Channeling Better Images

How James Makawa is trying to change the face of Africa

africachannelSince 2005, The Africa Channel, the first American cable channel devoted to airing programming from Africa, has focused on changing the world’s perception of the continent. It was founded by CEO James Makawa from Zimbabwe, who spent more than 10 years in the U.S. as a local reporter and anchor before becoming a correspondent for NBC News. The Africa Channel offers news, sports, music, lifestyle, and travel programming, and reaches more than 12 million subscribers across the U.S., UK, and Caribbean. Here, Makawa discusses his quest to offer a more balanced view of Africa to the world.

What’s been the greatest challenge in bringing African content to television in America?

Sensitizing people to Africa. America is a very insular place. The challenges are not just in reorienting the African American community and the white community—we still have to reorient the decision makers in cable at the local level who decide what channels get carried by the operator.

How have you generated interest in people who know Africa only through the lens of American media?

The news has portrayed a certain image of Africa that’s slanted toward war, famine, and abject poverty. We recognize that those things exist, but on the continent as a whole there are pockets of opportunity and excellence. African Americans can reconnect with the continent not only through tourism, but from a business and geopolitical standpoint. We are trying to shine a light on business opportunities, including real estate development, tourism, communications, and mining.

Would you say you have the job of correcting misinformation?

Absolutely. It’s about changing a mind-set. Reaching younger generations is key, because we’re not living in an isolated world anymore. Technology has broken down all barriers to connectivity. So if you’re an African American growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, life doesn’t begin and end in Little Rock. There’s a world of opportunities for you out there. And those opportunities may not be the United States. They may be in Africa.

Where would you like the network to be in the next few years?

We would like to have a greater distribution footprint. This is a broad-based network. It’s for anyone who is interested in Africa. People need to pay attention to Africa.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue.

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