Unraveling Africa’s Economic Potential: Challenging Media Narratives For Growth

July 20, 2023


Africa is laden with untapped economic potential and opportunities, “the last frontier for global growth,” wrote Colin Coleman, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former CEO of Goldman Sachs in Sub-Saharan Africa, in a February 2020 blog on Project Syndicate. It “can emulate China’s rapid rise of the past 50 years.”

A central challenge preventing Africa from realizing its potential is that local and international narratives surrounding the continent’s politics, economy, and society are “dangerously distorted,” noted an African Union (AU) report titled “The Business in Africa Narrative Report” in February. “Very few institutions are as powerful as the media. They have the power to shape public perceptions and inform narratives — good and bad — about the investment landscape and opportunities in Africa.”

The report analyzed 750 million stories published between 2017 and 2021 on over 6,000 African news sites and 183.000 outside the continent. It showcased what international media focus on and disregard when reporting on Africa. It highlighted how even local news outlets don’t focus enough on the economic landscape’s vital parts, such as creativity, women, and youth. And it said news outlets are selective regarding extensively covering government news.

 Bird’s eye view

IN 1990, international media outlets started to dedicate coverage to business in Africa. The most prominent newswires were AP, AFP, and Reuters, while “nearly every global television network [from the U.K., United States, China, and the GCC] had programs dedicated to covering Africa … from their point of view,” the AU report said. “Most have multiple programs.”

A survey by U.S.-based Afro-pessimism and Africa Rising found that between 1994 and 2018, international news portals covered African business, economics, and trade the most out of 14 categories. Publications cited in the survey included The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

“A sizable share of African newsrooms’ output” also focused on business, economics, and trade. According to a 2021 report from Africa No Filter, a think tank, nearly 13% of stories from the continent’s news portals talked about business, the economy, and trade. That was the same amount of coverage given to political and territorial conflict and just shy of the 14% allocated to domestic politics. The rest was divided among other aspects of life in Africa, such as health, population, societal topics, crime, and entertainment.

Meanwhile, internet users in Africa have become increasingly business savvy and curious. According to Google’s metrics, which the AU report analyzed, “Africans have the highest level of interest in business globally. In 2021, eight of the top 10 countries with the highest proportion of their online population searching for business issues … using Google … were African.” That percentage increased to nine out of 10 for those searching for “business ideas,” reaching 100% for those Googling “business plan.”

Scholarly research into Africa-related business, economics, and trade topics also has increased since the start of the century. “In the field of academic research, the proportion of ‘Africa’ referenced in papers on Google Scholar that also mention the term’ business’ quadrupled from 10% in 2000 to over 40% in 2021.”

That jump came despite a decline in academic papers tackling Africa-related topics in general. According to the AU report, 1 million were published in 2012, compared to just 200,000 in 2020.

 Framing Africa

The AU report focused on how local and international media “frame” African business stories. It defined “framing” as a “particular angle or lens for viewing the story … For each business story in Africa, there are underlying frames that offer a positive or negative tone, focus on problems or opportunities, take a large country or small country perspective, or emphasize certain actors.”

The “power of frames is in how they define a problem, identify its cause, provide solutions, and evaluate those solutions.” The AU report identified several frames that media outlets always cover.

The first is that international media stories mentioning “Africa” and “business” are more negative than articles by homegrown outlets. The AU report said that while both publish positive and negative stories, “non-African media contained far fewer keyword clusters with a positive tone than African media.”

The most used term in that negative coverage was “corruption.” The report said it featured in about 10% of the stories published by international and domestic media. The second was Russia, followed by regulations, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Seychelles.

The other prominent “frame” is that about 70% of business stories about Africa published by foreign media contained China, the U.K., France, or Russia. China got “disproportionate” mentions compared to the other three countries. Domestic media outlets mentioned foreign countries in only 20% of their business articles.

The AU report found international media covers business stories about the continent more extensively than homegrown outlets. It said the top 10 global media outlets mentioning the continent had three times as many references to Africa and business in their articles during 2021 than the top 14 African publications.

In academic papers, the U.S. was mentioned in 63% of research tackling business in Africa in 2020 and 2021. China was noted in 53%. “These two figures represent five-year highs,” the report said.

It is the same story with non-African brands like Google, Apple, and Nike. The AU report said international brands are “disproportionately covered” in business stories about the continent compared to homegrown “consumer-facing brands.”

