London — The £298 million commitment to the BBC's World Service over five years has been one of the biggest new investments in broadcast in Africa. Russell Southwood apoke to Mary Lusiba, Head of Business Development, Africa, BBC World Service about what's been achieved so far and where things go next.
In 2015 the British Government committed to giving the BBC £289 million over five years for the World Service. The cash injection was announced as part of the British Government's National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, which is its five-year plan "for a secure and prosperous United Kingdom, with global reach and global influence".
The review acknowledged that part of Britain's soft power influence is the BBC's reach "into some of the most remote places in the world, providing a link to the UK for individuals and societies who would otherwise not have this opportunity".
Lusiba told me:"A significant percentage of this money was to be spent on Africa as it was seen as having great audience potential. The BBC saw that the market was changing and that the biggest thrust would be television and digital. Short wave is declining and although radio is still dominant, TV is emerging. The DTT transition offered new opportunities and we wanted to take advantage of it."
BBC's World Service sees the digital space as vibrant and growing and finds it attractive because "the youth are drawn towards that space and are engaging with digital platforms." These aspirations are set against a target set by the Director-General of the BBC to reach 500 million people globally by 2022. The World Service's current global audience (which is not the BBC's only international touch point) is 319.4 million.
The World Service in Sub-Saharan Africa has an audience of 95.6 million. In terms of platforms, the broad breakdown is as follows:
Radio: 75-76 million
TV: 38 million
Digital: 2.5-3 million
The BBC has an audience research methodology which ensures that these numbers are not double-counting people.
So what will this pattern of audiences look like in five years time? Lusiba says:"Here's my prediction. Digital will grow. That space is new and where youth - who are the largest part of the population - are going. We're putting a lot of effort into improving digital. TV is starting to establish itself: the free-to-air DTT and DTH platforms are opening up new spaces. Radio will decline."
The new UK Government investment in the World Service has gone into expanding its bureaus in Lagos and Nairobi: the staff headcount in the latter went from 50 to 250. It is now producing daily content (news and features) out of both places that feeds into the output from London. It is creating over 1,000 hours a year of original programming.
The new shows include: Africa Eye (an investigative slot), Focus on Africa (news), Life Clinic (Health, food, fitness and lifestyle), Smart Money (entrepreneurs and innovators), Money Daily (business and money), What's New (childrens' news), Sport Africa, #TheSheWord (challenges of being a women in Africa), Factfinder (fact-checking news) and Gist Nigeria (celebrating the achievements of Nigerians).
The investigative programme Africa has made a big impact and received several awards. One of its recent programmes Sex for Grades stirred up a social media storm of discussion:"Africa Eye has been provoking a lot of engagement, discussion and change."
It has also set up co-productions with local companies:"We also want to train journalists on the continent but we don't have the budget for it so we will do this through activities like co-productions." Gist Nigeria is a co-production with Channels TV and it has a similar co-production with KTN to make Kenya Connect:"It allows the BBC and companies to work together and have a lot of learning exchange. It also allows us to get on TV in prime time."
On the digital side, it is creating digital shorts from all of the programmes listed above:"We want to reach more people and extend the life of the content we're producing. The content we're making is mobile first and is also appearing on VoD and music platforms."
One key example of this short form content is BBC Minute, which gives you the news in one minute "in a snackable form geared towards youth." It is produced in English 48 times a day and it doesn't sit on the World Service server. It is delivered via the BBC's radio partners and is also available in Pidgin, Ibo and Yoruba. There is also an equivalent called Global News Beat for those languages in which it's difficult to deliver the news in one minute: French, Hausa and Swahili.
Overall, the BBC now has a wider language output with six new languages: three Nigerian languages (Pidgin, Ibo and Yoruba) and three Horn of Africa languages (Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo). There is a 20-minute news bulletin in each of these languages on a daily basis.
The ambitious audience target mentioned at the top of this article will be reached by making new partnerships and there is certainly an appetite for BBC content amongst African broadcasters. It has recently signed radio partnerships with Fana TV and Ahadu in Ethiopia but the biggest growth has been in TV partnerships. It began rolling out its TV content in 2018 and now has roughly 70 TV channel partnerships in 26 countries.
So doesn't all this relatively well-funded BBC content compete with its local equivalent? Maybe even drive some of it out?:"We're not here to compete with local radio stations and TV channels. We're substantially different to what is produced locally".
"We have a 48 country presence and we can produce faster and better than anyone else. We're coming here to bring you stories about Africa and from around the world. We can take your stories across the continent. For example, we have a series that looks at cancer: who's impacted and the type of care available on the continent. The partners really like these kinds of programmes."
"I want to emphasize the importance of audiences for both the BBC and its partners. We're producing content with audiences in mind. We want to help partners grow their audiences and seem those audiences become loyal. These audiences will then help them attract advertising revenues. It's a win-win situation and we're in it for the long run."