Alexis Akwagyiram, Semafor Africa

Alexis Akwagyiram, Semafor Africa

Our spotlight for this week is on Alexis Akwagyiram, Managing Editor for Semafor Africa. His desire for a creative outlet, write and travel, and experience of writing for his student newspaper had prepared him to step into the world of journalism. 

Alexis believes that by setting a good example with the stories told and creating new outlets, it would inspire more people to join the writing community.

What led you into the journalism world and what would you be doing if you weren’t a journalist?

  My curiosity about the world and love of storytelling led me into journalism. I wanted a job where I would be free to ask questions and dissect basic assumptions about a range of issues. I studied philosophy for my degree, so I had already developed that interest in critical analysis. I also wanted a career that would enable me to have a creative outlet, write, travel and meet people. Getting paid to explore the world and tell stories was my goal. And telling African stories specifically was my dream. My biggest fear was to be trapped in a job in which I wasn’t bored and trapped in an office. Driven by that passion and fear, journalism was perfect for me. 

I took my first step into the world of journalism when I wrote for my student newspaper. Initially, I saw it as a way to get free music and entry to club nights but I quickly realized that reporting made me happy and I wanted to do it for a living.

If I wasn’t a journalist, I’d probably be a lawyer. That was my fallback plan — a stable, respectable profession that would make my parents happy (my dad was a lawyer and was initially sceptical about my career choice). It would also give me the chance to be curious, ask questions and listen to people’s stories.  

When you’re hunting for stories, what are the particular elements that catch your attention more than others?

When I’m hunting for stories I’m typically drawn by three key elements: significance, what’s new and people. The first question I ask myself is: why does this matter? I want to understand why the subject is noteworthy. Ideally, I want to report on stories that are worth telling. That means I need to understand why the topic matter is significant. 

The “new” development is the bedrock of news. So I’m always keen to establish that there is a new development. Part of a journalist’s role, particularly in news, is to tell people something they didn’t know already. 

I’m a great believer in the idea that the best stories have a human element. I look for the way in which the subject affects people’s lives. Sometimes it’s relatively straightforward and, on some occasions, you need to look a little deeper. For example, the simple fact that a tech company has been assigned a certain value isn’t particularly interesting. That’s great for the founders but that’s just a theoretical value. And, even if it was sold for that amount of money, it’s still mainly about the personal success stories of founders who successfully executed their vision. I’m far more interested in the story of the utility the tech company provides — how is its service improving people’s quality of life? What problems does it address? How is it going to be even more useful in the future? Human beings make stories better. Answering those questions would then explain why a tech company has a particular valuation, which is the foundation of a story. 

Customers illustrate the significance of a company by showing the impact on their lives. People are at the heart of the best stories. They add a sense of purpose and the audience can better understand the significance of the story. Without people we just have a collection of words. 

Why is African business so unique and what makes it so exciting to report on?

African businesses are fascinating. The unique element is the nature of the various markets on the continent. The populations are younger than other parts of the world which often means they adapt quicker to new developments (such as innovative products and new trends). Older people are more set in their ways and hold on to habits. Fiscal and monetary policy can be more unpredictable in some African countries than other parts of the world. That can create a less predictable business environment which, at times, spurs companies on to be innovative and creative in their approach. But the key element is the youthful consumer base which means services and products evolve quicker than elsewhere. That provides a sense of rapid evolution in the business landscape. That sense of dynamism can feel exhilarating. 

Making sure people around the world hear about these companies helps to give a more nuanced and detailed representation of the continent.

And do you have any particular love for any sectors or industries?

No. I don’t have any particular love for any sectors or industries. I’m generally curious (or nosy, depending on your perspective), so I’m looking for the interesting elements in any given subject. Great stories transcend any particular sector or industry. 

Why is it important that people around the world get to hear about young, growing companies on the continent?

It’s important because making sure people around the world hear about these companies helps to give a more nuanced and detailed representation of the continent. Otherwise, other parts of the world are only presented with a very basic view of Africa which can lead to people having inaccurate (and often negative) preconceived ideas about Africans. It’s also important because developing an awareness of African companies builds an awareness of them beyond the continent, potentially exposing them to new investors and customers which could open up opportunities in markets overseas. The growth of these companies helps to develop African economies, enabling them to diversify and grow. 

How can we encourage more people to join the writing community and dedicate their energy to telling stories about African tech and business?

We can encourage people by setting a good example with the stories we tell, and by creating new outlets. The creation of new publications leads to more stories being told and in a broader, more diverse range of formats. Semafor Africa, where I’m managing editor, is a classic example of that. We launched in October last year with the aim of covering African news and current affairs with breadth, depth, nuance and a distinctively global outlook. I drew on my expertise as a journalist with more than 20 years of experience at the BBC, Reuters (where I was the Nigeria bureau chief) and the Financial Times. Our editor, Yinka Adegoke, brought his experience from Quartz Africa (where he was the launch editor) , Rest of World, and Reuters. The alchemy that comes from that combined experience means our publication has a distinctive take on the continent. But the continent needs more publications. More outlets provide a greater number of voices and therefore more perspectives and influences for aspiring writers. Ultimately, that means more places to get work published. 

It’s easier than ever before to join the writing community. There are countless digital platforms — from blogging sites to social media — where people can write and share their stories. And a smartphone means a handheld device can do the work of a word processor, camera and video camera. But it’s also easier than ever to spread misinformation and disinformation. We need more publications telling well sourced and deeply researched stories about the continent. That provides more examples of good writing and builds a larger community to embrace those who want to dedicate their energy to telling stories about African tech and business. And, with time, that community will help more aspiring writers to thrive.