Out of Africa Channel comes enlightenment


The often ghastly images of a benighted Africa crippled by AIDS, war and hunger that stream through the world's media every day provide the most common perception of that continent. But for the past two years, a unique international TV service, the Africa Channel, has been getting the point across that there is a proud and rich cultural core there that sadly is still unseen by most of the world.

Far from being a preachy or self-absorbed new channel, it actually serves up dollops of "Dallas"-like soaps, glitzy entertainment reports, supermodel specials and colorful music strips -- as well as gritty and searching news specials into the harsh issues facing much of the continent today.

James Makawa, L.A.-based co-founder and CEO of the Africa Channel and a native of Zimbabwe, says, "We want to dispel a lot of the myths about Africa. We do have thriving businesses and nice houses, and people are not living in trees." One of the channel's missions is to show that "Africa is not the mysterious continent but a place with five-star hotels."

It is doing just that with scripted series such as "Generations," which is set against the backdrop of South Africa's glamorous advertising industry, or "Isidingo," which dramatizes the lives of Africa's middle classes as well as its "rich and ruthless."

Makawa is celebrating the fact that the channel recently made its first giant step into Europe. It debuted in the U.S. two yeas ago but since August has been airing in the U.K. and Ireland on Sky, giving it a potential audience of more than 21 million viewers there. Its U.S. reach is about 2 million households on such cable outlets as Cox and Comcast.

Makawa, a former NBC News correspondent based in the U.S., returned to South Africa a number of years ago to co-found the African Barter Co. in partnership with Grey Advertising Worldwide. He launched hundreds of hours of programming across Africa and went on to co-found the African Broadcast Network. He says the company has been flooded with congratulatory e-mails from British and Irish viewers who are enjoying the new insight into Africa.

About 80% of the channel's programming is entertainment, with the rest dedicated to news and documentaries, including a daily news show titled "Africa Journal" that is produced exclusively by Reuters out of Nairobi. Programming is a mix of the Africa Channel's own productions and licensed product.

Within minutes of striking up a conversation with Makawa, a dashing figure in dapper business suit and carefully tucked kerchief, his passion for his mission -- both on a business and cultural level -- is patent. "We are doing some really interesting things, such as the special we did on model Alek Wek, who is from the Sudan but who has not been to her home country in years. We brought her home and followed her through a journey into her past and into the things taking place there today.

"So, as well as providing a glimpse of life through our entertainment portfolio of Africa as it really is -- thriving businesses and cities, a groundswell of artistic talent, world renowned musicians -- we are also looking in a unique way at the issues such as health care, politics, AIDS," he says. "But while we want to alert people to the issues, we also want to follow the solutions that are being found. And the whole idea is that it comes to you from an African perspective, which has been missing from so much news coverage and, yes, entertainment related to Africa."

Makawa says the company is deep in talks to expand its reach now into the rest of Europe, including France and Belgium.