Media viability

Unpacking data use in Africa’s media

Data has fast become the new currency of digital journalism business. But flawed access and flawed ways of monitoring data mean there is a growing divide between the haves and the have nots. IMS is working to shine a light on the technical barriers that bar many media from accessing the data they need to operate, whilst supporting the necessary advocacy work to drive change.

Increasing internet access is driving economic and social development in Africa.

Between 2016 and 2022, over 160 million Africans gained broadband internet access. And in 2023, increased internet access for marginalised rural and urban communities[1] in Nigeria and Tanzania helped reduce extreme poverty by seven percent.

However, digital platforms are still out of reach for many in Africa, with the continent controlling a mere one percent[2] of the global digital economy, while only 22 percent [3] of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have internet access.

This disparity, coined “digital poverty”[4] by the World Economic Forum, is a defining factor in the context Africa’s digital space is operating in, influencing how various sectors, including the media, are using and adapting digital content creation tools.

In Africa, however, internet access and the use of digital platforms is not only a question of infrastructure, costs and internet freedom, but also of internet governance, not least with regard to access to data – an area in which countries across the continent are experiencing severe limitations with profound implications for developmental and governance issues, including the management of public services.

The elephant in the room

While there are thus numerous challenges, African newsrooms are waking up to the many potential uses of data in informing newsroom operations and media sustainability.

The challenge with any such use of data is what strategies, formats, skills and newsroom transformation are needed. Global digital technology infrastructure remains in the hands of the Global North with limited control by the Global South, not least Africa. A key concern in this respect is data localization as African users’ data – be it on social media or other tech-based digital platforms – are stored in the Global North.

A related problem concerns the safety and privacy of African internet users, whose data is dependent on laws and policies outside of Africa.

Some African countries have begun to address these challenges. Kenya, for example, has passed laws requiring foreign tech companies to store Kenyan social media users’ data on servers based in Kenya. By the same token, Nigeria requires such companies to register in Nigeria and appoint local representatives, who are answerable for data security, access, and infringement issues. The underlying rationale is that locating African data on African soil enables the authorities in these countries to hold foreign tech companies accountable for such issues.

Approaches such as Kenya and Nigeria’s are sorely needed as privacy infringements and data related complaints filed by African stakeholders to tech companies based in the Global North are rarely addressed – a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that these companies’ privacy policies typically do not take language, cultural and political dynamics specific to African contexts into account. That said, there is a growing trend of Global North-based tech companies opening regional offices around the world, including in Africa, that can act as centres of engagement on data access and safety.

Media and data use in Africa

Overall, there is an urgent need to create human rights-based and human-centred data policies that are aligned with Africa’s needs, including at local as well as country policy level.

While the issues described above raise concerns about global data policies, it is important to recognise that country level data policies have also not been transparent nor democratic, with governments monopolising access to data and abusing it for political ends across much of Africa, not least in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Uganda. Journalists, human rights defenders, and political opposition groups have fallen victim to data infringements[5]. This weaponisation of data in authoritarian and totalitarian governments can and often does lead to online self-censorship and limitations on free expression. Agencies holding data in Africa are often government controlled and not accountable to the public[6].    

Amid this mountain of challenges, Africa’s media are increasingly recognising the potential use, not only of data in journalism, but also in understanding the whole media ecosystem, including how data can inform and enable meaningful audience engagement, media sustainability and changes to media management. 

Where media can create registration gateways they can unlock meaningful data to drive growth. A key application of data by African newsrooms is instant audience feedback that in turn informs media consumer story preferences. South Africa’s Daily Maverick utilises audience data tools and comment walls that indicate number of retweets (Re-Xs) and likes. In turn, this data allows for the creation of content that aligns with audiences’ preferences. Daily Maverick has innovated using a locally based startup reader feedback tool, Antenna[7], that allows reader feedback from an list of approved reactions, thereby limiting abuse of the comment section.

A common challenge for data use in newsrooms is that such data often comes in silos, with the result that substantial time and energy is expended on sensemaking.

