9 min read

International news for an African audience. Through WhatsApp.

Hello, Cristina here! This week I have a super cool interview lined up for you. I spoke with Simon Allison, a South African journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of The Continent, a free online newspaper from, for, and about Africa.

Simon and his team are reporting on international news for an African audience, and he's sharing that news in a pretty innovative way. Scroll down to read our conversation.      

Cristina: I'd love to hear more about the Continent and why you launched it.

Simon: So, I've been a foreign correspondent for about the last decade. What I realized is that the way African news filters into Africa is mostly through international news outlets, primarily based in the West.

If I'm sitting in South Africa and reading a story about Kenyan politics, I'm probably reading the BBC, the Guardian, or one of the wire services. That means my news as an African citizen about the rest of Africa is being filtered through the newsrooms and associated editorial biases of Western media houses.

You have editors in London and New York and Paris making decisions about what is and isn't important.

We wanted to create a publication that does international news for an African audience specifically.

At the moment, that is predominantly African news for an African audience.

But eventually, as we scale up, we want to send our own correspondents to Washington D.C. and Beijing, and Brussels, the same way foreign news outlets send correspondents to Johannesburg or Nairobi.  

That way African journalists are asking questions on the international stage that African audiences need answers to.

Cristina: Do you have correspondents based in other parts of the continent?

Simon: We've got a staff of nine, five of whom are part-time. So it's a really tiny team. Although that's double the size of what we were when we started last year, so it feels luxurious at the moment.

We have a network of stringers across Africa, and we take a lot of freelancers as well.

One of the goals of the publication is to provide a space for African journalists to showcase their work to a larger international audience. I think we've worked with around 250 different journalists in the last year and a half.

Cristina: What does your funding model look like?

Simon: We have been able to attract donor funding, which covers our core operations and has allowed us to grow our reach and scale.

Now that we have decent numbers and reach, we're also able to reach out to advertisers.

Hopefully, in the medium term, it will be a mix of donor funding and commercial revenue.

Cristina: Do you have a print version?

Simon: We say we have a print version, but it's printed as a PDF. That gets distributed via messaging platforms like WhatsApp. So it looks and feels like a newspaper, but it exists purely digitally.

Cristina: Who is your audience and what is their size?

Simon: We have a circulation of roughly 100,000 people a week, and that is across 105 different countries.

Mostly we reach them through WhatsApp. That's our largest distribution platform.

Cristina: Tell me more about that. Why WhatsApp primarily?

Simon: WhatsApp is the dominant social media platform in Africa. When the pandemic began in early 2020, because we're journalists, our friends and family started coming to us asking questions about what they were hearing and whether it was true.

I always asked them where they heard the news, and every single time someone had forwarded it to them on WhatsApp.

That's when we realized that WhatsApp is the primary source of news for huge segments of the population in South Africa and across the African continent.

Yet there is no major media outlet with a presence designed for that medium. That just seemed crazy to us.

We decided to create a news source designed for WhatsApp and similar messaging apps.

We wanted to create something that looked and felt like a newspaper but works when you read it on a screen. The very first issue was in April 2020, and all we did was share it with our friends and family and colleagues.

By the end of the first week we had 1,000 subscribers, which illustrates the power of WhatsApp. We think it's probably the most impactful social media platform in the world.

To this day, we've never done any advertising, marketing, or promotion of this product. It's been entirely organic growth through word of mouth. That was enough to grow it to a full-fledged newspaper.

It is a mystery more publications haven't made an effort to be on there. Other platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram are broadcast platforms. You put something on there and you're sharing it with the world.

WhatsApp is generally where people talk to their friends and families. If you receive something on WhatsApp, it's from someone you know.

You're going to place a higher value on that information than you would on something you see on Facebook or Twitter. That's been a crucial aspect of our success.

It's also why fake news spreads so well on WhatsApp. We're following in the footsteps of what fake news has proven works.

Cristina: What are the big stories you are covering right now? What stories are you talking about that others aren't?

Simon: The big stories from an African perspective are the African perspective on international stories. We are writing a lot about vaccine equity. Africa has the lowest vaccination rate in the world. A lot of that has to do with the policies of richer, more developed countries which exclude countries from access to vaccines.

That has taken up a lot of our time. Also, in the run-up to Cop26, we've written about the way climate change disproportionately impacts African countries when African countries only contribute 4% of global [carbon] emissions. It is an extraordinary inequality that receives almost no attention.

We've covered Ethiopia extensively.

We're lucky to be based in South Africa, which has really strong protections for journalists.

That has allowed us to write stories that cannot be written in other countries.

A good example is under Tanzania's late President John Magafuli, Tanzania effectively denied the existence of Covid-19. It had zero cases for a long time.

We were able to report from hospitals, from graveyards, from Dar es Salaam on what the situation really looked like.

These are stories that could not be printed in any Tanzanian press whether online or physical.

But because of the nature of our distribution mechanism, we could publish that story, and we could send it to our subscribers in Tanzania.

Because WhatsApp is encrypted, the government cannot intercept that communication. Tanzanians are now getting access to stories they would never have had access to before.

That one story was one of the most impactful, and opposition leaders have told us that it helped turn the tide of the debate in Tanzania about Covid-19.

Those kinds of stories are really important to us.

What I'm writing: ‌‌

• As Defense Department officials appeared before Congress for their first public hearings on the end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, I wrote about calls in Congress for the creation of an "evacuation czar" to get U.S. citizens and allies our of the country. The State Department has not extended support for the expedited departure and resettlement of extended family members of U.S. citizens. One senior State Department official said American citizens who are deciding whether to leave their extended family members in Afghanistan have to think carefully about some potentially painful personal choices.

