African Broadcasting in a Time of COVID-19 - Reports From the Front Line in Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda

Mirriam Kaliza, Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Malawi: "Every morning when I come into the office, before I interact with anyone, I need to wash my hands with soap. The secretary also has to give me a face mask and gloves. It's so difficult to type on the keyboard wearing gloves."

London — A month ago I wrote an article trying to anticipate the impact of Covid-19 on African broadcast. What follows is the first of a series of articles looking at how this impact is playing out, both during lockdown and, as in the case of Ghana, once it has been lifted. This week I have spoken to Abdulai Awudu, General Manager, Multi TV in Ghana, David Campbell, CEO, Mediae in Kenya and Eugene Nyagahene, CEO, Tele10 in Rwanda.

TV production has been severely curtailed by the Covid-19 lockdown. In Kenya, none of the broadcasters are finding life easy at the moment because they are not able to have live studio events, especially political events. In Rwanda, which started its lockdown on 19th March, broadcasting has been defined as an "essential service" (along with things like petrol stations and pharmacies). As Nyagahene told me:"This has allowed us to go out on the ground and have staff in our studios. We don't have sports and events."

On Monday 20 April, Ghana lifted its partial lockdown that had covered major cities but there is still a ban on large gatherings over 25 people. Awudu said:"During the lockdown, we stopped doing shows that required a live audience. They are now back but without live audiences. You lose something of the hype that a live audience gives a show. We have developed ways to get people involved with a lot of Skype and Zoom live video links, allowing people to participate in the show and have fun with it."

Rwandan broadcasters' ability to get out and film in different localities is a real strength:"People are watching what's going on very locally and want very, very local news."

With the schools closed in Kenya but with the term starting, the crisis has opened the way for both broadcast and online educational content. Citizen TV is broadcasting Mediae's Knowledge Zone which follows the curriculum in real-time across the three key years in primary school. It is able to do this because it has 156 hours of Knowledge Zone already prepared.

Also as part of series 10 of its show Shamba Shape-up which is now airing, it will the week after next feature a Covid-19 animation film, getting across key information about the virus. It is also seeking funding for a Questions and Answers programme, with a doctor and a Ministry of Health spokesperson:"You can do production but you need a really good internet connection, a camera in a person's home and to be able to send stuff into the studio."

"The high end schools are all online but that's why we're going on TV with the Knowledge Zone revision programme. You can get it on Citizen or on our YouTube channel. And in about 8-9 days time there will be leaflets and booklets for exercises after each lesson. There's a real issue about parents needing to learn how to access content through the internet."

In Ghana, Multimedia had already launched last July an education channel called Wolo TV (in partnership with a digital platform), aimed at secondary school children. It has seen audiences ramp up significantly since schools were closed down in Ghana.

The paradox of the crisis that traditional broadcasters are getting good audiences but either almost no advertising or substantially reduced revenues. In Rwanda, Nyagahene said:In terms of audiences, I've never had such big audiences for both radio and TV," and Awudu confirmed the same:"At lot more people are watching television because they're all at home. Traditional media consumption - like radio and television - has gone up. Ghanaian start-up mPharma launched its pharmacy delivery service with radio and the time was just right."

Awudu says that the local Vod platform it has content on has seen numbers go up and all of the companies social media platforms have seen increased numbers.

Advertising in Kenya seems to have gone down, said Campbell:"Most companies have lost most of their business so are not advertising. Smallholders are getting screwed. The tourism and hospitality industry employs huge numbers of people and is almost at a standstill. It's all linked together."

In Rwanda, never a large advertising market, things are grim:"I have lost 95% of my advertising income. The remaining advertising is mainly Ministry of Health and police public service announcements." In Kenya, the 15 broadcasters that belong to the Media Owners Association have donated KSh159 million in advertising space and airtime to convey Covid-19 messaging.

In Ghana, the fall in advertising started with the beginning of the lockdown:"Advertising was the first thing to take a hit. Companies started putting holds on advertising. But people are beginning to re-issue orders with the lifting of the lockdown. If it had continued, we would have lost 75-80% of our advertising income."

"CEOs are taking decisions around how they can save cash. People who are selling electronic products from China are hit by delays and cut-offs in the supply chain. The only real new opportunities have been ads from manufacturers of soaps and sanitisers, corporate social responsibility and Government ads."

In the case of Tele10 in Rwanda, its Pay TV offering has been its economic saviour:"We're making good money from Pay TV and people are paying using mobile money. I've not seen the same growth with our VoD offering because people are more comfortable with the big screen. But there has been a lot of demand for Netflix and Showmax on the big screen".

"With the loss of advertising income I'm thinking of injecting more cash from the Pay TV to help us get through this storm. I don't where we're heading. I've been a pioneer in the past exploring new opportunities so I will inject the cash and hope for the best."

"Over half of the private media in Rwanda will disappear except for things like freelancers doing videos on YouTube". Awudu is not so pessimistic about Ghana:"A lot of broadcasters will take a hit. There will be job losses as people let staff go. But a lot of small broadcasters have very low fixed costs. They'll get through with a mixture of pirated and bought in content. It's the bigger companies like us where the impact will be greater."

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