How Big Cabal Media became one of the fastest-growing news outlets in Africa
Aside from the Covid pandemic itself, there was probably no other issue in 2020 that did more to shift the political landscape, both locally and at the national level, than the George Floyd protests against police brutality. Millions took to the streets while tens of millions more watched footage on their phones, computers, and television screens. Two years later, pundits and political scientists alike are still discussing the impact of such a seismic movement.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, another massive protest erupted half a world away. In October 2020, a member of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was caught on camera shooting a young Nigerian in front of a hotel. By that point, SARS had become notorious for its violent abuse of Nigerian citizens, and the viral video of the encounter sparked massive protests, both online and off. Millions of Nigerians took to the streets, and the hashtag #EndSARS went viral across social media.
At the forefront of the #EndSARS coverage was Big Cabal Media, a company founded in 2013. Through its two websites, TechCabal and Zikoko, it provided constant news updates about the movement. At one point Zikoko, a Buzzfeed-like site targeted toward Nigeria’s youth, halted all production on its lighter fare so that it could devote 100% of its resources to its #EndSARS coverage.
While Big Cabal Media was already well-known within Africa, its #EndSARS coverage exposed it to an international audience. Tech titans that included Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Y Combinator partner Michael Seibel tweeted links to its articles, and millions of visitors flooded to its website. For a company that started out with just a single writer running a tech blog, the attention was a vindication of its massive success.
So how did an outlet with such humble beginnings reach such a stature? To answer that question, I spoke to CEO Tomiwa Aladekomo. He walked me through the company’s origin story, explained why he joined in 2018, and outlined its monetization strategy. Let’s jump into my findings…
Big Cabal Media was founded by Bankole Oluwafemi. A lawyer by training, Oluwafemi came out of law school and began contributing to a now-defunct tech blog. “They would publish gadget reviews,” explained Aladekomo. “This was back when phone reviews were a big thing. The only problem was that the iPhone would get released in America and it would take three months for it to reach Nigeria.” That meant that U.S.-based tech outlets had a huge head start on reviewing the phone, which put Oluwafemi’s articles at a huge disadvantage. “And so he got kind of frustrated with that fairly quickly.”
At the time, there was a new tech ecosystem that was bubbling up in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. Aladekomo explained to me that there’s been an enormous influx of investment and innovation over the past decade. “FinTech is having a huge wave right now. There was a huge eCommerce wave that preceded the FinTech wave. Health tech and ed tech are also really massive.”
In 2013, Oluwafemi was hanging out in entrepreneurship circles, and he was fascinated by what he saw. “He decided that this was more interesting to cover than writing reviews of phones that nobody cared about,” said Aladekomo. “That kind of caused a bit of a chasm between him and the owners of that blog, and so he went off and started TechCabal as a standalone thing to cover the tech ecosystem.”
TechCabal started out focusing just on the Nigerian startup space, but it soon expanded to all of Africa. While it provides the kind of content that’s common on most tech blogs — funding announcements, product launches, big hires — TechCabal excels at covering the founders behind these companies. To understand what I mean, check out this profile of Njoku Emmanuel, a Nigerian teen who launched his own Blockchain startup. At 2,000 words, the article traces Emmanuel’s rise from a 13-year-old interested in computer programming to one of Africa’s foremost authorities on Crypto. If you plug the article link into Twitter search, you’ll find heaps of praise from the African tech community. “Must share with parents,” tweeted Opeyemi Awoyemi, a startup founder from Nigeria.
One of the earliest contributors to TechCabal was an adtech expert named Seyi Taylor, and in 2014 he took on the role of CEO of the burgeoning company while Oluwafemi continued as editor in chief. Together, they began to brainstorm ways they could expand beyond tech coverage. “The two of them together came up with this thesis that they could build publications for different underserved niches on the continent,” said Aladekomo. That, in turn, would make it easier to monetize in a variety of ways, and they could gradually scale the business until it became a globally-recognized media company, in the same league of The New York Times or Daily Mail.
