Perceptions of Africa

Perceptions of Africa

Joelle Tarrant spoke to Zeinab Badawi, the BBC television news presenter. She is a Council Member of the Overseas Development Institute and founder and chair of the Africa Medical Partnership Fund.

Do you think we get an accurate view of Africa through the global media? 

There is not a one-size fits all view of Africa, yet the media has traditionally lumped together the whole of a huge and varied continent. As a result, our view of Africa has been quite one dimensional.  We wouldn’t ask if Europe was accurately portrayed by the global news media. Fortunately, things are changing and we are developing a more multi-dimensional view of a rich and varied part of the world.

How did we get trapped in this one-dimensional analysis? 

Ultimately it’s an inheritance from the colonial era, where Africa was portrayed as the ‘dark continent’. This culminated in Africa’s identity being defined by a default colour.  Then, when Live Aid came along, it hit the mass media in a way like never before. Although the motives were good, it did feed into a narrative that was already there – that Africans, for one reason or another, were junior spectators to their own destiny, and were waiting for the West to come in and sort it out. But Africans have always known that the people that influence their lives most are their own people and rulers.

What is driving the multi-dimensional view? 

Lots of things. For a start, Africans in the diaspora are much more prominent these days. In particular Africans in the global media with links to the continent are keen to drive more realistic coverage.

NGOs, which have always played a major role in shaping perceptions of Africa, have become much more locally engaged. They are listening to, and being influenced by, their local staff.

African governments are becoming more transparent, more democratic and increasingly they are making themselves available to the global media. They want to show that, actually, there is more to Africa than coups, wars and famines.

And, of course, technology is playing a role. The internet is driving global conversations, and people are reading and seeing first-hand what is happening on the continent.

Can African produce its own global news channel?

Yes, and in time it will. There are pan-African media outlets that are getting off the ground right now and that will be huge global media providers. Africa is a very fertile market for the English speaking media. It is a very vibrant and colourful continent – providing great coverage for the global news media.

Is the change in Africa’s economic fortunes helping to change perceptions?

Bit by bit, yes. Perceptions are being challenged and the facts speak for themselves. These days we are as likely to hear about the rise of the African Leopard as we are the Asian Tiger.

Businessmen like Mo Ibrahim have been very instrumental in changing views by saying: “Come to Africa, we’re open for business. We’re not talking about charity here. You can make real money in Africa.”

Do perceptions of Africa still have an impact on investment on the continent? 

Yes, they do. Most multinational corporations that do business in Africa still seem reticent – or even embarrassed – to state that they make great returns from their African investments. Shareholders are concerned if their activities are perceived to be ‘unethical’. Investors crave government stability and proper fiscal structures and frameworks. African leaders must make it easier to do business in Africa and make sure they have the right frameworks and structures in place to facilitate investment.

Could the ‘Africa rising’ narrative be over-stated?  

There is a danger that the ‘Africa rising’ narrative will be overplayed, to the extent that it overshadows the considerable work that is still to be done. Yes, there are high rates of growth, but there are still a huge number of the world’s poor and disenfranchised in Africa.

Ultimately the ‘Africa rising’ narrative cannot just be about high rates of growth and GDP, it has to be about inclusive, sustainable growth.

Final thoughts?

There is a new found confidence among Africans on the continent. They know that it’s a happening place. It’s the youngest continent in the world, and it is thriving.

There is also a feeling that the West may be tired, and not everyone wants to flee there in great numbers to make it good. The tables are starting to turn slightly.

Africa is like every other place… some bits are good, some bits are bad. But the bad is receding more and more, and the good parts are on the rise.


Zeinab Badawi  is currently a presenter on BBC Four and BBC World News. She was born in Khartoum and grew up in Britain but has maintained strong ties in Sudan.