Communique 10: Can podcasts scale in Africa?

The podcasting industry is worth over $11 billion. It will be far more valuable than that in a few years. Yet, it has not caught on in Africa. Why? And if it is to catch on here, just how will it?

Despite being around for more than 20 years, podcasts have still not caught on in Africa. The industry is worth more than $11 billion (up from $9.28 billion in 2019), but that value is concentrated in the US and North America. This is unsurprising; podcasting kicked off in that part of the world in the early 2000s and has seen heavy investment. Significant innovation around content, monetisation, and technology have also contributed to its growth.

In the last decade, podcasts and podcast production have experienced a growing interest in Africa. These podcasts are often inspired by successful shows in the West and adapted for the local audience based on the host’s interests and/or profession. In South Africa, there’s Alibi, the investigative journalism series, and the now-defunct African Tech Roundup, among others. In Zambia, we have Leading Ladies, an animated podcast series dedicated to women in the country’s history. In Kenya, there’s Cut the Foreplay, a comedy series; Legally Clueless, which is focused on the presenter, Adelle Onyango’s journey as an African woman; and Surviving Nairobi, a podcast based on the lives of its hosts, DJ IV and Hafare. Then there’s Ugandan radio and TV presenter Lee Kasumba’s Africa State of Mind (also defunct).

But despite the moderate success of some of these shows, anecdotal evidence suggests podcasting is still far from popular in Africa. Why?

According to Abe Adeile and Osagie Alonge, both involved in making the famous Loose Talk Podcast and are now co-founders of Visual Audio Times, a podcast network and production company in Lagos, Nigeria, podcasting’s biggest hurdle in Africa is inadequate infrastructure. Unlike radio which is cheap and requires no extra cost to access, podcasts need additional data and specific phone features that many Africans cannot afford.

Alonge parallels podcasting with music streaming:

“It costs you N900 to pay for Spotify or Apple Music for a month. But it’s probably going to cost you two or three times that amount to stream from those platforms because you have to buy data, and data is expensive. That’s why [many] people will not download Spotify because they can’t keep streaming repeatedly. You can always bring up the option of downloading. But then you have to address the questions: “What kind of phone do I have? How much space do I have on my phone?”

Justin Norman, producer and host of The Flip, a podcast that explores "contextually relevant insights" from entrepreneurs in Africa, echoes Alonge’s views. He says:

“If we’re talking about a mass-market African consumer, listening to a podcast takes a lot of data. So it might not be the best means of distribution in comparison with radio or something text-based.”

So, podcasters in Africa have to deal with the high cost of data and inadequate phone features. These challenges affect distribution. But there’s more. Podcasts also have to compete with more accessible media and formats. Most people who listen to podcasts do so on their phones. But if you observe phone usage data, you’ll likely find that people spend most of their time on social media and messaging apps. They interact with videos, images, and short-form text on these social media and messaging apps more than any other format.

I’ll use myself as an example. Here’s what my screen time looks like:

Nevertheless, it’s still worth asking if there are ways around these challenges for the sake of the opportunities that podcasting presents. Think about it:

  • The industry is already worth more than $11 billion and is expected to cross $60 billion by 2027. That value will end up somewhere. Some of it might as well come to Africa.

  • Massive investments have gone into podcasting in recent years. Since 2015, we’ve seen huge acquisitions and licensing deals. As I mentioned in the previous edition of Communique, Spotify spent $600 million on podcast-related investments between February 2019 and 2020 alone.

  • Podcasts present a chance to tell important stories at a fraction of the cost. It costs less to record a podcast than to produce a movie, video documentary, or even publish a book.

  • If a podcast is thriving and has a large audience, it can be adapted into other formats. Aaron Mahnke’s ‘Lore’ is a classic example. He struggled to sell his books, so he recorded a podcast telling historical tales of the dead. They were low-budget productions that attracted 5 million listeners per month. The podcast was eventually adapted into a TV series. Of course, this is just one example, but it embodies what could be.

