By Shola Oshunkeye/Accra
(Continued from last week)
Last week, Edward Boateng, the Executive Chairman of Global Media Alliance, Ghana, and initiator of the prestigious CNN African Journalist Awards, told readers how, while crisscrossing Africa as marketing executive to the Cable News Network, CNN, he discovered the need for a solid platform that should help African journalists to tell the African stories better.
Today, years after that mustard seed had become a mighty oak, he opens another vista to his business world. If you are interested in the development of authentic Africa brands, you will treasure this second part of the interview as you did the first.
Please, read on:
So, the bottom line, the way out on the corruption in the media, would be for media owners to pay living wages?
Yes, media owners always need to pay living wages. The regulatory environment of media companies needs to be improved in Africa. There are two types of media owners in Africa-the political ones and the business ones. The business ones need to be encouraged and to be encouraged means they should have easy access to capital. They should have easy access to resources. The political ones don’t care because they have easy access to capital anyway. However, the problem is that, in a country like Ghana, the barrier to entering the media is very low. In Ghana, you can open a newspaper just by going to the post office to register it. Really, in my opinion, I will say there is no barrier to entering the media. If you want to go into medicine, or open a law firm, or set up a pharmaceutical company, there is a minimum capital requirement.
So, how come that in our case, in the case of the media, there is no minimum capital requirement? To anybody, who decides to set up a radio station, he just goes straightaway, once he can buy the equipment. That’s not good enough. It will hurt the prospects of the media company as a business enterprise. I have said there should be a minimum capital requirement, and if there were a minimum capital requirement there would be fewer players. And if there were fewer players, they would become attractive to the banks. But as it is now, to borrow money from the banks now as a media company is very difficult.
Last year, for the first time, the government wanted to set up a media firm, taking up from what Nigeria has done the year before. But Nigeria offered, I think, US$20m, while Ghana offers 2 million Cedis, which is about a million dollars. What can that do? But then, if we were going to look for oil or look for gold, they wouldn’t mind borrowing 100 or 200 million and pump it into it. But now looking at something that develops people’s attitude, mind, and all that. I was surprised. I felt scandalized. I think the whole dynamics needs to change, because that was what happened in the US and Europe.
Look at what China is doing. Today, you have Chinese media companies investing millions of dollars in Africa. Is it because they love us as Africans? No, it’s because they want to tell us the China story. They want to influence our mind and opinion towards China. Plain and simple. I wasn’t surprised at their thinking. That’s what they want to do. You have them coming to Africa in droves, investing millions of dollars. The Chinese government solidly supports these Chinese companies coming into Africa. So are the French companies that are here. So are the US companies that came in. So are the British companies. They would not admit it but their governments help them. So, why can’t we take the same attitude? Why did Nigeria sit down for NN24 to collapse?
You seem to have been missing in action for the past three editions of the CNN African Journalist Awards. What happened?
Have you been attending yourself?
I am not the type of person that likes to hold on to something for too long. As you know, I left CNN’s employment as a full-time employee some years back…
How many years back?
It’s almost 10 years as a full-time employee. Then, I stayed in as a full-time consultant, senior adviser, up until last year when I decided I didn’t want to continue anymore because I want to focus on my family and my business. And I felt that the journalism awards have reached a certain level where it could cruise on its own. So, if I have the time, yes, I will go. It’s like having a child; when the child gets to 18 or 21 years, you have to let them go out on his own. So, for me, I just moved on. Last year, around the time of the awards, I was in the US with my family. That is why I didn’t go. There is no particular reason why.
Do you think Africa needs more of such awards?
I think we do definitely, but it has to be homegrown. As I said, we should have the Nigerian Journalism Awards that should become the ultimate journalism prize Nigerian journalists look forward to with excitement because it puts them at the pinnacle of Nigerian Journalism. Just like US Journalists are excited when they win the Pulitzer Awards or when they just announce the Oscars. That is US homegrown, which has become international brands. So, we should also have our homegrown brands, which, hopefully, would also become international brands. Later on, we begin to build our own super brands. Yes, I think the CNN awards is one of them. The Vodacom awards of South Africa is another. You have others. But I would like to see one day the Shola Oshunkeye Media Excellence Awards, an award named after one of our top journalists somewhere in Africa that people aspire to. Pulitzer was, after all, a journalist. Wasn’t he? All these people were journalists. It’s homegrown. So, for me, let’s look at our own homegrown solutions to our problems.
