Credit: Africa No Filter, Instagram

Changing the Narrative of Doing Business in Africa

How do media narratives shape people’s perception of the business environment in Africa?

This question is at the heart of an innovative research project by Africa No Filter called The Business in Africa Narrative Report.

The report identifies and defines several dominant frames that western and African media invoke when covering issues on the continent. It shows how these frames lead to narratives that are often distorted from reality and harmful to the business ecosystem across Africa.

Joining me from South Africa is one of the authors of the report, Moky Makura, executive director at Africa No Filter.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Why Did Africa No Filter Publish The Business in Africa Narrative Report?

Moky Makura [00:02:05] We’re a narrative change organization and what we look at are the sort of persistent stories and frames that are often reported about Africa and its 54 countries, so business is such a key part of Africa’s development. It’s how we’re going to employ people; it’s how we’re going to create revenue to build this continent. So business is a key thing that we look at. We wanted to understand what the narratives were around business. Could we have more investment on the continent? Could we be doing more business internally or with other countries? And I think as far as we had seen, nobody had expressly looked at narratives around doing business in Africa. There are a lot of reports about the ease of doing business in Africa. There’s a lot of indicators and indices that are measuring very tangible things, but narrative and story is different, and it is actually what we do. And I think one of the key things that we realized is that there wasn’t anything definitive that looked at specifically narratives around doing business in Africa because we know that there is a correlation between storytelling, stories, and media and investment. The studies that have been done that look at investment on the stock exchange and once companies have been covered in media, it usually leads to overinvestment rather than under investment. So, we wanted to understand the same for Africa. So that’s a very long-winded way of telling you why we did the research.

How does one research and analyze the qualitative and quantitative impacts of narratives in the media?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:47] So can you explain a little bit about how you went about measuring narratives, analyzing, and identifying narratives? Like what methodology did you use to compile your data for this report?

Moky Makura [00:04:04] So, I mean, it’s a pity that we haven’t got Richard on because Richard was the actual researcher. So, I’d hate to speak for him because I know he spent hours on this. But what we did was we looked at keywords. We looked at the kind of stories. We looked at the frames and then the resulting narratives. Narratives by definition are the effect of different stories told over time, persistent stories. So, in the report, we highlight seven frames that are consistently told when you look at words like “Business” “Africa” in any kind of story, and we looked at both international and African media as well. So, what Richard did was, the keywords that came up consistently, he analyzed them, and he used a database called GDELT. So, I think it was something like a quarter of a million stories that he looked at so it’s quite a comprehensive research exercise that he did over a fixed period of time. But you know, the resulting frames are what we examine, and we talk about and those frames in a way lead to specific narratives and the narratives that generally are written about Africa is that somehow Africa’s broken, that Africa is dependent, and Africans lack agency. And those were some of the narratives that came through as a result of the frames that we can go into more detail.

What did The Business in Africa Narrative Report find?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:31] Yes. So, what would be like one example of a frame that leads to a discrete narrative?

Moky Makura [00:05:41] OK, so one of the frames that I think we sort of led on was the fact that there’s this sort of you know, scramble for Africa once again. That’s how international media specifically are covering business in Africa. They tend to cover business stories in Africa from the lens of international companies. So, it’s not so much about tech in Africa, it’s about what is Twitter and Facebook or Meta doing in Africa. And you could argue ‘well, they’re global media outlets,’ but they’re global, they’re not American, necessarily. I think the important thing that we’ve identified is that the persistent telling of the story of business in Africa through these sorts of international companies implies that there’s very little actual activity that’s going on in Africa. That leads to that narrative for me of Africans lack agency, that we’re not doing business, that if you know, Twitter wasn’t here or if Meta wasn’t here or, you know, Apple, name another big company, there wouldn’t be a lot of activity. So those are the kind of frames and the resulting narratives that we’ve sort of identified.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:52] So it’s basically like Apple or Facebook or name any big company, even maybe like extractive companies, you know, Africa is just a venue for their competition as opposed to a place where a whole ecosystem of business activity exists.

