INTERVIEW 

The African opportunity

With jaded stereotypes and sloppy thinking colouring much of our thinking about the continent, it’s easy to miss the growth and business opportunities. IC Publications has been publishing for the African market for over sixty years. Meg Carter meets MD Omar Ben Yedder.

By Meg Carter

The African opportunity
View of Kilimanjaro from Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photograph: Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Western media’s tendency when reporting on Africa to combine outdated and problematic stereotypes with a lack of in-depth and nuanced reporting have long been causes for complaint by those in Africa. For this reason, IC Publications – a leading pan-Africa publisher – made challenging misconceptions and redressing the balance in coverage of Africa founding principles at its launch. And its why both remain central to the company’s mission today, more than six decades on.

Claiming a reach of 2.6m readers in 100+ countries, IC Publications is one of the leading sources of analysis and debate on African political and economic issues. It was founded in 1957 by Afif Ben Yedder and his son, Group Publisher and Managing Director Omar Ben Yedder – who joined the group back in 2003 from Merrill Lynch – is now responsible for the business’s day-to-day running.

Initially a newsletter publisher working out of Paris and London (its first titles were EdiAfric and African Development), IC Publications moved into magazines with the launch of monthlies African Business and New African in 1978 and then, ten years later, quarterly African Banker – all published both in English and in French. In 2007, it launched a division specialising in Africa-related events (to create connections to effect positive change). This included a communications consultancy which five years later became a separate division in its own right. A further division – IC Intelligence, specialising in business insights – was launched just last year.

The world may have moved in the decades since launch but, it seems, the need to challenge misconceptions and fill gaps in outsiders’ understanding of Africa is as great as ever.

If African countries apply the same measures, they are penalised by ratings agencies and portrayed by the international media as basket cases.

Double standards

“Today, for example, there is news in the UK talking about the approach of the biggest recession in years and predicting a 20% fall in Q3 revenues. There are some sensationalist headlines but, the message seems to be: it’s a bad situation but we’ll get over it,” Omar Ben Yedder observes when we speak in mid-August. “Also today, in South Africa, we had Bloomberg – one of the better groups with a good team on the African continent and a commitment to investing in good journalism – saying South Africa is reaching the point of no return because of debt levels and Covid-19.”

Omar Ben Yedder: “We try to put an African perspective.”

This is typical, he says, of the “exaggerated pessimism” many Western media apply to Africa.

“It’s the same with the IMF’s talk of these being unprecedented times that require unprecedented measures. We’ve seen in the UK and US and across Europe and other markets, unconventional financial measures and unorthodoxy in terms of what the central banks are doing – buying debt, etcetera. But if African countries apply the same measures, they are penalised by ratings agencies and portrayed by the international media as basket cases not able to run their economies and are penalised in terms of ratings downgrades,” Ben Yedder continues, warming to his theme.

“We try to counter this – to be more objective; to put an African perspective. It’s about highlighting that there are positives, not just putting only the positive out there. And it’s about bringing our readers stories from the continent that international media elsewhere might not necessarily report,” he says.

IC Publications’ business is underpinned by four pillars – publishing, events, agency (branding, content production and media relations) and business intelligence – and two clear principles: keeping business sustainable through careful management of costs, and newsroom investment to keep its content strong.

The publishing company currently has a full-time staff of just under 30 – of which around half in editorial, and a further 35-strong freelance network – of which some 15 are regular contributors. Many of the writers contribute to more than one of the company’s three magazines, which are produced at the same time to reduce production costs through economies of scale. Once printed, the three titles are then sent in different volumes to different countries across Africa and to readers interested in Africa based elsewhere.

Publishing in both English and French has been – and remains – an important point of differentiation, although French content has been online-only since the end of last year due to physical distribution issues. In fact, print distribution is, arguably, the company’s main challenge.

“Distribution companies (in Africa) are now few and far between. In the past five years, distributors in Kenya – which also serves the sub-region including Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda – and Ghana have gone under while one in South Africa stopped importing titles,” Ben Yedder explains. In Francophone countries where it long used Presstalis, meanwhile, distribution has been hit by the French press distributor’s various disposals of less profitable parts of its business as part of a wider restructuring.

Add to this the complexity of approaching as a single market a vast continent (the world’s second largest and, with its 1.2bn population, second most populous) that is also fragmented (comprising 54 countries, Africa has a diverse array of economies ranging from a few very big to many small) with a geography that poses numerous physical distribution challenges, day to day business was not easy even before Covid-19.