I would like to see the Ghana Journalism Awards develop, and gain credibility. Because, at the end of the day, who would CNN African Journalist Award enhance? It’s enhancing CNN. It’s still making CNN to look like a super-super-super brand because they brandish the names of some of the continent’s best. So, why cant’ we have our own homegrown Awards, like The Sun Media Excellence Awards for African Journalists? That is how I see it, because the world is about branding; and then we need to begin to recognize your own.
When we started the CNN Journalist Awards, I think we had Abiola Print Journalism Award. Unfortunately, we had to drop it. But for me, it was sad. That is something that we should have grown into a super brand because Moshood Abiola was one of the people who understood the importance of media in Africa, very, very early. He was one of the people who started paying media people respectable wages, very, very early. But today, I don’t know how many people in Nigeria recognise that. So, for me it’s important. But as they say in my language (Ashanti), too much meat doesn’t spoil the soup. If we can have a lot of media awards, that itself would even be good because they would begin to compete about which one is the best. But in between that, we shouldn’t get lost. It shouldn’t just be about China or France. What are the African companies doing?
You have quite a lot on your hands, talking about the media in Ghana. You have a television station, you two radio stations-Happy FM and Y FM; and a whole lot of other things that you do. What drives you?
I think, personally, I want to see Africa changed. I want to see my country change. I think the same thing that drove Mandela to fight apartheid should drive the younger generation of Africans to aspire to live in an Africa that is better economically. I still do not understand why, on the continent of Africa, people have to go to sleep hungry. Africa is the only continent where lots of little children still go to bed hungry. Africa is the only country where in the year 2013, you meet people who have never stepped into a classroom.
May be it happens in other countries, but we have too many of those stories here and I believe it’s our responsibility to change them. And I want to do that with what God gave me. Like I told you, when I set out, unlike most people who won’t even do their O levels and A levels when they are going to do media, I fell into it. I believe that we should use the opportunities God has given us to start the process of change. We can’t change it during our own time, but we should start it. That is what I have started through my media. If you look at my media, I picked them very carefully. With Y FM, it’s the number one youth channel in Ghana. We give the youth hope through programme, through our presenters and a lot of youth in the country listen to us. We don’t do a lot of politics. We are issue-driven. Even during elections, I allowed my people to make a decision and we refused to take political adverts. And that was a time we could have make a lot of money. I respected their views that we should stay away from politics. We are very issue-driven.
We also do a lot of sports. Happy FM is a sports channel. I believe one of the things we lack as Africans is confidence, and one of the things where we have it in abundance when it comes to confidence is sports. Therefore, if we can use our sports imagery effectively, we can use that to change. That was why we decide to focus Happy FM on soccer such that a lot of the stories on Happy FM are positive, whether they are talking about Didier Drogba, or they are talking about Nwankwo Kanu or they are talking about Pienner from South Africa, it is positive story. Therefore, if you listen to Happy FM, you will realize that people are always happy.
But the challenge now is to translate that to our daily lives, whether we are in a banking or business. Because, when I was in the US, I got the chance to attend high-profile political events. And one of the things that always saddened me, is an African president meeting fellow president, and sometimes even past president, and they behave like school boys going to meet their school master! And I always say you are a leader of a country for God’s sake! And you coming to meet the leader of another country and you are folding your hands behind you?
It is still happening. People still ask me how are you able to leave CNN? And I told them that I always knew that if I came to Africa I would succeed. Therefore, when I was at CNN I wasn’t interested in their politics. I did what I had to do and I told people my piece of mind. And if I didn’t say it, it’s because I didn’t want to engage you or mind you. But I see a lot of Africans in Europe, I have a lot of friends in the US, who lost their jobs during the recession and they are sitting there, some of them with two Ivy League degrees. They are afraid to come back to Ghana or Nigeria.
Fortunately, I met one of them, a Nigerian friend of mine, who is a tax auditor in Florida. I said to him, why are you sitting here? He gave me all the excuses. I told him I would pay your ticket to go back to Nigeria, stay there for three months and then come back and tell me all this nonsense. Do you know that at Christmas, he called me and said: “Edward, Thank you very much. I am going to pay you back your ticket. I have decided I am moving back to Nigeria.” I said I told you. Nigeria needs people like you, but you are sitting here telling me that you can’t live in Nigeria. I said, today in Nigeria, Glo needs your help. Vodafone needs your help. They have big brands. I even jokingly told him that probably many other more even need your help. How can you sit here and tell me that you don’t have a job as a serious accountant? So, for me, that is what I am doing through my media.
