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Media mogul spells out grand vision for Africa

The African Business News 360 vice-chairman, Mr Rakesh Wahi, during an interview at CNBC Africa offices, Ambank House, Nairobi, on May 18, 2012. Photo/Salaton Njau
The African Business News 360 vice-chairman, Mr Rakesh Wahi, during an interview at CNBC Africa offices, Ambank House, Nairobi, on May 18, 2012. Photo/Salaton Njau  

In 2007, media conglomerate ABN 360 set up a pan-African business channel, CNBC Africa, taking a risky path abandoned earlier by peers that had cited thin margins as their reason for exiting the market.

The media giant is turning five next month and its executives still maintain that their gamble will be pay off.

Apart from CNBC Africa, the Conglomerate today has Forbes Africa and has promised a basketful of ideas for the continent’s future.

Last week, the Business Daily interviewed the firm’s co-founder and vice-chairman Rakesh Wahi who was candid about the future of the media industry in Africa.

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Excerpts:

Market pioneers are always the first to run out of steam, handing newcomers crucial lessons to advance the course initiated. What are your plans for Africa?

Our priority at the moment is to create Africa’s largest media conglomerate for business and economic news.

This will mean setting up a point of presence in 50 sub-Saharan African countries with a central depository in South Africa.

We will continue to let out our news through the three platforms – TV, print and Internet.

On the TV side, we have had CNBC since 2007 while the print now has the Forbes Africa, which was launched here in October last year.

On the other hand, Internet represents the future of how the market will consume media information and this is where we intend to put most of our resources in the medium term.

When you take a quick review of the media market since 2007, what changes would you say worry you most?

Generally, technology has played an important role in shaping the media industry but all these changes have their match in innovation.

It is important for us in the industry that we continue to relate to the consumer in the way they prefer, otherwise, there is real threat of becoming extinct. We’ve all learnt tough lessons from the decline of giants of yesteryears such as Kodak.

How has the idea of taking up a pan-African channel to generate business news across the continent worked for you?

Five years ago, stories of corruption and despotic leadership in Africa dominated international news channels and these created negative perception of the region.

Nobody was talking about continent’s business, its economic prosperity, regional integration, courtesy of its people, its bulging middle class and robust labour market.

In the past five years, we played our part in shattering the myth that often portrayed Africa as a place of gloom and doom.

At firm level, we have managed to train and employ nationals of the countries that host our operations. It is part of our contribution to building the Africa about Africa.

Talking of these three media outlets – print, television and online – which one of them do you think represents this industry’s future?

The future is a combination of all these three platforms. The print represents the physical side of the news that will always be here with us.

Even with the arrival of gadgets such as iPads, there are a large number of people who will always want to hold newspaper in their hands every morning because this is how they are conditioned to consume news. To this group, newspapers will always be a way of life.

Perhaps the only worry should have is with regards to TV where MultiChoice is continent’s only distributor of content at the moment. We need to think of more models to stimulate fair competition.

For Internet, it is my firm belief that the future of all media consumption will be via hand-held devices whatever shape they take.

Internet distribution of news will be the industry’s primary driver of growth in the medium term.

At ABN, we currently have more than three million video downloads on YouTube and are currently up scaling our Internet vehicle, the ABN Digital.

On what economic calculation did you base your decision to set up operations in Kenya?

We initially set up CNBC Africa with headquarter in Johannesburg. Later there was a thought of extending presence to East Africa and the options on the table were to set up either in Tanzania or Kenya.

When the decision was finally reached, Kenya became an obvious choice because of its leadership role in EAC. The large market size, high level of development and government support are what eventually attracted us to Nairobi.

Has your bet on Nairobi paid off?

So far, we feel that our efforts have been greatly rewarded in Kenya although we are yet to achieve the numbers we are looking for.

In Nairobi, we feel that we are right at the centre of every economic development that is taking place in East Africa – be it in tourism, agriculture, trade or financial sector.

We are boosting our capacity to articulate all these changes and share them with the world as fast as possible. At the end of the day, we have weather the stiff competition for eyeballs in the region to get to our goal.

Last year, you came up with African Business Leadership Award (ABLA), which James Mworia, a Kenyan business executive, won. What was it all about?

If you look at all the regions of the world where CNBC has operations, we have had these awards on annual basis.

The launch of ABLA in South Africa last year was similarly intended to create a forum that recognises top business leadership in Africa.

The launch, which came four years after our foray into the continent was meant to give us ample time to review and clearly understand the business landscape in the region for the sake of credibility of the awards.

Our aim is to celebrate the successes of these business leaders and to recognise best practice.

For this year, we have planned three regional competitions next month — for East, West and southern Africa — before we finally organise ABLA as the grand finale for the continent.

Apart from this award, what other plans do you have for Africa?

We intend to build world class financial journalism in the continent. We are working on a plan to set up a media training institute either in East or West Africa.

We already have a training institute in South Africa and as we speak, we are currently setting up a media university in Ghana.

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