
audience; rather they are commodities that are constructed for sale to the real customers –
viz. the advertisers.
At any rate, neither interpretation of Western media economics is readily applicable to African media markets. The difference is that most media in Africa starts – and ends – with
politics rather than economics. For example, many traditional suppliers of finance, such as banks, are politically scared to lend to private media in Africa because of the potential political sensitivities, plus the possible insecurity of the investment in an enterprise that can be eliminated at the stroke of pen signing a banning order. Some NGO-driven facilities such as the Botswana-based Southern African Media Development Fund (SAMDEF) have come into being to try and fill the gap to an extent. There have also been some investments by the International Finance Corporation (in the unsuccessful TV Africa), and by the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (in movies like Tsotsi). But the absence of effective markets in capital that could cater to media operations is a major constraint around the continent. The question of media investment markets, however, cannot be separated from the political risks involved.
Politics affects not just capital markets. It even overdetermines the whole economic dynamic in much African media. In developed countries, people often operate media as a means to make money. In Africa, even where there is a dynamic of making money, this is often in order to run media - as a political venture. (This model differs to the Berlusconi one, which combines political and commercial purpose in equal measure!). Thus it can be noted that state-owned media in much of Africa is run for political propaganda purposes on behalf of governments, while most private media is run by critical activists of varying hues (some linked to opposition parties). To a limited extent, some media content operates with a development agenda (as distinct from a political agenda, whether democratic or despotic). This is usually on a non-commercial basis (such as through donor or state support). But on the whole, that sector of African media which is run purely for business reasons – i.e. as an
investment prospect – is the least common dynamic to be found.
This character gives rise to another difference between African media markets and West European markets. In the latter, state-owned broadcasters are usually run without a commercial dynamic, with much financing deriving from non-market mechanisms, such as
licence fees or governmental grants. This is because their rationale is public broadcasting, and indeed there is also a vociferous private broadcast industry that is very hostile to public enterprises competing for revenue in advertising markets. Africa is very different: not only are most state-owned broadcasters “governmental”, rather than “public”, they are also very
active in advertising markets. The aim of this is not to make profits for the state, in the sense that a public enterprise might be designed to do; it is mainly to lessen the costs of running a political mouthpiece for the government.
Whereas advertising in Europe tends (with some exceptions) to imply independence of government, and rather dependence on the private sector, this is not the case in many African countries. The excessive commercialism that characterises many African state broadcasters is combined with political control. Public service thus suffers at the expense of both characteristics. Another major point is that much advertising in Africa is done by the state itself, which dynamic lends itself to enormous political abuse. Both the Namibian and Botswana authorities in recent years have attempted to ban the placing of government advertisements in independent and critical newspapers. This again highlights that African media markets are inextricably tied up with politics, and indeed an environment where media does not always have the luxury of a relative separation between economic and political power.
Although broadcasting around Africa is mainly advertising-financed, this is not the case with much print media. Instead, many newspapers and magazines tend to rely on cover price – i.e. an exchange directly with readers. In addition, most of these sales tend to be
street-based, with subscriptions and home deliveries being very low. The result is fragile cash-flows for African newspapers and often a tendency to hype stories in order to achieve street sales. Again, these characteristics are different to those found in advanced Western media markets.
A last point highlighting the difference between African and Western media markets concerns the scale and history of the continent. On the one hand, there is a myriad of local languages which is both an opportunity for niche media, but also a challenge due to
smallness of size. The rural dispersion of many residents also makes for a challenge in
terms of distribution, even as regards broadcasting signals. On the other hand, there is also
a common longing around sub-Saharan Africa towards an “African-ness” which raises the
potential – at least amongst middle classes – for transnational media markets (in one of three colonially inherited national languages). For example, stories about Kofi Annan will
resonate across most of the continent, due to an identification and aspiration that derives
from the pan-African shared experience of racism and colonialism, and resistance thereto.
In contrast, European media markets appear to be far more nationally limited – at least as