I was very happy he took the challenge. I didn’t pay for his ticket eventually. He paid his own way, but he said that I threw him a challenge. Because he had been out of Nigeria for 15 years, so his imagery of Nigeria is the imagery of Nigeria 15 years ago. That is the imagery of Nigeria they see on American TV. So, I said go on, look at it yourself. If we can build strong brands, Nigerian sitting in Tampa will not only be watching American TV but can also be watching Nigerian TV to see the good, the bad and the ugly, so that they make their own decisions. That’s what I want. I sit here and I watch Nigerian TV. I watch Silverbird. I watch AIT. That way, nobody can tell me what is happening in Nigeria because I see it through the imagery of Nigeria and I am hoping that with time these brands can also be in other parts of the world. That is what drives us with our media and everything we do. That is our underlying ethos.
You haven’t told me about Anigie FM?
Anigie in our won language means ‘happy’. So it’s the vernacular version of Happy FM. They also focus on sports and, again, we choose our branding and words.
Are they in the same premises?
No. Anigie FM is in Kumasi while Happy FM is in Accra and Takoradi.
ETV is collaboration between us, Global Media Alliance, and ETV of South Africa. It’s a joint venture where we take some of their feeds and then we also use our own feeds. Again, we feel that there has to be this sort of collaboration between Africans, this whole process of also building the African brands. Because I believe strongly that ETV is a strong media brand and when we were starting, we needed that lift. So, it was easy to start with them than starting from Ground Zero to build our own brand.
Sadly, you don’t see much of such collaboration as this in the print media. Because in the print media, everybody wants to do his business his own way, which, perhaps, informs the reason why their fortunes dwindle everyday.
I think the problem of the print media in Africa is not different from the print media in Europe. Last December, I think, the Newsweek, which had been publishing for years folded up, it’s only been having online version. For me, that’s really sad. As a young student in Ghana, Newsweek was one of the magazines I bought all the time. I still do it. I remember telling my driver that ‘look, anytime you see the last edition of Newsweek buy me a copy. I want to keep it.’ In fact, print media in Africa is doing better than in most parts of the world. But they should come together. But, again, if you look at the African print media, with the exception of Nigeria where you have The Sun, Thisday, The Guardian, The Nation, Punch, in the rest of Africa, apart from Nigeria and Kenya, print media is very weak. Even in our country, Ghana, the Daily Graphic, the largest circulating newspaper, is owned by the government. All the rest are very loose-end companies, most of them without government support or their political patronage will die. So, it is important for them to come together.
But again you have to look at the bill and look at the people running these companies and their motives. In Ghana, most of our prints, if you take out the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times, and probably Daily Guide, most of them are appendages of political parties. They are either owned by one political party or the other, or politicians. It’s not really a business, to be honest. If they came to Nigeria, how will they affiliate with The Sun? The electronic media does better, but the print media in Ghana, I don’t have a lot of hope for them.
What is the print run of the highest circulating paper in Ghana?
I think it’s the Daily Graphic, and I think they are doing about 60, 000 copies.
But the paper is so slim…
Thank you. That is even our best newspaper, and if you compare it to the papers from Kenya, you will understand what I’m saying. I see Nigerians newspapers collaborating more with South African titles, and South African titles collaborating more with Kenya than us in Ghana, because in terms of the print media, we are weak. I tried the print media myself… We had a Sunday newspaper, Sunday World. We had to give it up. It was a very good newspaper. It was issue-driven but we had distribution challenges. It’s just a very difficult business but we are hoping that, again, maybe talking about collaboration, maybe we should talk to The Sun and see if we can have a collaboration with you. Maybe, this time around, it will work. But it is a difficult business all over the world, not only in Africa.
What is the problem with distribution?
In Ghana, newspapers are distributed Monday to Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, there is no distribution. So, if you want to do a Sunday newspaper, you have to set up not only the publishing, but also the distribution network. Because I think there was a period in time when, during the bad days of Ghana, the business was a tough business. Therefore, all the structures that had been set up, pre-independence, were dismantled and they have never really been set up properly. If you look at the print media business, apart from the Daily Graphic, which probably has a proper distribution plan, none of the rest does. Most of them are just Accra-based newspapers. If you go outside Accra, you won’t get it. And if you get them outside Accra, they come two or three days late.