Moky Makura [00:07:09] Absolutely, that’s how international media covers it. Yes, that’s what we identified.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:13] Can you maybe walk me through some other key findings as well?

Moky Makura [00:07:19] Yeah, I mean, look, I’ll tell you, just because the report covers a lot, but they’re kind of three things that the report really threw up for me. One was the power of media. I know we say it a lot, but media is the window to the world for so many people. You know, when we talk about Africa, people haven’t been to Somalia or in some cases they haven’t been to Nigeria, but they have an understanding of these countries through what they read in the media, what they see in the media. So that’s the first thing that this report showed me, that media’s incredibly powerful in terms of influencing where investment goes, who gets it, how much they get. Why is the cost of money so much more expensive in Africa? It’s not because of anything factual, it’s because of a perception people have and these perceptions come from things people read and see and watch. And that’s what I mean, the power of the media actually influences people’s behavior, and that’s the first thing that I realized. The second thing was that there is so much missing in the way stories around business are told on the continent. So, you know, I’ll come to what is there but what is missing is that there was very little about the young entrepreneurs who are actually making things happen on the continent. I mean, how many times have you heard the stories of Africa as a very young continent? I mean, often it’s called the ticking time bomb, but we are a young continent so if you’re talking about business, how do you not include young people, young entrepreneurs? Another thing that we thought was sorely lacking, in fact, it was something like 1% of the coverage we saw was about the creative industries. Nollywood, the second largest movie producer in the world, sits in an African country, sits in Nigeria, and a lot of that stuff is not being covered. And I think creativity and culture, it’s one of Africa’s biggest exports. People are listening to Afrobeat. They’re listening to our music, but not writing about the business of entertainment or the creative business. That’s something else we saw wasn’t there. And the third thing that we saw wasn’t there was just if you are not Nigeria and you are not South Africa or even Kenya, you just didn’t get a mention. There are 54 countries in Africa and a lot of the time global media particularly were only covering stories that came out of South Africa, particularly and Nigeria. And that’s a disservice because countries like Mauritius, Mauritius ranks number one on the index of ease of doing business, not number one in the world, but number one for Africa. You know, countries like Botswana, incredibly wealthy countries, well-run, Namibia, but they don’t feature in any of these stories because of this fixation on these big markets: South Africa, Nigeria.

What is the African Continental Free Trade Agreement?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:12] As you said in the report, “Africa is two countries,” which is a really shocking finding.

Moky Makura [00:10:18] Yeah, I mean, it’s better than Africa being one thing.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:21] Well, exactly. This is at least a moderate step forward from what the dominant media frame might have been 10 years ago: that Africa is a country. Now, at least at two countries. That was a wild finding I found.

Moky Makura [00:10:34] And what’s missing was this thing about the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. It’s the single biggest, I think, opportunity for Africa. It’s for African countries to trade with each other. We realized I think it was something like less than 1% of coverage in both African and international media. So, it wasn’t just international media that we’re ignoring, you know, the biggest thing that’s happened on the continent, but actually African media as well. And you know, there’s so much money that’s been pumped into that to get almost 54 countries to agree on one thing. It’s been phenomenal. And, you know, unless media interprets it, how do entrepreneurs know how to engage with it? So, there’s a big, big gap there because that thing will not be successful unless it is interpreted and broken down by media for your average entrepreneur to engage with.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:26] That point on the African Continental Free Trade Area, which is the largest free trade area in the world measured in population served, that it got so little treatment by the media despite being this very ambitious project was another interesting, fascinating, and kind of disheartening finding of your report.

Moky Makura [00:11:48] Yeah, yeah. So, I’ll just say, the last thing—because I said that were kind of three big things that this report showed me the power of media, what was missing—but what was there, you know, it’s things we talked about. It was kind of three things. One of which was, the heroes in the stories about business in Africa, it’s what I alluded to, they were American or British companies, they were European companies, they were the heroes of the stories, and we were just the backdrop to which their story was playing out. So that bothered me a little bit.

