As Nigeria’s tech sector attracts more interest from the international media, founders and investors must deal with scrutiny from journalists who don’t always look at tech favourably. 

The Economist recently published a piece on Nigeria’s fintech sector, questioning the sustainability of the recent surge in funding. In response, Derrin Adebayo, a tech analyst, wrote a post criticizing the article as shoddy journalism

In his defense, Adebayo did support his argument with data but ultimately he came to the wrong conclusion: The Economist article wasn’t shoddy journalism. Rather, Adebayo disagreed with the premise. 

The rush to accuse a piece as poor journalism – when in reality one does not agree with the argument – is equivalent to dismissing it. This defensive move can sow the seeds for a counter-productive, at worst completely antagonistic, relationship with the media. This has already taken root in Silicon Valley – recall Marc Andreesen, Ben Horowitz, and Balaji Srinivasan’s on-going beefs with Taylor Lorenz of the New York Times, spawning multiple think pieces on a collision between tech and journalism

There is a better way. African tech startups and investors shouldn’t dismiss credible journalism or shy away from the media, fearful of hit pieces. They should engage more with journalists to get their messages out and influence the conversation on African tech.

Yes, The Economist has a checkered history when it comes to its Africa coverage. It has yo-yoed from describing Africa as “The Hopeless Continent” to fully embracing the “Africa Rising” narrative whose bubbly optimism has been lampooned over the years. 

But this was neither a hit piece, nor shoddy journalism. As is common knowledge: poor reporting lacks sources, but journalist in question spoke with multiple Nigerian founders and investors. Not only that but also four people were quoted. [For The Economist, which quotes sparingly, four quotes is quite a lot, especially for a 800-word piece.]

A critical media is not the enemy

Moreover, there was an assumption that The Economist piece was looking at a longer time horizon by writing “But these aren’t new facts. I struggle to believe there is anyone investing in Nigeria’s fintech ecosystem that would be shocked to hear any of this.” 

This was a misreading of the implicit time frame to which the piece was responding. A key component of a story’s newsworthiness is timeliness. Even though the Nigerian economy has been in the doldrums since the oil price collapse in 2015, the economy and security situation have deteriorated in the last year. Double-digit food inflation, kidnappings, and the Twitter ban: this is what journalists have been covering recently in Nigeria. Given that tension is the secret to any good story, I suspect that the journalist was attracted to this contradiction: how are Nigerian fintechs doing so well when everything else seems to be operating quite poorly?

That brings us to Adebayo’s real quibble with the piece: he did not agree with the direction that the journalist ultimately took. He argued that the article should have instead questioned why investors continued to back fintech companies despite the gloomy situation in Nigeria?

Putting myself in the journalist’s shoes, I can answer that question: that piece has already been done. After a flurry of flattering coverage of Nigerian fintech, a media outlet was bound to go the opposite direction. The journalist decided to focus on whether we’re in a bubble, which is a valid angle.

For every point in Adebayo’s rejoinder, a tech skeptic could make a legitimate rebuttal: Y-o-Y growth in fundraising (what goes up must come down); outsized returns delivered by African founders (those are the exceptions, not the rule); fintech has only scratched the surface because 95% of Nigerians still use cash (the unbanked are a more difficult and time-intensive demographic to reach as The Economist piece pointed out. And, unfortunately, patience is not a virtue associated with all venture capitalists.) 

The instinct to dismiss stories is a counter-productive one; it points to a siege mentality that believes that members of the African tech ecosystem must refrain from making public any concerns or comments that could be interpreted negatively.

This was reflected in Adebayo’s writing: “I’m still quite amazed that the journalist managed to gather some of the most prominent investors in Nigeria and get them all to say bad things about the ecosystem they’re investing in.”

Although the impulse to protect the African tech sector is understandable, it is no longer so fragile that members must refrain from voicing valid concerns. 

As international media coverage on African tech becomes more sophisticated, and sometimes critical, African founders must speak with journalists more, not less. Engagement is more important than ever – it’s an opportunity to influence the conversation, get your messaging across, and connect with target audiences who read publications, like the FT, WSJ and The Economist.

The importance of media training

Media training is invaluable in helping founders feel confident talking to journalists prone to asking tough questions. You learn how to influence the story’s framing, steer away from sensitive topics that you would rather not discuss and, ultimately, build lasting and constructive relationships with the media. There are two sides to every story. Tech founders have more to gain by sharing their point of view and scoring media coverage than shying away from it.

The rising press coverage is only a positive sign that Africa’s tech system is maturing in a rich way. Mainstream publications aren’t always going to cover tech with rose-tinted glasses; which means that knee jerk reactions to critical press coverage are self-defeating. It is better to engage than assume a defensive posture, assuming that stories are wrong. Tech startups can work with the media to get their message out there – no matter what the story.

Victoria Crandall is the founder of No Filter PR

The Cabal | Author

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