  • Finally, the future of audio is on-demand, and podcasting is currently the most popular form. Even if podcasting is not the future itself, it plays a significant role in how we get there.

Writing about Spotify’s entry into Africa, I suggested that we focus instead on its overall gameplan:

“If you think about Spotify purely as a music streaming service, I can excuse you for failing to see why its entry into the market is a big deal… But this goes past just another music streaming platform entering into the market. Spotify’s real gameplan is owning your passive media experience via audio. It is gunning for the whole nine yards—music, podcasts, audio advertising, audiobooks, and whatever else technology can conjure.”

In the past, it was harder to discover podcasts if you weren’t already a consumer because podcast apps were standalone. More people listen to music than podcasts, and to do this, they often have to use separate apps. Spotify has blurred the line between what people love listening to and what they can be listening to. Now, you have podcasts and music on the same platform, and that significantly increases discoverability. YouTube does the same for video podcasts.

So, knowing all this, we have to explore realistic ways to grow the podcasting audience in Africa. And the foundation of this is to understand user behaviour better.

A trip back in time

It’s 2017 (or 2016, I forget which exactly). I’m sitting in a danfo. Beside me is a man with the base of his phone to his ear. He’s been listening to something for over 10 minutes now. If I pay closer attention, I might hear every word, but I don’t. I only hear enough to recognise what it is — a voice note. Not just any voice note; it’s a type I’m all too familiar with and have grown to hate. My parents send it to me occasionally. Yours probably do, too.

I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten voice notes from my mother warning about impending doom. This is how it happens: someone creates these lengthy recordings saying something controversial and distributes them through the WhatsApp groups our parents belong to. Our parents, thinking they have stumbled on something prophetic or some secret information the powers that be are hiding from us, forward it to as many people as they can. Unfortunately, we are on their contact lists, so we suffer the ignominy of getting these funny messages. Unless, of course, we dare to block them. We don’t have the audacity, though, do we?

Anyway, sitting beside this man for the duration of our very uncomfortable trip, I am fascinated by how at ease he seems with what he is doing. Beyond my fascination, though, I don’t think too much of it. However, years later, as I research more about how to scale and monetise different content types, my mind goes back to that day. Seeing that man so conveniently listening to a voice note the length of a podcast episode in a crowded bus prompts me to look closer at how user behaviour should influence content creation and distribution.

How to scale podcasts in Africa: Meet people where they are

Looking at the challenges podcasting faces is essential, but they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t explain why the man sitting beside me on the bus that day was so comfortable listening to what is essentially a podcast episode on WhatsApp. They don’t explain why so many Africans stream/download church sermons, which also are essentially podcast episodes. Podcasting’s limitations in Africa go beyond just the infrastructural deficit.

If people already spend most of their screen time on social media and instant messaging, then podcasters need to do a better job of meeting people where they are instead of just creating for their podcast platforms. Writers and video creators do this well. They make their videos and publish their articles on native platforms, but they know that isn’t enough. They have to share their content on social media, where most of their audience spends their time. This is not all, though. The most successful writers and video creators also know to adapt their content per platform and create conversations around that content or insert it into relevant conversations.

I’m not just talking about sharing links to your podcast on social media but also adapting it to each platform to optimise distribution. This plays out in the following ways:

  • Create visual snippets of your podcast and include subtitles in the video. (Here is an example from The Economist.)

  • Create WhatsApp or instant messaging groups around your podcast and share short audio clips as voice notes (much like our parents already do). This works perfectly if you already have a sizable audience. (An example is Uk’shona Kwelanga, a South African drama series shared exclusively via WhatsApp.)

  • Build a newsletter community around your podcast. Newsletters are one of the easiest ways to engage directly with your audience, especially when you send show notes in the email so people can quickly see what each episode is about before deciding if/when to listen.