What are some examples of problematic African business coverage by local and global media?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:20] What would be an example of that in practice?

Moky Makura [00:12:23] Again, it’s to the point I made that it would be a story about Apple, or like Meta opening an office or remember, there was a story where Twitter was opening up in Ghana, for example, and how did Nigeria feel about it? But it wasn’t looking at why they even necessarily opened up there. What was the business opportunity? What the impact of that move had done to the business community there, they didn’t sort of look at the next Twitter or people who were using Twitter as a platform. It was a story about the American company. They were the hero of the story, and that is problematic if you’re looking at this coverage as a way of opening up business opportunities or investment opportunities on the continent. These stories are not doing that for us, and we want stories to do that for us.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:09] So there’s one case study you cite in the report on coverage of coups in Africa that frankly hits close to home for me because the frame that I used after the most recent coup in Burkina Faso in late January was one that you identified as particularly harmful, which is this question of why are there so many coups in Africa recently? I interviewed an African expert on peace and security issues to discuss this issue but as you rightly point out, that framing is harmful. Can you explain that specific case study around this media coverage of coups in Africa, of which I am a guilty participant?

Moky Makura [00:14:03] Well Mark, I am very glad that you were able to put your hand up to that, but I actually wrote a piece about the way media has covered these six coups in five countries in 18 months. And the issue that we are highlighting around it is that the way it’s been covered as an interesting data point—six coups five countries 18 months—means that you are covering six coups in one story. If you look at the near coup that happened in the US, that was blanket wall to wall coverage of every nuance, everything that could possibly have happened to explain to the world what this was about. When you cover a story like that, you’re not giving any space to the nuance, to the reasons why it happened, because you’re looking at the data around the trend. And I often find that stories around Africa are covered as trends, you know, as opposed to let’s look at individuals that have suffered, same thing that we are experiencing with the coverage of the Ukraine war. We become numbers as opposed to like, let’s look at the individuals behind the story. And also, my last point on this is that your average news stories may be 500-800 words. How do you cover six coups in 500 words? That’s less than 100 words so how much space do you actually give to the issues that are happening in that country? And that’s what we’re saying. There’s nuance. There’s context that is therefore missing. You just don’t have the space to tell it when you’re trying to tell the story of six coups.

Is there a connection between narratives about business in Africa and peace in Africa?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:40] True. I would say to my credit, the podcast format gives opportunity for nuance. We did go into depth and one point that was elicited from that conversation was the fact that coups are actually very rare since the advent of the African Union across the continent. But that kind of leads me into a question I would be interested in having you wrestle with, which is what is the connection you see, if any, between the findings in your report and broader issues of peace and security in Africa? Is there a connection between, say, media narratives around investment in Africa and peace and security issues in Africa?

Moky Makura [00:16:23] Well, look, I mean, I think absolutely there is because I think investment in business doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens in the context of that country’s environment. If you want to bring your money in, you want to know it’s safe, you want to know you can get it out. And that is important. But the challenge is that sometimes when you tell a story of peace and security that becomes the only story of that country. I have been sitting in—in fact, I’ll use an example where I live in South Africa, late last year there was a series of people storming shops, they were looting, and the country seemed to have descended into chaos. Now it was happening in a particular region of the country. Now if that had been the story that anybody had read about South Africa, the single story they’d read about South Africa that would have curtailed any potential of we’re going to do this business because they’re reading about an issue in South Africa. The context was lacking that it happened in a particular region, that some people believed it was politically motivated, and actually it didn’t spill over into other parts of the country. I was sitting in Johannesburg at the time, and I was watching what you guys were watching in America, it made no difference to me. I still did my shopping, business happened. And that’s what I mean, that when you hear about these security issues and of course, there are more serious ones, but I’m talking about the one I was part of because it was a security issue for the country. People thought that the country was going to descend into chaos. You know, Burkina Faso, some of the issues that have happened, some of the stuff that’s happening in Mali, there are places that are not deemed to be safe by anyone standards, but particularly by U.S. standards. But the thing is that people do still do business. People still have to eat; people still wear clothes. Economic activity still happens and some of the bravest companies are companies that are operating in countries that, oh my god, are terrible. Look at the mining companies in Zimbabwe. They’re not pulling out when, you know, even when Mugabe was there, they’re not pulling out. They’re making a lot of money. And business is about money, but you do have to have a safe environment, but you have to understand there isn’t a single story that guides why you invest. You have to understand the market. You have to understand the nuance and that’s the danger. And it’s not just global media I’m accusing. It’s all media. African media is equally complicit in this. It’s the way storytelling happens. It’s how we receive information and how information is written.