What I'm reading: ‌‌

• The CIA under former President Donald Trump considered kidnapping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2017. Some senior officials inside the CIA even discussed killing Assange, going so far as to request "sketches" or "options" for how to assassinate him, Yahoo News reports.

• Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is not returning calls from the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva, Bloomberg reports.

• Preliminary election results in Iceland made it appear as though the country had elected an all-female parliament. That turned out not to be the case, but women now represent 48 percent of the Icelandic parliament, and the three governing parties increased their majority.

• The BBC obtained first-hand accounts from migrants who said they were illegally deported from the European Union by Polish border troops. Representatives from NGOs and journalists are banned from the border region between Poland and Belarus due to Poland's state of emergency and are having a hard time confirming what is happening in the area where at least five migrants have died.

• A man shot dead by Belarusian KGB officers in a raid on an apartment block was an employee of EPAM Systems, a U.S.-based software company whose Belarussian founder signed an open letter calling for the release of politicU.S.risoners and new elections in Belarus, Reuters reports.

• Belarusian President Aleksandar Lukashenko said that hundreds of people were detained following the shooting incident in Minsk in which an IT worker and a KGB officer died, Reuters reports.

• Politico Europe reports that some Polish regions are backtracking on anti-LGTB resolutions after facing the possibility of losing billions in EU funding.

• Belgium will provide some funding for women in Poland to access abortions abroad, the Washington Post reports.

• The head of the Slovenian news agency STA, Bojan Veselinovič, resigned after accusing the government of exerting pressure on the outlet and withholding funding, Politico Europe reports. You can read more about this in one of Lazo Letters' previous interviews.

Hungary and Ukraine are experiencing a diplomatic fallout after Hungary agreed to purchase Russian gas through a pipeline that passes through Serbia and Austria instead of Ukraine, Euronews reports.

• After the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) victory in Germany's election last Sunday, SPD leader Olaf Scholtz pledged to form a coalition with the Green Party and the liberal Free Democrats. Coalition negotiations are ongoing.

• Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended Mali's right to hire a private Russian military company and accused the French troops in Mali of failing to get rid of terrorists in the region, the Associated Press reports.

• The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA evacuated an intelligence officer serving in Serbia after they suffered severe symptoms consistent with the Havana Syndrome attacks.

• There's a significant dispute taking place between Serbia and Kosovo over license plates, which might sound silly to people who don't know the region or who don't have to drive across the Serbia-Kosovo border regularly. Kosovo is now requiring drivers from Serbia to purchase a temporary license plate after they drive into Kosovo. Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are so angry they lit the vehicle registration center in Zubin Potok on fire.

Serbs in Kosovo blockaded two border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia to protest new requirements for vehicle license plates imposed by Albin Kurti's government in Kosovo, which won't issue United Nations license plates after they expire on September 20. Analyst Srdjan Cvijić told Balkan Insight that the crisis is the most serious since 2011 when Serbs in northern Kosovo burned down the Jarinje border crossing after Pristina introduced an embargo on products from Serbia.

• For Politico Europe, Una Hajdari breaks down why the license plate issue is so important. The United Nations had been issuing license plates in Kosovo since the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. "Since Serbia recognizes the U.N. mandate and not Kosovo, the U.N. plates were preferred by most of those often traveling to Serbia — including both Serbs and Albanians. Last year, in line with a clause in the 2016 agreement that foresaw the plates expiring in 2021, Kosovo stopped issuing U.N. plates," she writes.

• NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg talked to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti and urged everyone to calm down.

• European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is in the Balkans ahead of an EU.-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia next week. She released a statement saying she hopes an intergovernmental conference to kick-start EU accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia will take place as soon as possible.

• Former Georgian President Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili has returned to his home country, defying threats from officials who warned he would face arrest, Radio Free Europe reports. Meanwhile, the Internet has gone wild with Misha memes.

• A Russian hacker sentenced to nine years in a U.S. jail for cybercrime was deported to Moscow and detained at an airport upon arrival, Russia's TASS news agency reports. This is an extraordinary story because Russia and the U.S. rarely cooperate on these things and don't have an extradition treaty.

• Five Turkish generals working on Syria-related operations are seeking to resign, a rare move in the Turkish military, Al-Monitor reports. The resignations come as Turkey's military updates its assignment and promotion system, causing some to question whether Erdogan is trying to politicize the military.

• The leaders of Afghanistan's armed resistance against the Taliban are regrouping in neighboring Tajikistan with former senior figures of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government, intending to form a government in exile, Foreign Policy reports.

The Taliban has displaced hundreds of families belonging to Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara community, reinforcing fears of renewed persecution against a minority that suffered under Taliban rule in the past, the Wall Street Journal reports.

• Canada has doubled its Afghan refugee resettlement target to 40,000 people, the New York Times reports.

• The U.S. pulled its defense attaché out of Nicaragua after comments complimentary of Nicaragua’s military angered the political opposition, the Associated Press reports.

• A cryptocurrency expert confessed to conspiring to help North Korea evade economic sanctions by using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to conceal illegal transactions, the Washington Post reports.

• Doctors and other staff members working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Ebola outbreak sexually abused or exploited women and girls there. They promised the women jobs in exchange for relationships and required them to engage in sexual activities to maintain employment, according to a commission appointed by the head of the health agency. Dozens of women were offered work in exchange for sex.

• Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the country is expelling seven senior U.N. officials, accusing them of “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.”

• South Sudan's government dismissed a United Nations report accusing the country's leaders of corruption. Last week, the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said a "staggering" amount of money was diverted from public coffers and resources, with almost $39m stolen during just two months, Al Jazeera reports.