Yet Africa is one of the world’s fastest-growing consumer markets. And this, combined with IC Publications’ audience of an educated elite that includes people in banking and finance, development and corporations – and its founding mission, of course – make it more than worth the effort. Without regional reach, a business in Africa will remain small. So the challenge for national players that are emerging is to become regional, then continental players and then, once they are large enough, global players, too, Ben Yedder adds: “Our opportunity is in servicing both the multinationals and the nationals for their content, information and communications needs.”

Like all publishers, IC Publications has found this year challenging (to say the least) because of the coronavirus pandemic. A refocusing and rationalisation undertaken last year left it better-positioned than it otherwise would have been, however.

“On the magazine side, print sales have been decimated – I couldn’t get any magazines anywhere for almost two months, which had an obvious impact on advertising revenue,” Ben Yedder says. Events, meanwhile, were put on hold.

We are already digital-first in our thinking. We are now transitioning to a digital first business model.

A new approach

However, the pandemic crisis has accelerated development and evolution on two particular fronts: digital, and 360-degree commercial solutions.

“Print has an important role in cementing the credibility of IC Publications’ content.”

Print has an important role in cementing the credibility of IC Publications’ content and as an organisation business leaders and opinion formers should deal with, and it will continue to do so. But from this autumn, digital will play an increasingly central role. Plans are advanced on the re-launch of its three magazines’ websites ahead of the introduction by November of its first paywall.

IC Publications has adopted a cautious approach to investing in digital until it could be confident that doing so could be commercially sustainable. Digital audiences – and revenue – have been growing. But now is the time, Ben Yedder says, for a more concerted further push.

“We are already digital-first in our thinking. We are now transitioning to a digital first business model. And because mobile is so important in Africa, this will be a mobile-first approach as well,” he explains.

“We are working towards a paid membership subscription model targeting more corporates with our magazines, newsletters, monthly business intelligence reports, access to events and so on, priced at around $1,000 a month. Having a digital platform means increasing staff numbers – which we are now doing – to create more content and publish content more often.”

With the costs the company has controlled – and despite Covid-19 – the company is now well-positioned to do so, Ben Yedder adds.

With 2020 events put on hold or postponed, necessity forced attention on to alternative approaches the business could take.

The result has been growth in 360-degree solutions that draw on the business’s know-how and networks, with the communications division disseminating content and the business and intelligence division doing the heavy lifting. This has resulted in tailored packages for commercial partners drawing on IC Publications’ virtual events and webinars, newsletters, research and reports expertise, with key excerpts from bespoke research appearing where appropriate in its magazines.

Africa 2018 – a pre-Covid success story.

In 2018, the company’s revenue was £3.7m – buoyed by a major African event it organised on behalf of Egypt’s government which alone brought in revenue worth £1m. With the government no longer hosting that event in 2019, IC Publications’ revenue dipped to £2.8m. It is now projecting £2.2m for this year due to Covid-19 with publishing and events hit especially hard, but other areas growing.

More important, however, is rising profitability as a result of recent refocusing onto core strengths and rationalisation – such as the decision to move French content out of regular print by making it solely available online, with bespoke reports and other content available in French as needed.

Looking ahead, Ben Yedder is hopeful over the longer-term, given the fundamentals are there - with efforts to build economies further, the new solutions needed, the global rethink of the model for business growth now underway, the drive towards greater sustainability, equality and shared prosperity, and the further potential of Africa’s growth. Yet when it comes to the short to mid-term, he remains understandably cautious.

“The possibility of deep recession in a number of African countries due to Covid-19 is an obvious worry along with associated issues such as lack of exchange, which means pressure to shed staff and reduce costs. Next year is very unpredictable, very uncertain,” he says.

In response, IC Publications’ focus is on building its pipeline of business and being more flexible and present – by speaking to more people, by striking more commercial partnerships, and by capitalising on what Ben Yedder calls “the social capital” the business has built over many years.

“It won’t be easy with everyone working by phone or videoconference and doing business remotely. I’m worried the economic shock is about to hit now. And if there’s a second (virus) wave, we are likely to see the closure of national boarders,” he observes.

But while these are all threats, the fundamentals are still strong.

“Economies need to be re-built. New solutions need to be found. A global re-think of the model for growth is underway and will continue – towards greater sustainability, equality and shared prosperity,” Ben Yedder adds. “With all this going on, people will still want and need information and reliable content. The opportunity is still there.”

Our opportunity is in servicing both the multinationals and the nationals for their content, information and communications needs.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.