Posted 14 January, 2022

The Continent, launched on whatsapp by a group of thirty-something South Africans

The Continent, launched on WhatsApp by a group of thirty-something South Africans (Wikus DE WET / AFP)


One night awake, in the midst of a pandemic, South African journalist Simon Allison wakes his wife up with a sudden idea: an African weekly, for Africans, distributed via WhatsApp.

"Sleep, you'll tell me tomorrow," she replies. This is how The Continent was born.

The new weekly offers information clearly organized and laid out in PDF format. And the pleasure of old-fashioned newspaper reading: a catchy, brief, reports or interviews. Not to mention the highly anticipated quiz.

Free, it circulates only via WhatsApp, the most used messaging service in Africa.

“We realized that our families and our friends were asking us, via this messaging system, to serve as their informant on the Covid, to confirm what they heard, to disentangle the true from the false”, tells the AFP its distributor Kiri Rupiah, 34, "the geek of the team".


Kiri Rupiah, The Continent's distributor, in Johannesburg on December 15, 2021

Kiri Rupiah, distributor of The Continent, in Johannesburg on December 15, 2021 (Wikus DE WET / AFP)


Such a deluge of information "on so many channels, so many sites, people are lost. How to find their way through all this noise?", says the bubbly young woman, braids and glasses plugged in, a smile brightened by dimples.

A Zimbabwean daily, 263Chat, had paved the way, recalls Simon, 35, beard and thin glasses, who has set up his office in the former guest room.

Breaking with the eternal logic of any self-respecting press, The Continent does not run after readers. "We want people involved, who know us, with whom we communicate in confidence", explains Kiri.

A college professor is one of their early fans. "Each week he forwards his copy to dozens of contacts", who, because the newspaper is recommended by him, will take a look and read it.

The editor thus avoids trolls. "I have the number of each of our nearly 17,000 subscribers!" She laughs. "The other day, a guy sent me pictures of himself naked, referral error, he made a lot of excuses!"

-"Against misinformation"-

Between the initial idea and the first issue completed in April 2020, barely two weeks passed, recalls Simon.


Simon Allison, founder of The Continent, in the guest bedroom that serves as his office at his Joahnnesburg home on December 15, 2021

Simon Allison, founder of The Continent, in the guest bedroom that serves as his office at his home in Johannesburg on December 15, 2021 (Wikus DE WET / AFP)


Everything is going faster thanks to the pandemic. He recruits three idle journalism students and pays the first freelancers (journalists paid by the piece) out of his own pocket. "After 48 hours, our contacts relayed, we had a thousand subscribers," he said.

At the time, Simon was in charge of the Africa pages at the Mail & Guardian, a dynamic South African weekly, which supported him in this new adventure.

To finance the merger expenses of the new weekly, with its co-founder Sipho Kings, they seek and find NGOs and associations, militant in particular in favor of democracy. "They see us as a bulwark against disinformation" and its perverse effects, he believes.

At the end of 2021, they raise a few thousand dollars thanks to fundraising from the general public.

Their operating costs are insured for two years, says Simon. But the merry band of thirty-somethings, mainly based in South Africa, but also in Kampala or London, is teeming with ideas and desires.

"If we had a little more money, we could do even funnier things", slips Simon at the dawn of this new exhilarating adventure. Like launching a French-language edition, which is obvious in Africa. Or in Swahili too.

In the meantime, the editor-in-chief is delighted to have already published some really good stories.

Among their greatest successes, a report in Tanzania, in cemeteries, hospitals, to tell the devastating Covid while the president denied its existence. Or a detailed portrait of Mike Sonko, sulfurous former governor of Nairobi with gangster methods.

Distribution via WhatsApp, quick and convenient, also protects against censorship, according to Simon Allison. A government can ban a printed newspaper, shut down a website. "But prevent the circulation of messages sent from democratic South Africa, good luck...", he assures.

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14 January, 2022 09:52


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