Maya Fisher-French: you may have heard the name on the airwaves or come across her articles in the papers. Her journalism focuses on personal finance and financial literacy for South Africans. She just walked away with her SEVENTH Sanlam Group Financial Journalism Award in the Consumer Financial Education category. On the occasion of Women’s Day, she tells us about her 20 years as a financial journalist, the importance of financial literacy in South Africa and what it takes to become an award-winning journalist in South Africa.
- How long have you been a journalist for and which publications did you work for?
I started my career working in the financial industry 28 years ago! I worked for a Private Bank and then a stockbroking firm before joining This Day as a financial journalist in 2003. I have been a journalist for 20 years now.
This Day was an amazing place to learn and grow as a journalist. I found myself working with acclaimed editors like Justice Malala, and although I was writing on general business, my business editor, Kevin Davie, identified the need for personal finance content and encouraged me to focus on that.
I think in anyone’s career there will always be that mentor or guide that helps you down the right path.
Ferial Haffajee hired me as a freelance writer at Mail & Guardian after This Day closed. She has always been a strong advocate for personal finance content and when she moved to City Press she reached out to me. I have been writing for the City Press audience since 2010 and I really feel I have found a home there. The audience is very open to financial education, and I have a high level of engagement with the readers. They are thirsty for knowledge, and it is an area where I can make a real difference.
I worked for CNBC Africa where I had a daily crossing from the JSE each morning. In 2017, eNCA contacted me to present a money segment called Money Matters.
I have written for many publications since going freelance in 2004 and I realised I needed a platform to consolidate all my work and created the Maya on Money website. What I was not expecting was the extent to which it has grown into its own brand.
- Have you always been interested in financial education or is it something that you just stumbled upon?
There are two questions I’m always asked: why did I leave the lucrative world of stockbroking to become a journalist? Secondly, as a journalist, why don’t I write about shares and the markets?
While it may be fun to analyse the market and discuss opinions on which shares to buy, how does that really affect your life plans? How does it pay off your debt or pay for your children’s education? What really matters is how we handle our money on a daily basis.
One of my greatest frustrations working in stockbroking and probably what drew me to personal finance journalism was the obsession people had with share trading. They obsessed about market movements, read endlessly on how to trade the market and spent time at braais discussing their trades, yet the credit card bills were overdue, they had no plan for their children’s education, no risk cover and couldn’t begin to tell you the value of their retirement fund even though it was probably their biggest asset.
My personal experience of losing my father at the age of 16, only to discover that our lifestyle had been propped up with enormous debt leaving my mother financially destitute with two young children to raise also propelled me and drove my passion to educate and empower people around finances.
- Why is financial education important and relevant in South Africa today?
When I joined City Press, Ferial asked me why I was writing so much about debt and credit. I recognised that for many middle-class black South Africans short-term debt had become a way of life to fast track an accumulation of assets they had not been able to acquire under apartheid. Yet, there was not a great deal of understanding about the true cost of this debt. We are dealing with the consequences of that today.
Generally, South Africa has a low level of financial literacy and this has benefited large financial institutions at the cost of the consumer. There will always be a need to educate on how to manage day-to-day finances, explain how products work and provide education on growing wealth. It is about empowering South Africans around their money interactions.
- What are some of the key elements that one needs to consider when reporting on consumer financial education and personal finance?
This Day business editor, Kevin Davie always said to me “think of one person you are writing for” – I always thought of my sister. She is not that interested in finance and investing, so if I could explain it to her then I knew I would have a broader reach. Think about that one person you are writing for but understand the different perspectives of a very wide audience.
We have a significant income disparity in South Africa along with different financial literacy levels. You need to build that into your reporting, to educate and improve knowledge. But that also requires the journalist to be knowledgeable – so learn as much as you can about your topic.
- Do you feel there’s a need for more women financial journalists in South Africa, especially in financial education?
Interestingly, personal finance seems to attract female journalists and there are a number of great journalists like Wendy Knowler, Neesa Moodley, Ruan Jooste. There is a huge educational movement online with personal finance bloggers – many of them women. I engage with them and often provide support, like Fulu Mashapha, a young actuary with her own YouTube channel. I provided input and wrote the forward to her first book which is about to be published “Mind your cents”. I often work with Mapalo Makhu who has published her book “You’re not broke, you’re pre-rich”.
Personally, however, I would love to see more personal finance journalists emerging. The media has the platform to tackle some of the bigger issues and keep the financial industry on its toes. I’m always looking for young journalists to mentor, so if there is someone serious about a career in personal finance journalism, please contact me!
- What were some of the highlights and lowlights of your career?
My biggest highlight was starting my career at This Day where I learnt so much working with the top journalists in South Africa. It was then that I knew I had found my calling.
It was certainly a lowlight when the publication was forced to close!
My award as Best Newcomer (Sanlam Group Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism) for my article in Maverick magazine about the three founders of FirstRand was an amazing moment. It was an amazing opportunity to spend extended time with the three founders and have the luxury of writing a 10 000 word article!
More recently, my biggest highlight is the Money Makeover Challenge I run with City Press each year. We have run the Challenge for seven years and I learn so much from my candidates and really believe we are changing lives. Money Makeover has contributed to my multiple awards at Sanlam Group Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism.
I have won the category of Consumer Financial Journalist seven times and each time I am so grateful and honoured that the work around financial education is being recognised.
- What’s your secret to becoming a multi-award winning South African woman financial journalist?
Staying the course! It is worth mentioning that eight years passed between winning Best Newcomer (2005) and my first Consumer Financial Journalist award (2013). I built up extensive knowledge, experience and contacts. This does not happen overnight. I remember feeling so frustrated when Bruce Cameron would always win the personal finance journalist award. I see the frustration in many young journalists, but it does take time to be the best in your field.