When you think of Africa what comes to mind? Go ahead give it a go, and honestly say the first things that popped into your head. Your answers will probably cluster around the same topics and images – the obvious ones that have become representative of a continent that seems to lack borders, countries and identities. Issues in Africa are usually referred to as issues in Africa. Being country specific is optional. Could the African experience be unilateral? How did we get to cover Africa in such general terms?

Kigali’s master plan

Ernst & Young recently conducted the Africa Attractiveness Survey, in which they interviewed over 500 business leaders, with some doing business in Africa and others not. Their findings highlighted a significant perception gap between the two groups. Those not doing business on the continent had a largely pessimistic view of the prospects for doing so, while those already doing business there were confident in the region’s growth. The survey pointed to an attractiveness based on perception versus reality.

For the average person who has never ventured to Africa, their information is largely sourced from the news media. They gather images of poverty and war, which are the typical context in which Africa is discussed. The most obvious contributing factor is the presence of few news correspondents in the region. For a continent containing 54 countries, tracking every notable story is quite a feat for one individual. So the usual happens – the headlines tend to be the same, and you find a correspondent covering a story about Lagos from Dakar, a four-hour flight away. Newspapers around the world pick up stories from the Associated Press, which delivers a singular story told over and over again, and these shared headlines are rarely positive in nature.

In depth African coverage simply has not been a top priority for Western media. Individuals relate more easily to stories from their own communities, and media organizations take their lead from ratings. When it comes to Africa, the ratings seem to vote for stories of despair and neediness, creating the aforementioned perception gap. Without mainstream media providing a diverse source of information about the African continent, perceptions from the 1980s endure.

This redundant coverage reinforces the negative images of Africa that persist globally. Unless people visit the continent for themselves, they are exposed only to a piece of the truth. When that truth is all negative, there is even less of a desire to explore the region. Unfortunately, this perception of Africa is not limited to the general public, but has infected potential employers that could otherwise invest locally.  The emphasis on investment is important, as investment, not aid, will help turn the continent around. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa is growing, and arguably yields the highest returns. It has also been responsible for the creation of over one billion jobs. Intra-African investment has also increased over the past ten years. These factors, along with the discovery of natural resources, have been responsible for the growth of African economies, with six of the fastest growing economies globally presently found on the continent.

Have Western media experimented in including more diverse contexts to support African coverage? Could this have an effect on wider perceptions? Perhaps by reporting at a country specific level, media could present a clearer picture of the climate of individual states that may not be so apparent when all countries are lumped into a narrative of war and unrest. By lending more of an identity to the countries that make up the African continent, this could provide deeper insights for the reluctant investor.  

The good news is that serious African media sites are creeping up in the wings and Africans are on a mission to tell their own story. Sites like AllAfrica.com and Sahara Reporters are not only reporting on the issues that plague the continent, but are celebrating successes too. These outlets also provide insight into African business, from large corporate entities to the grass roots. The idea is to present a more complete picture – for the global community to gain a better understanding of the continent and spot opportunities, leading to investment and eventually job creation. The voices of these outlets need to be louder, and made more relevant to the general public outside of the African Diaspora. They need to gain a place of relevance in the wider international news media, as Al-Jazeera has done for itself in becoming the voice of the Middle East. Western media could take a cue from these African outlets as they are the more prevalent, despite the world still being wholly reliant on Western media for African coverage.

Africa is not the most typical region in which to do business. Business owners have to operate on a country specific basis, and think more about the ‘hows’ of doing business in Africa. The ripple effect, however, is worth investigating further. As already noted, FDI has been directly linked to the creation of one billion jobs; further investment would only increase the figure. In this theory of how Africa can continue to grow, African governments cannot be removed.  Regardless of how Africa is covered, government is still at the center of what will ultimately make Africa an attractive place to invest. Governments need to be held responsible for creating a stable environment for their citizens and foreigners to do business. They need to be held accountable for curbing corruption, securing their countries, and creating infrastructure for increased productivity. Africa’s development hinges on the effectiveness of the public and private sectors, and each sector needs to hold the other accountable for Africa’s rise. Media could foster the growth of this investment by being more specific in their coverage, and making diverse African coverage a priority. 

(Photo © World Architecture News)

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