However, all of these must lead back to your primary content, the podcast, and a platform you own. Your social media audience is not yours, it belongs to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., and anything can happen to your account at any time. But if you own the platform and your database, the odds are in your favour.

Radio’s secret sauce: content and engagement

Podcasting can learn from radio’s success. It’s the most popular medium in Africa now, but it was not always the primary way humans consumed audio. In the 1880s, people listened to the news, music, weather reports, etc., via telephones. Radio transmission began in 1906, and the first radio station started broadcasting ten years later. The first recording of a radio broadcast in Africa was in South Africa in 1923 — Felix Mendelssohn's ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On Wings of Song). Since then, the medium has adapted to meet the needs of mass audiences in Africa.

Over the years, radio became the most significant medium in this part of the world for the following reasons:

  1. The barrier to entry is low. As I mentioned earlier, radios are cheap and require no additional cost for access. Once you buy a radio set, you don’t need to spend anything extra to listen to broadcasts with it. This enables the high level of distribution and deep penetration that no other medium has.

  2. Radio stations (and presenters) have figured out how best to engage their audiences. Through local language broadcasting, which breaks down linguistic barriers, and community programming, which covers issues that hit close to home, radio offers a particular type of content that people can’t get anywhere else. This makes it so personable that audiences tune in and feel like their radio station “gets” them.

  3. Finally, because radio stations are so connected to their audience and the grassroots, they know the importance of creating programmes that resonate with people. For example, radio dramas that discuss community-related issues are a big hit and help deliver important messages in engaging ways.

How do we adapt these factors to podcasting in Africa?

  1. Look away from the West and focus instead on what your people want. Many of the early podcast creators in Africa were either inspired by Western content or the success of certain podcast types and formats in the West. This is understandable. But learning from radio’s success demands that we instead look closer to home. We must understand what our people are already listening to and build on that. Perhaps podcasting in local languages may not be the way to go, but creating content relevant to people’s quotidian activities and hits close to home will be far more effective.

  2. Build on successful radio programmes. We can build on successful radio programmes with massive local audiences by turning them into podcasts and directing people to listen to those podcasts. Nigeria Info FM does this well by converting some of its most successful talk shows into podcasts that people can listen to on its website.

  3. Make possible through podcasting the things that are impossible with film. According to the veteran broadcaster Lindsay Barrett, in the years after Nigeria’s independence, radio dramas were considered an “innovative and exciting medium of creative expression”. But their popularity has waned because they’re capital intensive. Despite their cost, they were cheaper to make than films, and they told the same kinds of stories. With podcasting, they can regain their social status (this time as audio dramas) and share with the world the African stories that we have for so long desired to tell.

Finally, do podcasts really need to scale in Africa?

I can’t shake this question off my mind: do podcasts really need to scale? Are they that important?

The answer is complicated. Podcasts are a way to broadcast on-demand audio, which is what is really important here. The world is moving away from linear programming to on-demand content, and podcasting is one way that is happening. Africans may not listen to podcasts often yet, but, as we already established, they listen to on-demand audio. (Remember that man sitting beside me on the bus? Yes, he is a sample size of one, but he represents the majority.)

On-demand audio is the future, and the earlier we begin to build towards that future (with deliberate investments into content distribution, Internet infrastructure, and understanding user behaviour), the better. If podcasting is how on-demand audio will scale, then we have to pay more attention to it. But if it isn't, if other channels align more with preexisting behaviour, we should pay closer attention to them.

Remember: radio was not always the primary way we consumed audio content. It will not always be the primary way we consume audio content. The future may seem far off, but it really is closer than we think, and we must be ready for it.

PS: I’d like to thank the people who helped make this essay what it is. Thank you to Akachi Ogbonna, Hassan Yahaya, Fu’ad Lawal, and Ope Adedeji for helping me edit and strengthen my points.

Thank you to Osagie Alonge, Abe Adeile, and Justin Norman for lending their expertise and sharing their experience with me.

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