The 8th of March marked International Women’s Day – a day to highlight and address the constraints that women face in the many facets of their lives.
fraymedia Foundation, which officially launches on 25 May, used the opportunity to host the first of many seminars to talk about how women can lead and reshape the media landscape. The founder of fraycollege, Paula Fray and acting CEO of fraymedia Foundation, Charmeela Bhagowat were in conversation with brilliant women from different African regions and a host of industries, including digital, news and media, entrepreneurship and art to share their insights on two specific topics:
- How can we leverage Artificial Intelligence and technology in newsrooms [see part 1]
- How to start a business, and keep it growing
Starting a media business in the current economic and political climate can be a challenge. For most people, it means leaving a secure and well-paying, cushy job to give into a vision that, at times, only you believe in.
The three women entrepreneurs started their businesses in an already saturated media industry. While their models were different, the first step was the same: identifying a gap or a demand in the industry and developing a business model to fill that gap and serve their audience.
Preparing to #EmbraceEquity in the media. Today we start building a movement for women media owners and leaders to change the media landscape in Africa. #fraymediafoundation #journalism pic.twitter.com/1qrOnE3esy— frayintermedia (@frayintermedia) March 8, 2023
One such business is Tanzania-based Ona Stories. It was co-founded by Tulanana Bohela, an entrepreneur, journalist and filmmaker. Bohela worked as a TV, radio and digital journalist for BBC Africa and BBC Swahili. She then left her esteemed position to start Ona Stories – Tanzania’s first Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) storytelling agency.
Bohela combined her expertise in digital media and her passion for African storytelling to create Ona Stories.
Bohela first launched free workshops to help young creators break through the media industry – not just in journalism – but in videography, photography, graphic design, illustration, animation and other digital forms of media.
She then expanded the digital network to create a “playground for creative technologists”.
The playground is an open space for innovators and inventors to use AR and VR to create solutions for things that are close to their hearts. They can access digital devices and equipment, too.
“We want to create a space where you innovate what you see you want to innovate for,” she said.
Describing her journey, Bohela said:
“I just knew that I was passionate about this, and I feel that when you give your time to something, there’s bound to be some sort of reward – you get something in return. It can be positive or negative, but so far it’s been positive. There were some tough lessons we had to learn to adapt to the market.”
Looking ahead, she plans to form more partnerships with entities to support her business – some of them include the government and the national art museum – where they will create digital art pieces using augmented reality.
Further up north, Alia Ibrahim from Lebanon co-founded Daraj.com, an independent digital media news platform launched in 2017.
Daraj.com was born against the backdrop of the Arab Spring in 2010. The pro-democracy protests across Arab nations achieved the freedom that the people were seeking, but they later blew up into larger conflicts that are still affecting some regions, such as Syria and Yemen, today.
Ibrahim said it was difficult for journalists to operate under these conditions. At first, they experienced “the honeymoon” of the Arab Spring where they got to experience freedom in their newsroom, but then came the “derailment” of the Arab Spring in which the media lost most of its freedom.
She said they belonged to a media that was not providing solutions, so they were also part of the problem.
Ibrahim’s career as a journalist started in 1996. She worked her way up to becoming the Senior Correspondent at Al-Arabiya News Channel. She also produced content for The Washington Post. With her extensive background in journalism, she was able to identify the needs of the market quickly.
“For us, as journalists, we always knew that the problem was not about the lack of good journalists. The problem was always the ownership of the media. The media in the Arab world is owned either by the regimes or businesses close to the regimes.”
Daraj.com was therefore created by journalists and established as an independent news company to counter state-controlled media.
They had “the idea of countering the ugliness that we had reached in 2015 – 2016. It came with a lot of enthusiasm from a lot of people.”
She was called “crazy” for wanting to launch an independent media company in the political climate in the Arab World, but she said she identified the need and demand for it and that’s what she and her co-founders, who are also journalists, created.
Daraj.com is “about producing impact-driven journalism, holding power to account and giving the underreported demographics a voice.”
In terms of funding, Ibrahim said the costs of production in digital had come down drastically, but for her, human resources were more important. Most of the people who supported her business at the start were doing it for free.
Going forward, she plans to hone in on the partnerships she formed to keep her business going. And to rely less on donor funding and more on the money her business brings in.
In South Africa, award-winning journalist and entrepreneur, Verashni Pillay, created explain.co.za after her research found that many publications cater for white middle-class men, primarily, while women were often left out of that audience. Her start-up was conceptualised in 2019 and officially launched in 2020. It was aimed at women who have to juggle work and the household among other things. Her flagship product, The Wrap, is a weekly news summary sent via WhatsApp. They do explainer articles and videos, too. In 2021, the organisation was named the best news literacy project in Africa by the World Association of Newspapers.
She views explain.co.za as “your journalist friend”.
Pillay was the editor of Huffington Post SA and Mail and Guardian. She was the head of digital at Power FM before she founded explain.co.za. Leaving a well-paying job to fund her dream of making news more accessible was a leap of faith for Pillay.
Pillay used her own savings and applied for several grants before landing one to officially launch her business and hire staff. Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works for her new business, so she launched the agency side of explain.co.za to fund the journalism.
At this particular juncture, explain.co.za’s journalism is on pause because she cannot find the right people to fit editorial roles. But going forward, Pillay said she plans to “go harder” when it comes to approaching donors, funders and subscribers when she relaunches; and not let fear get in the way.
Conclusively, there will be a lot of trials and errors, mistakes and learning curves when launching a start-up. As Bhagowat pointed out: all these women took huge risks to start their business, but not many people took a risk on them.
It takes courage and resilience to continue even when you are rejected, but the women affirmed that the rewards outweigh the risk.