Africa Renewal at 25: keeping up with a dynamic continent

UN magazine devoted to Africa’s progress
From Africa Renewal: 
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South Sudan's independence day festivities: "We must get to work right away," said President Salva Kiir.Africa Renewal then and now: The first issue of Africa Recovery, and the first colour edition of Africa Renewal.
Photograph: Africa Renewal / John Gillespie

Two Africa Emergency debut newsletters, neatly kept in the New York offices of the UN magazine Africa Renewal, provide a snapshot of Africa in 1985. That was before the internet, when many newsrooms were noisy with the clacking of typewriter keys. The 16-page newsletter was printed in black and white, except for the Emergency on the masthead, which appeared in green.

Fast-forward to 2012. Africa Renewal is published in English and French, with about 40,000 copies of each edition distributed worldwide. All pages are semi-glossy and in full colour. The magazine’s website attracts 60,000 monthly visitors on average. Nearly 20,000 follow its Facebook and Twitter pages.

There is a sombre feel to the first edition of the old newsletter, which appeared in April 1985 and was a predecessor of Africa Renewal. Two cover photos feature a total of 15 people, all with grim faces. One is of Julius Nyerere, the late Tanzanian president, whose exclusive interview featured in the edition. The stories are mostly on drought and famine: Africa was facing a severe humanitarian crisis, and the newsletter was part of the international relief operation.

The UN had set up the Office of Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA) to coordinate humanitarian efforts after drought began in Ethiopia and spread to 20 African countries. It was a “massive famine, the worst ever in African history,” recalls Salim Lone, who worked as an editor under Africa Emergency’s editor-in-chief, Djibril Diallo. The OEOA’s newsletter aimed to present complicated issues in a language that anyone could understand. “It gave information that people were not used to getting from the UN: easy to read, easy to understand.” (See Looking back after 25 years)

From emergency to recovery

The evolution of the publication reflects the trajectory of the continent. As the drought receded and it became increasingly clear that the real challenge was promoting Africa’s long-term economic and social development — its “recovery” — the UN closed the OEOA and the General Assembly held a special session on African development.

But since the Africa Emergency newsletter had developed good links with the media, governments, non-governmental organizations and others, many thought it would be useful to have a similar publication. As a result, Africa Recovery was launched in 1987.

An editor’s note in the first issue, in April 1987, explained the new magazine’s outlook: “Clearly emergency is no longer the continent’s prime concern,” wrote Mr. Lone, who stayed on as editor. “The focus will now be on the continent’s recovery and development efforts.”

Readership strategy

Over time Africa Recovery began to resemble a magazine more than a newsletter: additional pages, with a dominant feature story and other articles on a range of topics. Initially stories were mainly on economic, social and humanitarian issues. As a publication of the UN, which is composed of governments, it was difficult for the magazine to deal with “sensitive” political issues such as coups and rights abuses. “It was more acceptable to deal with other things,” recalls Ernest Harsch, who first joined the magazine in 1989 and became managing editor in 2001. Besides, it was fruitless to try competing with the mainstream media in chasing breaking news stories.

More notably, adds Mr. Harsch, Africa Recovery was not interested in the kind of “sexy” stories favoured by the major media, which tended to dwell on famines, disasters, wars and other topics that sensationalized the negative aspects of Africa’s complex reality. Instead, the magazine concentrated on Africa’s challenges and the very real efforts made by Africans and their partners to improve people’s lives.

The magazine was able to get a good slice of the African elite audience, particularly the media, decision-makers in government, academics, civil society activists and so on. It was “a breath of fresh air,” Mr. Harsch remembers, “and it worked well for us.” As African countries moved towards greater democracy in the 1990s, political topics became easier to cover as well.

In 2004 the magazine’s name changed to Africa Renewal. In a message to readers, former under-secretaries-general Shashi Tharoor (communications and public information) and Ibrahim Gambari (the Secretary-General’s special adviser on Africa) justified the new name: “Most countries [in Africa] now have democratically elected governments…. African leaders have devised a forward-looking plan, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).”

They continued: “By changing its name to Africa Renewal, the publication seeks to identify itself more squarely with Africa’s new dynamic of initiative and rebirth.”

The magazine continued to expand its coverage of Africa’s development agenda, highlighting the work of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, NEPAD and the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, among others. When NEPAD marked its 10th anniversary in 2011, Africa Renewal set up a web page on the celebrations. The magazine has printed special editions on children, HIV/AIDS and women, as well as pamphlets, flyers and other information materials.

Modernization agenda

The internet and mobile communications technologies now make multiple sources of information readily available to readers, notes Margaret Novicki, chief of the Communications Campaigns Service of the UN’s Department of Public Information. Consequently, she says, “Africa Renewal must go with the flow.”

Parvati Heather McPheeters, who created the magazine’s first website in early 1997, says that at the time “the goal was to give access to a few more readers, by dozens, not thousands.” The current website has impressed Ms. McPheeters, who left the magazine in 2006. “I am gratified I had been part of setting up the infrastructure.”

The current editor-in-chief, Masimba Tafirenyika, joined the team in 2009 and has been pushing to ensure that “we are not left behind in a changing world.” According to Mr. Tafirenyika, “We were behind the time with a black-and-white publication. We needed to change our style, layout and content. We want our publication to stand out.” While the expenses of full-colour publishing were once prohibitive, advances in technology now mean that the costs of a colour magazine are not so different from those of a black-and-white publication.

One of Mr. Tafirenyika’s first goals was to broaden the magazine’s appeal. “It is important to appeal to the youth, women, civil society and others.” To accomplish that, “our writing style has to be less academic and more accessible. The layout must be appealing and our choice of stories must be dynamic — in line with changes in society.”

Writers, editors and other colleagues jumped with joy in August 2010 when the first colour, semi-glossy pages were printed. “It was a milestone moment for the magazine. I was very proud of the team,” says Ms. Novicki.

Information and communications technologies are advancing rapidly, and the magazine is ready to plug in. “As internet connectivity and mobile access improve, especially in Africa, we would like to be able to deliver our products in various formats and for different platforms, including on tablets,” says Mr. Tafirenyika.

In addition, relationships with more than 250 different English and French online and print publications, mostly in Africa, ensure that Africa Renewal’s articles are reprinted and that they reach a wide and diverse audience.

Commendations

Independent appraisals in 1991 and 1994 found reader satisfaction well above 70 per cent. In a survey of Africa Renewal’s online readership last year, 91 per cent of respondents said that they understood Africa’s priority issues more after visiting the website.

The August-September 2011 issue of Udvikling, a respected Danish development publication, rated Africa Renewal as one of eight “foreign high-quality magazines” that provide “vision and perspective on global development.” The others included the London-based Economist and the US magazines Foreign Affairs and National Geographic. Referring to Africa Renewal, the Danish publication said that “very few international publications can match the way this quarterly magazine covers Africa in many ways.”

As Africa Renewal celebrates its 25th anniversary, Ms. Novicki cautions that “although the magazine has already achieved a lot there is still work to be done. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

For Mr. Tafirenyika and his team, there is only one way to go — forward.