“The opportunity that we saw in 2004, when I first came to South Africa, was to fill a gap in economic news on the continent. Historically, Africa had been seen as a continent of doom and gloom. The negative perceptions media had painted of Africa was about leadership which was corrupt, there was crime, [and] a lot of other problems. Nobody was reporting on the positive stories,” Rakesh Wahi, co-founder and vice chairman of the Africa Business News (ABN) Group, told CNBCAfrica.com.
Wahi, together with Zafar Siddiqi, chairman and co-founder of CNBC Africa, decided to fill Africa’s information gap by setting up a business news channel in the continent, with a home base in South Africa.
Challenges presented themselves as soon as they set foot into the continent: the distribution of television in Africa was still relatively poor at the time, and the average man on the street would therefore not be able to gain access to their pioneering idea.
“The larger issue was that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa did not have cable systems by which the average person could receive content at a reasonable price. Because of this, there was a huge limitation on [viewership], and consequently on revenue as this business is about advertising and sponsorships,” Wahi explained.
In addition to the viewership obstacle was the fact that the channel’s business model was long term that started out by incurring more costs than matching revenue to grow it. It therefore needed a lot of capital to fill the gap.
“There was no Pan-African television network. Anybody who had tried to do something on a Pan-African business [level] had so far failed. There were a lot of detractors telling us this was not going to work. It was a big risk from our point of view to actually come in and take a punt on the continent, where even people living here were telling us that it’s not going to work,” said Wahi.
Having a long-term vision for the continent, as well as Wahi’s history of investing in emerging markets, nevertheless buoyed his and Siddiqi’s plans in dealing with Africa’s high risk nature. It took roughly 30 months of planning and assessment before CNBC Africa launched in June 2007.
A year later, the global recession hit, which, according to Wahi, was a nightmare for any entrepreneur whose business was in its infancy stages.
“Television, particularly in the context of Africa and emerging markets, is largely driven by advertising revenue. In a recession, one of the first things that gets hurt is advertising, and companies hold back their budgets. We went through a serious problem when this happened in 2008,” he explained.
Apart from having to consolidate some of the company’s operations, CNBC Africa had to hold back on its geographic expansion until 2011.
“To be a relevant Pan-African network, you have to have the means to aggregate news from different parts of the continent, you cannot just focus on South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. You have to actually report from other countries as well,” said Wahi.
“We had to create this network of bureaus so we could actually get information back, go out and talk to decision makers, government, business and policy makers and make sure that we’re getting a view from across the continent.”
With seven years under its belt, CNBC Africa is currently in 12 countries, with 15 bureaus and the ambitions to cover all the Anglophone countries in the continent and then onto Francophone Africa.
With the future of information interaction now moving towards handheld digital devices, the ABN Group, of which CNBC Africa is under, will have to adapt to the same tune.
The group is however already on its way with CNBCafrica.com, the digital arm of the ABN Group. Forbes Africa magazine, the flagship publication for the print arm of the business, is available also as a smartphone and tablet application.
The group is also in the business of education, and plans to set up universities in eight countries within the continent.
“Many Africans go into developed economies for education, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t bring global brands into Africa and make them accessible to the average African families as well as the middle class,” Wahi added.
Next on the horizon is building a research arm called the Africa Research Centre, which aims to analyse the political economy of the African landscape while building research capacity across all the current points of presence the group has.
“If you look at what’s happening globally, content will remain the core of the business of information. The delivery is going to change, and the economic models are going to change. We have to invest carefully so that we are basically investing in the future and not in the past,” said Wahi.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs in our journey, and a lot of times people make you feel that this won’t work. It’s about the great people and the outstanding team we have led by Roberta Naicker. Nothing can be put together without the hard work of each and every one who is here.”
“Our shareholders like the IDC and Sam Bhembe have shared and backed our vision for which we remain grateful. In 2007, I put out the building blocks of what we were going to do. I’m proud to say that we have achieved everything that we projected to do. The journey ahead is going to be an interesting one as the media industry evolves across the continent.”