Africa for Africans, by Africans

Squeezed between the story of Zimbabwe having democracy strangled out of it, the flames of xenophobic violence searing South Africa and the tragic resurgence of tribalism making fragile the relative peace of Kenya, the flipside of our continent’s story has not been told this year as it has not properly been told, arguably ever.

For ours is a binary continent where there is all this, but a lot more to tell beyond the coffee-table prettiness of our tourism tomes. Economic growth is sturdy; bourses are cracking and for each despot there is a democrat, perhaps many more. Civil society is a force to be reckoned with; the diaspora is returning to invest or sending remittances home (these now outstrip foreign aid) and cellphones hold the promise of a development jump-start.

It is into and out of this Africa that Salim Amin intends to broadcast with the launch this month of A24, a portal with the ambitious aim of changing who tells the African story and how it is told. “Africa can only be covered by Africans,” says the 38-year- old Kenyan, “[there is a story] beyond the starving children with flies in their eyes, beyond executions and genocide. Ours is a new and balanced agenda.”

A24 will use technology to assemble the work of the continent’s top broadcast producers and online journalists and to sell this to more than 200 private and public television stations in Africa but also more widely in the Middle East, North America and Europe. The concept is simple: the A24 website will serve as an agency for content accepted by its editors who will polish the material up to high-quality work.

It will do current affairs, but not hard rebel-chasing news. Its currency will be feature and documentary work, as well as business and travel information. A quirky set of features called “Only in Africa” will tell the lighter side of life.

With the democratic wave across the continent, the media is excitingly diverse and both radio and television are catching on almost as quickly as cellular technology. Rapid development has made technology much simpler and cheaper.

Shorts and scripts will be available to view and read and if you like it, you can buy it, paying either online or by opening an account. A partnership with DHL will ensure a courier service to corners of the world where broadband is not yet powerful enough to carry good-quality programming. “We are trying to alter the image of the continent by altering the source of the content which is limited to Reuters and AP, both of which do hard news and that is inevitably bad news,” says Amin. The intra-African opportunities are vital for broadcasters not networked to buy from one another. “African broadcasters are still dominated by Seinfeld and Desperate Housewives,” he says.

He is the son of Mo Amin, the legendary photojournalist and cameraman, whose eye and heart for the detail of the Ethiopian famine began the Band-Aid movement. The older Amin, who died in a plane crash, was also an astute businessman whose Camerapix still holds probably the most valuable database of images in Africa. These will form part of the founding library of A24. The younger Amin now wants to extend his father’s work by continuing to tell the story of need and underdevelopment but also of change and of hope.

As a former journalist and cameraman, his pitch to his colleagues on the continent is that they will get better rates than anywhere else. “We are offering more to the contributor than ever before. For freelancers the 60/40 revenue split is unheard of in the industry and that they keep their copyright rather than losing it after a one-time sale is also unheard of.”

He has had to buy back footage of his dad’s at astronomical rates and tells the story of a young Kenyan journalist, Peter Murimi who was paid a pittance for a path-breaking documentary on female genital mutilation. His work was on-sold many times but because copyright was signed away in the initial deal, he saw none of the revenue stream and barely covered his own costs. Speak to any freelancer and it is a sadly common story. With networks across the globe, Amin says the Big Three (CNN, the BBC and al-Jazeera) will certainly be a port of call for sales but that they want to change the model where journalists are paid between $100 and $350 a piece.

“With our model they will make much more revenue from their content over time if they keep it with A24 and will also hold on to ownership. It’s simple maths: content’s valuable and if you own it the chances are you will always be able to earn revenue from it over the years.” The idea is catching on and producers from 14 countries have already sent material to the site; dozens of broadcasters are keen to feature their work on A24.

His motive and that of the company’s president and chief executive, Asif Sheikh, is not all ideological or it might be terribly boring and another donor-driven flash in the pan.

A24 is buttressed by a hard-nosed business plan, a very necessary thing since Africa is also littered with failed attempts at pan-African journalism. “New money is coming into Africa,” says Sheikh, adding that Indian, Lebanese and Chinese investors want different information than the traditional coverage of the media multinationals. Amin and Sheikh are A24’s key investors and hope the new news baby will be profitable in three years when they might realise the next dream of a 24-hour television news channel told in Africa and by Africans.

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