A few months ago I attended a panel discussion at NYU on the future of local news. During the Q&A portion I asked a question, and introduced myself and my company. I described ZMedia Tech // ZNews Africa as a tech startup that works for Wakandans all over the world.
The comment got a great laugh from the room. I was pleased that people now understand what I’m talking about. To my delight and surprise, when the event was over I was approached by three people who wanted to write for us, one person who was familiar with us and offered their kudos and two folks from the NYC Mayor’s Office who wanted to connect for a future partnership.
The Wakanda line works on so many levels. It’s a story about Africans. We tell stories about Pan Africans. There is a connection to the U.S. We’re based in the U.S. They are technologically advanced and have vibranium. We’re a tech company that makes digital products. It’s perfect.
Prior to the phenomenon of Black Panther, it’s billion dollar box office success and the litany of conversations it sparked, I used to present our work as “serving the Pan African community globally.” If I was talking to someone of African descent they got it. If I wasn’t then there would often be silence.
Many times there would be outright insults. I’ve been questioned on the feasibility of Africans ever using smartphones (there will be 720 million smartphone users there by 2020). I’ve been asked whether Africans even care about news in their life, because of course Africans are scrambling for that $1 a day. When would they have the time?
Last year I had the pleasure of attending an official United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) panel event. The UNGA brings almost every political world leader to New York. During the week, there are a variety of parties, panels, day-conferences and strategic meetings for all of us who work in, or closely with, the international development and economic communities.
It should be the forum where I could mention the word “Africa” and not be met with stereotypes. But again, this was before Wakanda. Here are selected portions of a few of the conversations I had with people I met at the event.
Exchanging handshakes and business cards with someone I met prior to the start of the panel discussion.
Him: Hi, I’m in software. What do you do?
Me: I’m Michael from ZNews Africa. We’re a Google, Facebook and Microsoft accelerator member that makes mobile, web and email products.
Him: Oh great. I’m going to Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time this year.
Me: Nice. Where?
Him: Tanzania. I’m going on my first safari!
Me: Oh. Ah I see. Well, are you going to see other sites or people? Maybe experience the culture a bit?
Him: No, but I’m pretty excited about the Safari.
Pointing out Aliko Dangote when he took the stage for a panel that included folks like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, LinkedIn Co-Founder Reid Hoffman, and Mozilla Executive Chairwoman, Mitchell Baker.
Me: That’s Aliko Dangote. He’s the richest man in Africa, worth over $22 billion.
Her: Oh wow. Interesting. Where’s he from? Is he one of the good guys?
Me: He’s from Nigeria. Good guys?
Her: Yeah. Well, you know all that corruption. Like in Nigeria there are all these oil spills that they don’t clean up because people are getting paid under the table. Is he one of those people?
Me: He’s no more or less corrupt than Reid Hoffman or Marc Benioff and Nigeria can’t be worse than a country with a Secretary of State that used to run Exxon Mobil and a President firing the person leading an investigation into his potentially illegal practices.
Her: Yeah, I guess. But is the Nigerian guy corrupt or what?
I used to say Africa, media and tech and they would say safaris, ebola and corruption. Now I say Wakanda and they say “that’s SO cool, let’s connect!”