In 2022, Daily Maverick developed a solution to this challenge by creating “RevEngine”, a software platform that brings key data from disparate systems into one central data repository, creating a unified view of the reader[8].

In turn, better understanding of audience preferences and consumption patterns enables targeted content sharing with the likelihood of audiences being more inclined to subscribe as well as to join membership programmes.

In Kenya, the Nation Media Group’s digital adaptation is centred on using digital data to drive editorial decisions. As an example, Nation Media Group (NMG) newsrooms have large screens at the centre of the newsroom, displaying how individual stories are performing online in terms of clicks, likes, shares and the time audiences spend reading each article. This enables the newsroom to be more targeted in its reportage and increase internal awareness of audience trends. In 2022 the NMG grew its profits by 12 percent, and the group says that, going forward, the bulk of revenues will come through going digital.

Knowledge exchange amongst media is driving awareness[9]. For many, however, they are locked in a blocked business cycle as their newsroom skills and data literacy are low. VPN use creates broad sweeping anomalies in the data, and social listening tools often do not work in territories where IMS works. Many media find the level of approximation provided by tools such as Google analytics to give an incomplete picture of their data, and others disseminating on encrypted channels such as What’s App, have little or no information on news spread.

Data and AI

Finally, African newsrooms are gradually adapting AI tools to drive data use in content analysis, although take-up in the broad understanding of AI uses and meanings is low. In particular, being data critical is not a top priority, with few making informed decisions regarding how data is being gathered, stored and processed. Data-conscious choices of technology need to be routinised, baking in ethical considerations. AI analysis tools are also enabling quicker access to facts and data, with challenges revolving around the ethics and accuracy of AI generated reports and analyses, and how defensible such data is, should it be challenged by audiences.

Particularly newsroom leaders are slow in their exploration of AI use in processes, and a generational divide between newsroom staff is emerging. African newsrooms’ adaptation of data analysis tools, including AI-based ones, is hampered by a relative lack of skills and resources as well by high costs and challenges associated with attempting to fit AI and data use into traditionally structured newsrooms. Independent journalists have limited resources to choose and implement technology. A 2023 study by Open Spaces Zambia showed that 60% of Zambian journalists are using AI, such as chatbots as well as image and video analysis in their work[10]. Media in Zimbabwe suggest this is happening incrementally at individual journalist level rather than as an informed institutional process. Much of the time, only one person in an organisation is responsible for doing the research, making the choice, and implementing the tools. And that person is not necessarily an expert. Changes are therefore needed in how newsrooms are structured, as is the infusion of new skills.

There is an urgent need to create platforms to share newsroom tools to avoid repetition and offer support for implementation. This is particularly pronounced in media ecosystems where systemic solutions are needed for example to language and data availability. The largest barrier to AI use more broadly is local language provisioning. It should be noted that newsrooms in Africa and elsewhere are wary of falling victim to deep fakes sparking a need for tech companies to employ better measures to counter disinformation and fake news. Data supply in itself is problematic, as few institutions release data in structured forms. Without the necessary practice led approaches, through the development of appropriate guidelines and policies for AI use, there is mounting concern that protectionist and defensive approaches will come from the country’s leaders.

Overall, support to Africa’s use of data and AI adaptation will need to be holistic; it should not only address skills but also build management capacity as well as dialogues on data policy, both at a global and national level.

[1]Digital Transformation Drives Development in Africa (

[2]Africa makes its mark, claims 1% share in global digital economy (

[3]GSMA | New insights on mobile internet connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa | Mobile for Development

[4]Only 20% of Africans use the internet – we must fix this digital poverty now | World Economic Forum (

[5]Recent developments in African data protection laws – Outlook for 2023 – Lexology

[6]Data protection fines in Africa – Michalsons

[7]Reactions – an alternative format for reader feedback (

[8]Daily Maverick turns data into revenue (

[9]Knowledge exchange amongst media

[10]Artificial Intelligence’s Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape | Al Jazeera Media Institute