We know that narratives matter. And the prevailing one of Africa is that it’s a monolithic continent wracked by poverty, disease, conflict, poor leadership and corruption. Enough with the harmful stereotyping.
Africa No Filter (ANF) is a donor collaborative that supports the development of nuanced and contemporary stories that shift stereotypical and harmful narratives within and about Africa.
In this Q&A, we talked to ANF’s executive director, Moky Makura — who was recently named one of Quartz Africa’s top innovators — on how fellow funders can get it right when it comes to the multifaceted continent of 54 countries.
Media Impact Funders (MIF): Tell us a bit about your background.
Moky Makura: If I look at all the things I’ve done in my career, the through line is storytelling. I’ve been a TV presenter telling stories out of Africa. I had my own show called “Living It”—I got tired of all the negative and stereotypical images I saw about Africans. It was like Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous for Africa; I wrote a book called Africa’s Greatest Entrepreneurs which showcased entrepreneurs, because at the time there was very little known about entrepreneurs in Africa. I published a series of Mills & Boon style books (the British version of Harlequin) for Africa called Nollybooks. I’ve done a lot of a lot of different things but mainly showcasing sides of the continent that aren’t usually seen. Running Africa No Filter has been a massive privilege and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
MIF: When you look across the ecosystem, it seems there has been some progress on how “Africa” is reported, but we’re still not quite there. Can you give us a diagnosis of the current state of representation? And who’s reporting on Africa?
Moky Makura: There has been some progress—you’re seeing pockets of coverage of arts and culture, on people who are doing great things. But it’s still very much the minority side of reporting, because news and reporting largely focuses on hard news. Particularly when you’re talking about global media outlets, when they have to select news from around the world, “if it bleeds it leads” still tends to rule the newsroom. The stories most people are reading about Africa tend to be hard news.
A little while ago, Africa No Filter did some research into how African media is covering Africa. What we found is 81 percent of news that African outlets were covering about other African countries were hard news. And by definition, hard news tends to be the negative news – the humanitarian crises, the political violence after elections. It’s the conflicts in Africa. The diseases. That’s what it tends to be.
What was even more alarming is that those stories came from western news sources. In fact, over a third of the stories were directly attributed to AFP, Reuters and in some cases, BBC. But what was more interesting is that when we did focus groups with many editors, what we heard was that because so many of these editors of course didn’t have correspondents in the 54 other countries in Africa, they would rely on western sources. Even when they had stories from other countries bylined by African journalists, those journalists were often sitting in front of a BBC report, watching it and typing up their stories. So ultimately, western sources are still deeply involved in writing African stories for Africa. And because of the way global news covers the continent, it is the negative stories that are published.
So yes, there’s progress but it is still limited because of the way the news machine works.
MIF: In so many places in Africa, and in the Middle East, we still see the model of the Western white man or white woman parachuting into these countries and hiring local journalists as their “fixer”—it’s a very neocolonial and ultimately racist model. Is the power finally shifting to African storytellers?
Moky Makura: There’s a move toward that and there’s a body of thinking: does the world still need international correspondents? There’s a way that global outlets view the continent and it’s not just global outlets. We launched a news service called bird and what we found is that our contributors struggled to tell and find nuanced stories. Most journalists who leave journalism schools on the continent are taught to tell hard news, stories that are right in front of them…..they struggle to tell features stories. We’ve got a body of journalists who are doing amazing work and we need to figure out how to sustain them.
What Africa No Filter is concerned about is how we empower local journalists to tell better stories.
MIF: What are some challenges you’ve encountered that have surprised you?
Moky Makura: At bird, we have a bunch of paid contributors and we have newsrooms contributors. The contributors struggle to find interesting stories that aren’t just about the usual stuff. Politics and sports tend to dominate. We find the quality of the writing from the pitch to the deliverable isn’t always great, so we had to invest a lot more in processing the stories than we thought.
We aren’t a PR campaign for Africa—we don’t always do good news—but we want to provide an alternative view of the continent. So many outlets are focused on the negative; we don’t need to add to that. But the African editors we deal with are predominantly still working in print, so some told us they literally don’t have room for stories.
bird is a digital storytelling platform. We specifically focused on the digital side to help these print outlets. So we do text, video and photos for all of the stories. The pickup wasn’t as great as we thought it would be even though it’s free content. Because their advertising teams make revenue from print, they don’t really care about digital and there’s no room in their papers for features. Print is still king on the continent, so we have to do more work with the publishing houses who are still doing the more traditional print layouts. Even though the content is free, there’s more to it.
I think there’s a panic to survive, so they’re not thinking about the reader and the content. African media is in survival mode and when you’re in survival mode, you make different decisions.
MIF: What has been the response from funding peers or media, both in Africa and abroad?
Moky Makura: It has been good. We have 35 media partners picking up our content. The feedback has been “it’s really good.” But it’s been more of a “a nice to have.” I don’t necessarily mind that. We can’t change media overnight. Media has survived for years on a particular type of content.
What’s been interesting is that our stories usually make it into the Top 10 stories on whichever news site picks them up, so I do think readers want alternative content.
One of the first things we did when ANF started was research on narratives about Africa. We went through nearly 60 documents—research reports, books, academic journals from 2000 that had been written on African narratives.
And we found that there are three narratives that revolve around five frames when it comes to Africa: corruption, conflict, poor leadership, disease, and poverty. And the resulting narratives that people walk away with are that Africa is broken; Africa is dependent; and Africa lacks agency. That’s what is reflected in the way stories are often told and we are working to change that.
MIF: What do you want funding peers to know about your work?
Moky Makura: It’s exciting. It’s risky. Philanthropic funds should be funding projects like this. It’s a huge game changer. No one has tried this before. How can we create a news agency that’s focused on the kind of progressive news we all want to see in Africa? Everyone who is funding Africa wants to see change.
Media funders tend to fund programmatically. They’ll fund for gender issues or advocacy around a certain issue. They’re putting the roof on the house but the foundation isn’t strong. bird is highly systemic. The reason there are no alternative stories is because there’s no one covering those stories. This is a systemic intervention. We can’t change the structure of global news but we can intervene and say “here are stories” that will provide an alternative.
The challenge is how do we make this bigger and stickier? We need African media owners to look at digital content as an opportunity to monetize.
MIF: What does success look like?
Moky Makura: Success is when we see journalists in Africa and those who cover the continent writing about Africa in a way that’s contextualized and nuanced, and that doesn’t feed the stereotypical narratives.
One of the ways we plan to monitor this is by launching a Global Media Index for Africa, which should be published in June next year. It’s a grant to the University of Cape Town in partnership with the Africa Centre in New York and they’re going to be looking at the top 15 or 20 global publications and ranking them on how they cover Africa, how many African journalists they have, how many African stories they run, and the actual content of the stories, how it’s framed, etc.
The whole idea isn’t so much of a stick approach to say “Oh, you’re doing a bad job.” We want to showcase the good writing. We’re not saying don’t write negative stories, but we’re saying: contextualize them. If the index can help bring attention to how to write about Africa better, and change the content, that’ll be success.