How can the media better cover business and investment in Africa?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:55] So what are some proactive steps that media can take internationally and African media to more deliberately capture nuance and challenge some of the harmful frames that you identified? What could they do? What could I do?

Moky Makura [00:19:14] Well, look, I’m going to answer that question by giving you an example of The New Humanitarian, which is a media outlet, and I really like what they’re doing. In fact, we like it so much Africa No Filter is actually funding some of this work, but…

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:29] They listen to the podcast so it’s music to their ears. Go right ahead…

Moky Makura [00:19:36] Yeah, they’re doing what they’re calling decolonizing the newsroom and they’re really questioning the work they’re doing, how they’re telling the story and one of the things that the editors said that really sort of resonated with me was the context they’re putting into their stories. So, you know how when you get to a dinner party, and everybody knows everybody else’s name you a little bit scared to start asking people questions, so you just join the conversation at that point. And that’s often what happens with news stories. You’ve missed all the sort of background and context giving, and you joined the story at that point. And what they seem to be careful to do is give you context. So, for example, the example she gave was when they write about Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the world, and often stories will say that. And if you’ve just arrived at the dinner party, all you know about Haiti is that it’s the poorest country in the world, but they give you the context. They tell you why it’s been the poorest country, they tell you why it continues to be and that requires a little bit more space, a little bit more research, and a little bit more faith that your leader is going to want to know that information.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:40] Well, Moky, thank you so much for your time. This report is fascinating.

Moky Makura [00:20:46] Fantastic. Glad you read it. I hope other people will. And the one thing I will add at the end that, you know, Richard, who unfortunately is listening but doesn’t seem to be able to get on here. He sort of went through a lot of time to do two things which we really liked. He identified a lot of trends that people don’t include in stories. You know, things like Africa have the fastest cryptocurrency adoption rate in the world. In fact, Kenya has the most cryptocurrency peer to peer transactions of any place in the world. Things like that, people don’t write about them. They don’t think about that. There’s a whole story behind that particular headline. So, he’s identified 30 of them. Even things like these throwaway things that we hear like five out of the six fastest growing economies are in Africa; that actually mean something. If a country has a very high GDP, it’s a fast-growing country, there’s opportunity to get return on investment. It means something. But there’s a lot of things we don’t unpack with this data. That was one thing he did, which I thought was excellent. The other thing he did that was really excellent, he listed things that storytellers can actually do to ask themselves questions like ‘Am I covering this story correctly? Am I feeding a stereotype? Am I writing up a particular narrative inadvertently?” Because let’s face it, a lot of this stuff is done inadvertently. I’m not saying, you know, Mark, you deliberately set out to stereotype the continent. It just happens because in a way, we’re used to writing our stories that way. But he asks these questions, or he lists these questions that writers, storytellers can ask themselves as they look at the things they’re writing in business in Africa.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:37] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you to Moky Makura, that was very helpful and food for thought for me, for sure and cause for pause and self-reflection. Thank you to the folks at Africa No filter for creating this report. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!