So, there is a distribution problem. And for us to be able to improve our print media business, we need to address the distribution problem. I realized it when I went in. So, we tried to set up our own distribution network. But at that time, we were not strong enough financially to be able to do that. Again, we need to be distributing three, four or five newspapers or working with some supermarket chains that want to distribute their flyers. Unfortunately, at that time, we didn’t have the likes of Shoprite, Game in the country. Maybe if it had been today, it would have been different because we would be working for them as well. But at that time, we were just doing it for ourselves, and it was not sustainable financially.
You also have collaboration with Silverbird Nigeria…
Yes, that is the other side of our business, which is the entertainment component that I spoke to you about earlier on. I think the more Africans see themselves, the more convenient we will develop. And it’s also another way of telling our story through documentaries. It’s also a very important medium. One of the best programmes I have done was The Discovery, when we did a whole series on Ghanaian foods. For me, it was very interesting because I had never even looked at the beauty of cooking in Ghana until we did that piece. And I just watched it and it amazed me. It was so fantastic. But it took a young white boy from New York to come in and say, ‘look, I was in Ghana, and I went to buy Kenole and I want us to do a story’. And I said Kenole (fried plantain with ginger)? And he said ‘yea, I just enjoyed the way the woman was doing it.’ So, he put together this programme and managed to get Discovery interested.
We came and we travelled around Ghana. It was interesting for me, going to the various regions and sitting with people, and then, later on, looking as it unfolds. It was nominated for an Emmy Award. But do you know where the credit had gone? It would have gone to Discovery. I told my staff it doesn’t make sense. We travelled the whole country, why because we were behind the scene, granted that they brought some good scriptwriters and good camera people to work with us but at the end of the day, whose brains were they using? That’s why, for me, I love the collaboration with Silverbird because Ben (Bruce) and I think the same way. Then, he did something. We were at a function. Then, he pushed the president of Nigeria to make that commitment of, I think, US$20 million to the Nigerian creative industry. And he told me that ‘I am going to push it again to a billion, because for me that is how I started Silverbird in Los Angeles. Because I felt that why are we not on screen?’ That was in response to a question I had asked him about how did came up with the name ‘Silverbird’. He said it’s… (Tape cuts). …And that is what we want to do: to develop Nollywood. It’s part of our mandate at Silverbird that at least all our quota should devote between 20 and 25 percent of the time to local content. That is what we are promoting.
I also saw Mega Screen yesterday. It’s it also part of your media conglomerate?
(Smiles) That is just a partnership we have with Mega Screen of Nigeria.
You are everywhere. Then, there is Starfish?
Starfish is our mobile content platform, but that, also, is a partnership with another company.
So, you distribute all these products into mobile devices?
You haven’t told me much about the partnership with Mega Screen?
Mega Screen is a Nigerian company. We are still very young.
When did the collaboration start?
Last year. It was last year that we decided to go into electronic billboard business. You know, that is very capital intensive; so, we are doing it very slowly. The beauty of our company is that even though we are Ghanaian, Mega Screen, for instance, is run by a Nigerian. Our head of Human Resources is from Kenya. I also believe strongly that the more Africans get to know each other, the less strife there would be on the continent, and the more economic opportunities we would open up to each other.
I also discovered that you have a Nigerian there too, I heard of a Nigerian name during your presentation at Silverbird (Accra).
We have a few Nigerians in the company. Tunji runs Mega Screen and we have Theo who runs the Silverbird Lounge. There was a time we had 12 different nationalities, including Chinese.
I know you couldn’t be driven by money; still I’d like to know what is your attitude towards money?
At the end of the day, we should make money out of every business because we are using bank loans; we are using shareholders’ loans; and people will not continue to put money in the business if it is not profitable. So, definitely, as a businessman, I need to make sure that my business is making money. But for me, most importantly, our businesses should also be about influencing change and developing the next generation. I think all big brands do that. It’s not only us. If you look at Microsoft, if you look at CNN does, even the likes of Coca-Cola, it’s about that. If you only focus on making money, then I don’t think you would do a long-term business. If you focus on businesses, which impact people’s lives, then, the businesses will continue to grow. That is very important to us. To make money, you don’t need to run five or six different media companies, because at the end of the day, how much do you need? It is about making a difference.