Russell Southwood, Balancing Act Africa
In our spotlight this week, we feature Russell Southwood, CEO of Balancing Act Africa and author of Africa 2.0 – Inside a Continent’s Communications Revolution, a book about sub-Saharan Africa’s communications revolution. He speaks about the growth of tech on the continent and how it is now something that affects all ‘vertical’ industry sectors.
What led you into journalism, and what would you be doing if you weren’t a journalist?
I combine consultancy and research (from which I earn a living) with writing two e-letters, one on internet and telecoms in Africa and the other on African broadcasting and media (which I provide as a free service). Both are driven by a sense of curiosity about why things work the way they do. I studied African history at SOAS in London and the book I’ve just written – Africa 2.0 – Inside a Communications Revolution (Manchester University Press) – is a first-draft history of what is arguably the biggest story out of Sub-Saharan Africa in the past two decades: the impact of mobile and internet on how people live and on the economies of the different countries of the continent.
The more exciting and optimistic upside in business is that African start-ups are beginning to break down this kind of control and what one might describe as the ‘old ways’ of Africa
When you’re researching stories, what compels you to work on sharing a particular story with your audience? Any hot trends we should look out for in the coming months?
When I started Balancing Act’s News Update, the number of people interested in telecoms and the internet on the continent were relatively small, so most topics for stories seemed like they might be of interest. It’s a sign of Africa’s growing success that there are now many tech and start-up news websites so the choice of stories has to be a bit more selective.
I’ve always tried to write what I’d call newsletter journalism which combines three things: a deep knowledge of the subject, being able to say something insightful about where the industry or the continent is going and choosing a topic that’s not always obvious.
I don’t know if it’s a hot trend but it’s certainly an important one. There have been public announcements of US$6 million in carrier-neutral data centres across many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are very significant for start-ups as they are the platform for online services. So, for example, in DRC it has not really been possible to launch a mobile money transfer service until they existed in the country.
Why is African business so unique and what makes it so exciting to report on?
Africa continues to be one of the most difficult continents on the planet on which to do business. Chapter 7 of my book Africa 2.0 shines a spotlight on corruption in the telecoms industry and analyses why it happens. It uses a term – patronage capitalism – which put crudely, means that those who are the friends or supporters of the President get special access to business opportunities. Not every country in Africa has a business sector that works this way but many do.
The more exciting and optimistic upside in business is that African start-ups are beginning to break down this kind of control and what one might describe as the ‘old ways’ of Africa. A new tech-literate generation of African digital natives will over the next 10-15 years enter the foothills of power in both business and Government. Who knows, we may see a 40-year-old President be elected? And maybe more women Presidents?
Which sectors or industries do you like to cover most and why?
Technology is going from being a subject or sector in itself to being something that affects all ‘vertical’ industry sectors: for example, an African company in something as traditional as the construction industry is using 3D imaging and drones to carry out its work.
And within Government, the digital delivery of services has the potential to make them more efficient and less prone to corruption. Now obviously not everyone can take advantage of these new digital dividends so addressing issues of digital access (whether in terms of pricing, availability, or tech literacy) remains crucial.
The only real way to get these stories told well and on a consistent basis is to have a business model for journalism that can pay people to write or record them.
Why is it important that people around the world get to hear about young, growing companies on the continent?
Currently, a great deal of what is written about African start-ups falls into the category of hype that blurs the distinction between ambition and reality. There is confusion between successfully raising large amounts of money and effectively creating a profitable business with a sustainable user base. It’s important to the whole of the African start-up ecosystem that there is good local journalism that covers both the successes and failures of new founders and their teams.
How can we encourage more people to join the writing community and dedicate their energy to telling stories about African tech and business?
Sadly organizations like Facebook and Google have sucked the resources out of journalism by harvesting its advertising revenues. The only real way to get these stories told well and on a consistent basis is to have a business model for journalism that can pay people to write or record them.
A short video on TikTok or a repost on Facebook is a way of amplifying a story but there need to be business models that allow for websites, podcasts, and video bloggers to actually make money from providing coverage. Currently, the YouTube business model means that in broad terms, anything under a million views will at best provide ‘lunch money’. Niche business coverage – for that is what covering tech and things like start-ups is – has to be able to find financial support or in the long- term it will die.