The Africa Channel now reaches 12 million households in USA, UK and Caribbean

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The two founders of the Africa Channel wanted to “showcase the beauty and promise of Africa” to audiences outside Africa. So they put together a channel that took African material and framed and packaged it in a way that American audiences were used to. It’s not a channel aimed at African diaspora audiences but one aimed squarely at the general viewer. Russell Southwood talks to its President Jacob Arback.

Q: How did the company get started?

We started in January 2003 but my business partner James Makawa who's from Zimbabwe started even earlier.

We wanted to showcase the beauty and promise of Africa to audiences. All people tend to see is the horror and the despair. Because these things have become entrenched in peoples’ perceptions, we wanted to change the images in order to create the full palette. We wanted to be able to tell the good as well as the difficult stuff. We also wanted to take the fear away and let people have a little fun with Africa. We wanted Africans to be able to speak in their own voices to tell their stories to Americans (and others) in their own living rooms.

We also knew that there was tremendous directing, producing, writing and acting talent that we could get started with. We knew we could frame and package it at a pace and rhythm that American audiences were used to.

Q: Who do you see as the audience for the channel? Is it an African diaspora audience?

In the past, I worked on Arab stations wanting to come to the USA. So we thought about Africans wanting to see the channel. But early on it was clear that everyone wanted to see it. So we get general audiences and we’re a general entertainment network with talent searches, lifestyle programmes, films, soaps and everything you’d expect on that type of channel.

So we see our audience in three major segments: the type of people who watch the Discovery and National Geographic channels, African-Americans and Africans resident in the USA.

There are 37 million African-Americans but they are a very diverse group and their heritage is not just defined by slavery. They have a rich and wonderful history. There are 5-10 million Africans resident in America and they are dying to see content displayed with respect and integrity.

We are also on BSkyB in the UK.

In the USA, all the major cable companies liked it and there was not much competition. (Nigeria’s) AIT was here for a while and there’s the Somali Network. In New York, we can be found between a travel channel and Animal Planet and that’s how we like to see it. We’re attracting a wide range of people. We’re not here to compete with BET. We’re the African in African-American.

We’re in 12 million households in the USA, UK and Caribbean. Three million of those households are in the USA and that will rise to 4-5 million by mid-year. When satellite services came to the USA, we saw a dramatic increase in subscribers and we’re getting a tremendous response from US regional cities we’re landing in.

Q: What’s the business model?

We’re bundled on a digital tier at no extra charge, except for the US$4-5 to get digital. The model is advertising and licence fee supported. The cable companies pay for the programming and we sell advertising.

So one example is if the Government of Rwanda wants to rebrand the country. The Ministry of Tourism may want to wrap that message around lifestyle content and we’re talking to them about that in the long-term.

Q: When will you come into profit?

Typically cable channels take 5-7 years before breaking even.

Q: Will you sell the channel or content from it back into the continent?

Our strategy which we’ve already started is to develop African production capacity. 95% of what we show is African-produced and directed. We don’t take crews and fly in and in the mid to long-term we’ll commission with local crews. We run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and we need high quality material with good quality sound. Terrific programming is already being produced but we just need more of it. We hope to raise the quality threshold but keep the popular attitude.

Soap operas are enormous for us and we’ve bought Generations and Isidingo from SABC. Jacob’s Cross is a dramatic series with a storyline that splits between Nigeria and South Africa and it has been a huge hit here. People love the music and we produce our own music blocks using local DJs. We’ve shown Big Brother Africa which went to two different countries with contestants from 12 different tribes. It’s electrifying when you see it in the West.

HD is the future of the Africa Channel and we’re going to be ahead of the wave. We would hope that this will accelerate more.

But to answer your question, yes we would like to come back into the continent some day…however, there are rights issues. We want to work with the programming suppliers, not against them. We’re currently 80% distributed content and 20% licensed and we’d like that to be 50:50 in a year’s time and 80% HD in two years time. There’s never been so much African content outside the continent in one place.

Q: Who are your shareholders?

We are individually and privately held. The shareholders include Ambassador Andrew Young and Congolese NBA player Dikembe Mutambo. We produced a documentary on the hospital that he built.

The hardest thing has been to get the four cable giants who control 50% of the market to take the channel. That was a heavy gate but we’re now through it.

Q: How did you convince them?

We went into small towns across America, to their different markets. In each one one we found things like Ladysmith Black Mambazo concerts or performances of the Lion King. There were all these African reference points around them.

In a world of cloned channels, a fresh, authentic story for viewers is very important. We have very loyal viewers now so it’s good for everybody.

Q: What’s the background of the three founders?

Myself I was part of the launch team for DirecTV in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Central Europe. After that, I was President of Business Research International which advised Fortune 500 companies in the international pay television, broadcasting and satellite businesses.

James Makawa worked as a local news reporter and anchor with leading local stations before joining NBC News as a correspondent in New York and Chicago . He returned to South Africa and co-founded the African Barter Company (ABC), in partnership with Grey Advertising Worldwide. ABC was the first barter syndication company ever launched in Africa .

Richard Hammer was part the team that launch the pan-African television network, the African Broadcast Network ( ABN ) in South Africa . He has also spent significant time in Tanzania , serving as a consultant to the East African television station ITV. Domestically, Hammer served as vice president, advertising, promotion and publicity at both WFLD-TV/Chicago and WOR -TV/ New York .