In 2016, they embarked on the next iteration of that strategy with the launch of Zikoko, a site that many compared to Buzzfeed. Daniel Orubo, one of Zikoko’s earliest writers and later its editor in chief, told me last year the site started out with listicles and other light fare but eventually expanded into more serious, culturally-progressive content. Zikoko began publishing long interviews with Nigerians about sexuality and other issues that were considered taboo for such a socially conservative country. “We’ll conduct a one-on-one interview that lasts for about three hours, and we distill it into a 2,000-word article, just kind of curating the person’s sex life from their first sexual experience to where they are right now,” he said. “It’s a diverse series. We’ve talked to non binary and trans people. And I think that’s what people were really connected with in the series — that it wasn’t about sex, but more about how people engage with sex and sexuality.”
This kind of content struck a chord. “The readers weren’t just in Nigeria, but it was also the Nigerian diaspora as well,” Orubo, who has since left the site, told me. “Lots of people in the UK told us that reading the site reminded them of home … We weren’t even really promoting the content that aggressively, but people were finding it and reading it.”
Aladekomo joined the company in 2018 and took over the role as CEO. With degrees from Boston University and Columbia University, he had returned to Nigeria and worked as a managing director at a small digital marketing firm. “We were partnered with one of the biggest newspapers in Nigeria, The Guardian” – not to be confused with the UK newspaper of the same name – “And so we did all their monetization. We did digital strategy. We built and maintained their website. The entirety of their digital operations were in our hands.”
When Taylor approached Aladekomo about joining Big Cabal Media, they initially discussed a business development role. “But as we continued to talk about it, the conversations evolved into me taking over as CEO.” At the time, Oluwafemi was taking a break and backpacking in East Africa. “I convinced him to come back to the business and help me figure out how to accomplish the challenge that he and Seyi had set out to conquer — building the media brands of the future from Africa,” recalled Aladekomo.
Over the next four years, Aladekomo focused heavily on diversifying the company’s revenue. From the very beginning, Big Cabal Media had made money mostly through native advertising, but Aladekomo oversaw the launch of an actual creative studio that offered much more comprehensive services that could address every aspect of a brand’s marketing needs. It’s since brought on multiple Fortune 500 clients ranging from Google to Coca-Cola.
Through TechCabal, he launched a consulting service called TC Insights. “We do a lot of work with companies who are trying to understand different aspects of what’s happening on the continent.” This will often involve custom research. “We do some user surveys, but we can also leverage our deep relationships with founders all over Africa. We can do actual primary research by calling up 70 founders in the health tech space and ask them really deep questions about what’s happening within their companies, what direction they’re taking, what matters to them, what problems they face, and then we can package that all in a report for clients.”
Aladekomo’s team has also doubled down on the company’s newsletter products. TechCabal, for instance, publishes both a daily digest and also a Sunday newsletter called The Next Wave. “It offers deeper, longform analysis of what’s happening in the tech ecosystem,” he said. According to the company’s media kit, those two newsletters have a combined 43,000 readers, and the company is able to sell high-CPM native ad units within each issue.
Taylor departed Big Cabal Media when Aladekomo took over as CEO, and Oluwafemi announced he was leaving in early 2020. Aladekomo is confident he now has a strong editorial foundation on which to build. I asked him what he’d like to accomplish next. “We’ve had two publications for a few years,” he said. “Now, the plan is to launch new publications and new verticals. I think probably the best analogy in terms of what it is that we’re trying to build is something like Complex Networks.” He pointed to Complex’s huge success with erecting video franchises as something he’d like to emulate. Right now, Big Cabal Media’s video footprint is small – Zikoko, for instance, only has 5,000 YouTube subscribers – but it’s currently closing an investment round to fund its expansion. “[We] had our first profitable year last year and are deepening our investment in video and technology this year,” he told me in an email.
But Aladekomo’s ambitions go beyond mere vertical expansion. “We want to touch the cultural nerve,” he told me at the end of our interview. “We want to touch on the things that people really care about, the things that make people argue passionately, the things that make people passionately happy, the things that mainstream publications aren’t covering. And we want to do that in multiple spaces.”
Source: Simon Owens Media News