Between 2017 and 2021, one African brand (MTN, a telecom company) was featured on the list of the top five brands mentioned in stories about business in Africa. The others were Google, Toyota, Samsung, and Huawei. The AU report said Apple and Orange were excluded because they can refer to fruit and color.

Narrow focus

The AU report found African business stories published by local and international media coverage focused on specific countries, sectors, and social aspects.

Continental news outlets focus on South Africa (38.8%) “and, to a lesser extent, Nigeria [20.5%], with smaller business ‘stars’ such as Mauritius (2.4%), Botswana (2.7%) and Seychelles (0.9%) receiving less attention.” Egypt ranked fifth, mentioned in 7.4% of business stories in African publications.

In foreign media, 47.2% of business research, academic papers, and news coverage referenced South Africa. Egypt was second, appearing in 20% of business articles about Africa. Nigeria was next (12.3%), followed by Morocco (4.8%) and Tunisia (4.1%). The least covered were Seychelles and Mauritius (each 0.6%).

Local and foreign media outlets focused on promoting and covering technology while mostly neglecting creativity. “The ‘Silencing creativity, amplifying technology’ frame shows that narratives about Africa’s rich technology opportunities are wide-ranging and positive. Coverage of entrepreneurs and creative industries is much more limited.”

That coverage gap is increasing. In 2017, “technology” and “innovation” appeared in 36% of Africa-related business stories published by homegrown and foreign media. By 2021, that percentage was 45%. By contrast, mentions of “entrepreneurial” and start-up” declined from 11% to 9%. Keywords like “creative,” “music,” “film,” “fashion,” and “art” received even less coverage at 1%.

Other topics homegrown and foreign media outlets consider “niche” are women and youth. “Stories [from foreign media] about African youth [the continent is the youngest in the world] are often negatively framed, being infused with negative stereotypes and evoking images of inactivity, violence, and crime.” Homegrown media outlets have a more “positive tone.”

The AU report says that may be because foreign media focus on the challenges young people and women face in the continent. “For example, [U.S.-based] Afrobarometer, which surveyed 18 [African] countries in 2019 and 2020, found that young Africans were more likely to be out of work than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.”

Worse, coverage of African women and youth (positive and negative) declined from 12.5% of published business articles in 2017 to 8.1% in 2021. Meanwhile, stories touching on gender equality in business also decreased from 1.7% to 1.1%.

The AU report analyzed “85 African business-related stories … In only two of these stories was a young person quoted.” Meanwhile, women represented 29% of the protagonists in those stories yet accounted for only 12% of experts or sources used.

Academic research mentioning “gender equality” dropped from 20% in 2020 to 12% in 2021. The AU report says that may prove a hiccup. In 2010, gender equality was in 3% of published articles tackling business in Africa.

Not all government

The AU report found domestic and foreign media outlets extensively covered government policies and regulations that affect business. They featured in 55.9% of Africa-related business articles in 2021. In 2017, 57% of stories revolved around the government. “Given the relationship between government and their policies and day-to-day politics, it is hardly surprising that this frame should be so large,” the report said. “It is noteworthy that in … African and non-African media, it is a common frame in most articles.”

That coverage has been almost all negative from 2017 to 2021. Government policy and regulations were, on average, mildly negative. But corruption received the most negative coverage during that period.

Not all government-related news gets equal coverage. The African Continent Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is a case in point. It featured in only 0.4% of African business-related articles, putting it at risk “of being a silent revolution.” The danger is that detractors (47% of those surveyed for the report) would fill the resulting void. “This lack of visibility means that consumers, entrepreneurs, and businesses are not fully aware of what AfCFTA is.”

That is peculiar, as the AU report found almost all AfCFTA coverage was positive. The AU report added that this free trade deal benefits business, as it is “the world’s largest free trade area.”

News of foreign direct investments was marginally better than the AfCFTA. It appeared in 3% of articles from 2017 to 2021. “FDI is … treated as a niche topic. [Therefore,] investment opportunities in Africa [are] underplayed. That is particularly strange, given that a 20-year review of academic papers in the Journal of African Business found the most cited paper was about FDI.”

Accordingly, African economies need more stories to report the positives and negatives in the business landscape fairly and accurately. They must also be inclusive, covering all sectors and aspects of society equally. “How stories about business in Africa are framed [directly impacts] individuals’ motivation and desire to set up new businesses, and to trade with, invest in or finance businesses,” the AU report said. “In short, stories and narratives about business in Africa matter.”