Up&Ap: Fortune Sibanda on ensuring that TikTok remains a responsible, constructive platform in sub-Saharan Africa

He has been involved in the continent’s Media, Technology and Policy space for over a decade. During this this time, he has had the opportunity to refine his negotiation and advocacy skills to help advance the issue of responsible technology use and digital policy development in Africa. From early 2021, he has served as the sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) Head of Public Policy and Government Relations at TikTok.

We recently had an opportunity to sit down for an interview with Fortune Sibanda in Nairobi during his team’s regional working tour as part of his role which broadly involves overseeing the development and execution of the platform’s government relations strategy across the SSA region. Below are excerpts from session…   

Question: Who is Fortune Sibanda? Give us a brief background about your personal and professional life 

Fortune Sibanda: Certainly, I’m Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, and I currently serve as the Sub-Saharan Africa Head of Public Policy & Government Relations at TikTok. My journey in the tech and policy space has been both exciting and rewarding. Before joining TikTok, I worked with notable organisations such as Google, the Open Society Foundation, and Highway Africa, where I honed my advocacy skills for responsible technology use and digital policy development.

During my 10-year tenure at Google, I had the opportunity to lead the SSA Government Affairs and Public Policy team, focusing on running impactful online safety campaigns across the African continent.

My academic background includes a Master’s Degree in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University. When I’m not working, you’ll find me indulging in my passions for road running (I’m a two-time Comrades Marathon finisher), golf, football, and chess.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about TikTok is the dynamic and energetic environment ‒ it’s truly a platform that thrives on creativity and community engagement, making it a lot of fun to be a part of.

Question: In your current role as head of TikTok’s Public Policy and Government Relations in sub- Saharan Africa, what does your job entail? 

FMS: As the Head of Public Policy and Government Relations for TikTok in Sub-Saharan Africa, my role is multifaceted. I oversee the development and execution of TikTok’s government relations strategy across the SSA region. This involves collaboration with policymakers, think tanks, private sector partners, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on a wide range of policy matters.

My focus areas include data protection, privacy, safety and security, intellectual property, e-governance, content policy, and other technology-related public policy issues relevant to TikTok’s operations in the region.

Essentially, I work to ensure that TikTok remains a responsible and constructive platform in the SSA region, fostering innovation, creativity, and a safe online environment for our users.

Question: You were recently on a regional tour that saw you visit a number of countries in Africa, including Kenya. What were the main reasons for this tour?

FMS: These in-country visits form part of our ongoing strategy to engage with our stakeholders regularly. The regional tour served several key purposes. Firstly, it allowed us to engage with various stakeholders across the continent, including policymakers and government officials, to better understand each country’s unique challenges and opportunities.

Secondly, it allowed us to strengthen our relationships with regional partners and gain insights into the diverse cultural nuances that shape our approach to content moderation and policy development.

Additionally, the tour enabled us to explore potential collaborations and initiatives that align with TikTok’s mission to empower creativity and positive expression in the SSA region.

Question: Your visit to Kenya came at a time when a number of leaders were calling for enhanced moderation of content on TikTok, as some of this content was deemed to be inappropriate for those on the platform. How and what measures have you put in place to ensure that content on TikTok is appropriately moderated?

FMS: One of the things I always make clear is that our visit to Kenya forms part of many visits we regularly do in Kenya, meeting with various key stakeholders. On the issue of content moderation, at TikTok, we take content moderation very seriously, and our commitment to providing a safe and positive platform experience is unwavering. We have always implemented a comprehensive approach to ensure that content on TikTok is appropriately moderated.

Our efforts begin with our dedicated team of over 40,000 safety professionals committed to keeping TikTok safe. We believe in a ‘safety by design’ approach, which means we integrate safety considerations into developing all our products and services from the ground up.

To moderate content effectively, we employ a combination of cutting-edge technologies and skilled human moderation teams. These teams work together to identify, review, and, when necessary, remove content or accounts that violate our Community Guidelines, which we strictly enforce. Furthermore, we actively encourage our community members to use the reporting tools we provide on TikTok to flag any content or accounts they believe are in violation of our Community Guidelines.

We continually refine our policies and make substantial investments in our Trust and Safety operations to ensure TikTok remains a safe and enjoyable platform for all users.

In terms of language support, we have local Trust & Safety teams responsible for regional content policy creation, safety product development, and content policy enforcement. These teams possess a deep understanding of the local nuances across Africa. Additionally, we are actively expanding our safety resources in African markets to align with the growing TikTok community.

Question: Are you facing content moderation concerns or challenges in other countries, or is the issue unique to Kenya?

FMS: Content moderation is a challenge that transcends borders and is not unique to Kenya nor is it unique to TikTok as a platform. It’s a complex issue that we are actively addressing on a global scale. As a platform with a diverse and expansive user base, we recognise that maintaining effective content moderation is an ongoing and evolving topic.

We continuously invest in enhancing our detection technologies and moderation teams to address this challenge. We also collaborate with academics and experts from around the world to stay ahead of emerging trends and improve our policies and enforcement processes.

Moreover, we actively partner with local experts and civil society organisations to gain insights into different communities’ unique cultures and experiences.

Our commitment to ensuring a safe and positive environment for TikTok users extends beyond Kenya and encompasses all countries where we operate, and we remain dedicated to these efforts globally.

Question: What commitments did you and your team make to the government (during your meeting(s) with the country’s top leadership) regarding content moderation?

