Jul 22, 2013

A tear shed for Uganda's business journalism

“Africans are one of the most resilient, innovative and creative business people in the world. To navigate poor and decaying road networks, maddeningly corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats, government regulations that frustrate and hinder business operations, a lack of reliable electricity or water, all demand ingenuity, agility and determination. I doubt western entrepreneurs operating in such an environment could last long.” Andrew Rugasira 

A few months back, “the seer”penned a damning indictment on the state of business journalism in Africa – partly excluding South Africa. As a journalist, I responded to him on twitter – 140 characters are not the best response to a 1000 word piece. I said “maybe you are reading the wrong business publications.” In Uganda, we have two business publications that have survived the "4 year litmus test". I have worked for both: The East African Business Week [2009-2012] and The CEO Magazine [2011 – to-date]. In his writing, Kalyegira notes that:
“Nobody saw this coming. Our amateurish business reporting means that the reading public can never get an accurate picture of business conditions in Uganda. The Ugandan news media is fragile for the most part. There are too many broadcast stations and print publications chasing too few advertisers and so almost no media house dare report the facts about Uganda’s corporations, lest they are denied adverts.”
This is a correct assessment of the state of business journalism in Uganda, but it is only part of the problem. It is not new for companies to shove press releases in the face of journalists, and well, we just add a few sentences before handing it to our editors. Of course for some of these companies, they want to get their “monies worth” by being in the press since they are the advertisers. But, does this mean the Ugandan business reporter can’t go beyond the mumble jumble in a press release? Yes they can, but who will talk to them and give them the details? People talk of government bureaucracy, but some these corporations are just as worse. Worse still, for any inquiry, it takes a company so much more time to respond – if at all – but takes a short time for them to give you press release [For immediate release].

Working for East African Business Week and CEO Magazine, there is a trend I’ve noticed over the years. These two are small publications are not considered that "important" compared to New Vision, Observer, and The Daily Monitor. Being small – but dedicated to business reporting – they are ignored by the corporate companies when it comes to responding to queries by journalists. The top three get priority – understandable – but yet a dedicated business publication gets treated as a third class citizen. Interestingly, it is the smaller publications that get the “vomit copy” of all sorts of press releases that MUST be published.

These two so called small publications do take time to write business stories and go beyond product launches, however, they are very much limited on how far they can go. 

Obviously, for the likes of New Vision and Daily Monitor, the business reporters have much less flexibility on what they can write. They are limited to two pages of business news and in most cases the analysis bit is lacking. In fact Kalyegira writes; 
“Most African business reports focus on public relations: Launches of new brands, re-launches of old brands and products, opening of complexes, showrooms, plants and competitions and promotions.”
These small publications need money and in Uganda – it seems – any "perceived" negative reporting about a corporate company, you are banished from their advertising list. Then what happens to the reporters? Where does the money come from? To further compound the problems, Ugandans would rather read online newspapers then buy a copy off the shelf, even if they are to wait for a story to be uploaded at 5pm.

I’ve been here, I’ve seen what people buy, and it has nothing to do with business publications - save for a few. They are simply not interested. At the CEO Magazine, we do business analysis and business reporting, but people would rather buy gossip. At times I ask myself “do people really read my stories?” At times when I get comment, I'm so delighted. In one forum, a Ugandan commented that my writing was “fantastic fiction” that was “clouded with financial jargon.” In as much as I disagreed – partly - with his assessment of my writing, I felt proud because I was being noticed. But that's it!!! We toil for information. Data is hard to find. We are called all sorts of names. Told off by company executives and also denied access. 

It is also common for companies to have the theory "he knows nothing about us" or "he knows about what he is writing." In fact they'd rather organize a media briefing that has a high number of reporters, than one where they have a few quality business reporters.

There are also constant reminders from media owners to reporters that they have to do more to attract advertisers. Well, unless you are owned by a large media company, which can afford to make a loss on one of its publications, then perhaps one has to forget the "hard hitting work" that we parade as business reporters. Additionally, business reporters in this country have lesser opportunities to go and learn more on how to report better. People who report about Human Rights, Conflict, Health and Education among others, can easily get the “value addition” through fellowships and scholarships, whereas for the business reporter; you-are-on-your-own. No one is willing to invest in you, but you must invest in yourself – by spending the little you get to earn.

Many will say; “you hobnob with Uganda’s CEO’s. Why would it be hard for you to get opportunities?” Well, they are simply not interested. If they are, they’d rather take a reporter for a trip to their company, than improve the state of business journalism. Admittedly, I must say, business journalism is as good as dead – locally – at least that’s my impression and observation. It can only be revived by quality reporting, which can only be done by being part of large media organization. It is also not entirely surprising that one can easily jump ship, leave business journalism and join the corporate world. The realities of reporting have changed, passion is dying – slowly – and well, light at the end of the tunnel seems elusive – at least locally.

Jul 8, 2013

In the Press: Monitor, when a story deserves more than just a massage

He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.

Abraham Lincoln 

The Auditor General’s report makes for good reading, as always considering it punches holes in government business.

The story on Page 4 of today's Daily Monitor is damning on a company called Phenix Logistics, one of the exporters and producers of garments in Uganda – local content – of which the government owns 94 percent.

The story, in the headline, reads "Money spent on Phenix a waste of state resources, AG tells govt."  

Quote from the AG’s report: “The government has continued to inject funds in a loss making company, with the latest being the guarantee of a loan from JBIC amounting to Shs4.2billion….” So does the AG here say the government is wasting money? The problem is that Phenix Logistics is loss making.

The Daily Monitor goes on and reads “…which also wonders [The AG’s report wonders?] why govt keeps increasing its shareholding in the firm yet it has never received any dividend..” But it is already loss making. How do you receive a dividend if you’re loss making?

“However, in the same year [2000], the firm borrowed Shs4.2billion from Uganda Development Bank, which it later failed to pay.” So Ugandans would want to know why Phenix Logistics borrowed this money. What was it for?

Interestingly, the Monitor story further explains that each time Phenix failed to pay a debt, it was converted into equity – not exactly a bad thing though – from 0 to 49percent then to 79percent and more recently to 94percent.

So what did all the money borrowed do? What is the production capacity? What are the challenges – if any – or inefficiencies going on at Phenix? How cheap are their products on the local market compared to the imported garments? How much has the plant benefited from AGOA? How many people does it employ? What is the export value of the products? Has it paid taxes? Is production subsidized? The private sector failed to make it profitable,  the government is failing. What exactly is the problem at Phenix Logistics? We have several private sector businesses that are not yet profitable – Orange, Airtel, Warid, UTL – but still their owners keep pumping money into them, in order to prop up performance, and maybe they’ll be profitable – or not. Such is the nature of business.