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What Podcasting Needs in Africa

Like many other dedicated podcast listeners, I’ve found that my audio habits have changed a good deal over the past year. One of the most profound shifts for me has been a new preoccupation with non-fiction from outside the US and the UK — a feeling that comes in part from this enforced stay at home and in part from the desire for variety and difference in a western-centric audio landscape that can feel very homogeneous. For instance, during the strictest period of lockdown, the independent anthology feed Sound Africa quickly became one of my regular audio dates, as their Covid in Africa season brought me stories from around the continent that weren’t appearing on any of my other news sources.

My newfound interest in this show, and others, inevitably lead to a much greater interest in the state of podcasting in Africa, something I feel that I haven’t covered as much as I should have done to date. With an eye to rectifying that, I recently reached out to Paula Rogo, a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya who runs a podcast network and founded the Africa PodFest, to learn more. She is personally very well placed to analyse the development of the medium, having grown up in Kenya, moved to the US at the age of 13, qualified and worked as a journalist in America for outlets like Reuters and PBS, before moving back to Kenya to start her own podcasting business.

“I just realised that there were so many missed opportunities in terms of storytelling and in terms of the kind of humanity that I see on this side of the world that wasn’t reflected in the coverage on that side,” said Rogo when we spoke over Zoom last week. “So to my family’s dismay, I quit and decided to move back home to Kenya and start my own business.”

With her company, Kali Media (now known as Kali Pods), she wanted to create content for younger women in East Africa, but soon found that it was going to be a much more involved process than merely making some great podcasts and putting them out into the world. “I quickly realised that in order for this business venture to even succeed, there are certain aspects of the podcasting ecosystem that were just missing. They were just not in place here at all,” she explained.

At that point, Rogo realised that podcasting as a medium needed African advocates first, and producers second. “There are pockets of communities, such as in South Africa, which has a really strong podcast community. And there are interesting things happening in Nigeria and Zimbabwe. And then also Nairobi had a lot of things happening. And so my co-founder, Melissa Mbugua, and I thought, OK, in order for me to create Kali Pods, I have to help create the ecosystem for us in order to do the work I want to do, which is actually production.”

Africa, of course, is a very large continent with a sprawling, diverse media ecosystem. “I think that the first thing I did was accept that I won’t be able to keep up,” Rogo said. “And I respect the fact that we are fifty-four, fifty-five countries and I just can’t touch everything. And even right now the podcasting landscape is Anglophone heavy. A lot of the big communities in podcasting are in Anglophone areas.”

One of the biggest obstacles in Rogo’s work has been a lack of data about podcast listening on the continent. There have been some studies, in addition to her own survey work, and last year for the first time Edison Research released a version of its Infinite Dial research for South Africa. Some of its findings were interesting if not unexpected — awareness of podcasting stands at 22 per cent, for instance — but even the data there is only partial, since it surveyed “major metro commercial populations.”

This squares with Rogo’s own experiences: an awful lot of people, especially outside the middle classes, are still at the “what is a podcast?” stage, and popular podcasts often draw a substantial part of their audience from the global diaspora rather than those at home. However, she argues that there is a huge opportunity for podcasting in Africa, not least because of the relative youth of its population. Sixty percent of Africa’s 1.25 billion people are under age 25, and as yet there are few platforms reaching out to them with on demand audio content. Spotify is only available in South Africa (although accessible elsewhere with a VPN) and the vast majority of the continent’s smartphones are Android, so Apple Podcasts has limited reach.

“Radio is king in Africa. It has never left. It’s never had a dip. We have an oral storytelling tradition already on the continent, so listening to stories, telling stories, sharing information, sharing culture through the ear has always been something that’s common in the continent. So for me, it made sense that podcasting, when it did reach here and when it did pick up here, would do pretty well,” Rogo said.

One of her own initiatives for 2020 was to be the Africa Podfest, a gathering of the continent’s podcast industry in Nairobi slated to happen in early March — but she had to take the difficult decision to cancel it at five days’ notice because of Covid-19. Still, just the process of putting together the event was eye opening, she said, in terms of how the rest of the world views African podcasters.

“I think Africa is often dismissed by a lot of the world. When we were putting together the Podfest, it was a very high bar to convince people that we are a place to take seriously. Because data is not something that is strong on the continent, it’s very difficult to convince people that there’s something interesting here,” she said. “If people are interested internationally they’ll go to Asia — India is a big market and I think Africa is just sort of this blob that they’re not sure what to do with and is high risk in many ways. So a lot of my work is just convincing people that it could be high risk, but there’s opportunities. High risk, high reward.”

And where investment is starting to arrive in African countries, Rogo is concerned that it isn’t putting more money or power in the hands of local podcasters or entrepreneurs. “What’s really important to me is that when podcasting really does sort of reach that critical capacity, that a lot of ownership is by Africans. Not just of the content and such, but also of the parts of the ecosystem that make podcasting work. And I’m starting to see that that ownership is not necessarily happening yet,” she explained.

The idea that podcasting is a medium with a low barrier to entry is even more of a myth where she works, Rogo went on to say. Recording equipment is expensive and difficult to source, with import taxes often doubling the price of even the most basic kit — “you can’t just buy a Blue Yeti here” — and studio time is very costly to hire. Soundcloud, which offers several hours of free monthly uploads before charges kick in, is still a very popular host.

Training, too, is hard to come by. As a whole, Africa sent the most applications into the PRX-Google programme, Rogo noted, just because there are so few alternatives for creators who want to develop their talents and their shows. Legacy media publishers like newspapers and broadcasters have generally been wary of charging into podcasting too, burned by the 2015 era “pivot to video” and facing layoffs in a tough economic climate.

She also has a theory that the colonial legacy in different parts of the continent still has an influence on the way media develops now — France’s strong radio culture, say, in part explaining why Francophone Africa is “not picking up podcasting as quickly as one would expect.” The most productive read across to other markets, Rogo said, is to Latin America, where many of the impediments to podcasting’s growth are similar, although Spotify was much earlier to push into the region.

Regardless, there are already rewards to be had for a podcaster in Africa that crafts a hit. “If you can get a decent audience, the influence is pretty insane on this side of the world,” Rogo said. Although traditional sponsorships have been slow to surface, the widespread use of mobile money in the form of M-Pesa and similar has opened some doors.

But Rogo, in common with many African podcasters, is still waiting for the elusive “tipping point”, the signal that podcasting as an industry is on the up. The BBC World Service’s recent move into Africa-specific podcasting is very encouraging, she said. “It sends a signal. Whatever their numbers end up being, it’s a signal that’s been sent to other media around Africa that, hey, you should be looking at this. You should be considering this because everyone knows BBC World Service, everyone listens to it.” Aside from perhaps YouTube and Netflix, there are few other common media properties consumed across the whole continent, so for better or worse, the BBC’s actions really have an impact.

The one she’s really waiting for, though, is Google. Given how ubiquitous Android devices are, having the Google Podcasts app installed as a default on smartphones, or seeing some major investment in Africa-specific creator training, would make a world of difference, Rogo explained. “I really think it’s been unfortunate how slow Google Podcasts has been to take ownership of the continent,” she concluded. “It’s really theirs for the taking.”