FMS: Our meeting with the Kenyan government was indeed a positive one. During our discussions with Honorable Minister of Trade Moses Kuria and His Excellency William Ruto, we received commendation for the value that TikTok brings to Kenya and the potential for our platform to contribute further to the creator community and the country’s digital economy.

His Excellency William Ruto expressed his vision of making Kenya a leading tech hub in East Africa and recognised the role digital platforms like TikTok can play in realising this vision. He highlighted the growth of the digital economy in Kenya, which currently contributes 5% to the country’s GDP and is the fastest-growing sector at over 13% per annum (as mentioned by him in the meeting).

While content moderation issues were raised during our meeting, there was also a recognition of the positive impact TikTok has had within the Kenyan community. We clearly understood the content moderation gaps and outlined the steps we are taking to address them. Our local teams prioritise this, and we are actively working on these improvements.

It’s worth noting that TikTok already employs Kenyan professionals as part of our global operations, including in Sub-Saharan Africa, and they are dedicated resources for the region. We are fully committed to collaborating with the Kenyan government to ensure a safe and positive TikTok experience for users in Kenya.

Question: In your engagements with local creators during your visit, what were their main concerns and suggestions?

FMS: During our visit to Kenya, we had the privilege of engaging with a range of stakeholders, including government entities such as the CS for Sports and Culture Ababu Namwamba; as well as representatives from the KFCB, Kenya Film Commission, and the Kenya Copyright Board. These discussions allowed us to gain valuable insights into the concerns and aspirations of local creators.

One key takeaway from these interactions was the eagerness of Kenyan creators to receive support that would enable them to thrive in the digital creative landscape. They expressed a strong desire for initiatives that could foster their growth and contribute to Kenya’s burgeoning digital creative economy.

Notably, the sentiments echoed by the CS for Sports and Culture align with the vision outlined by His Excellency President William Ruto, who has emphasised the importance of supporting Kenyan creators. This support is essential for not only nurturing local talent but also for driving the growth of Kenya’s digital creative sector.

Safety on the platform is also a key focus for us. We look to continue to work with local partners to drive home a very important message emphasising the importance of parents, teachers and guardians getting more involved in the digital wellbeing of teens and young people in their care. TikTok should be a family experience – Fortune Sibanda

Question: Tell us more about CreatorHub, how it intends to build the capacity of creators, and how the hub will benefit the creative community, especially those developing content for TikTok.

FMS: The Africa Creator Hub is an important initiative designed to nurture and empower emerging creators in Sub-Saharan Africa. Developed in partnership with Wowzi, the Creator Hub serves as an incubator program, equipping creators with the digital skills needed to transform their creativity into a sustainable career on TikTok.

Through this program, creators receive mentorship, training, and resources to enhance their content creation capabilities. It’s about providing them with the tools they need to reach a wider audience and make a positive impact on the TikTok platform. This programme entails sessions with various industry experts who also impart knowledge on industry best practices to our creators.

Additionally, TikTok recently introduced Series in Kenya, which offers monetisation opportunities for local creators. This feature enables creators to offer exclusive content behind a paywall, further rewarding their creativity.

The Creator Hub and Series represent TikTok’s commitment to supporting and celebrating the diverse talents of creators in Kenya and across Africa. We believe these initiatives will empower the creative community to flourish on our platform.

Question: What are TikTok’s investment plans for Kenya? Are there plans to expand your local talent pool in Kenya to work with Kenya’s creators?

FMS: We have been actively engaged in various initiatives to support Kenyans over the past few years and promote responsible content creation on TikTok:

We have a dedicated content team that supports creators in Kenya, driving quality content on the platform. In 2022, TikTok launched a multi-faceted campaign in Kenya to encourage safe and peaceful elections. We conducted workshops with various stakeholders in government, media, and civil society groups, partnering with organizations like Article 19.

We are proud to highlight the success of creators in Kenya, with the first winner of the TikTok Top Creator Awards in SSA being Dennis Ombachi, a Kenyan who has achieved global success through his content.

Our ongoing #LevelUp Africa Programme supports promising creators to better monetise their content through skills development and app support. We hosted the first #LevelUp Africa Creator Week in Nairobi, celebrating and educating content creators on using their content for economic progress and global exposure.

We’ve also hosted the first TikTok Creator Hub Graduation in Nairobi, Kenya. Creator Hub is an 8-week programme that we ran in partnership with local partner WOWZI.

We recently launched Series in Kenya to provide monetisation opportunities for local creators. With Series, creators are able to put their exclusive content behind a paywall.

Earlier this year, as part of Safer Internet Day, we conducted training for parents, guardians, and educators on online safety, with plans for further initiatives targeting youth and young adults in partnership with Kenyan partner, Eveminet Communications.

We collaborated on the COP27 Campaign in 2022 with creators from Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, focusing on urgent environmental and sustainability issues.

TikTok has emerged as a destination for conversations focused on the most urgent environment and sustainability issues, with an active and engaged community of creators committed to raising awareness, inspiring action, and restoring the planet. We’re thrilled to see the creativity and impact being achieved by the TikTok community: creators and organisations such as Campusmama (creator from Kenya) & Creative Development, who will be showcasing at the Africa Climate Summit.

Question: What can TikTok users expect from the platform going forward, either in terms of features, partnerships or innovations? 

FMS: We remain committed to doing more work with creators locally, as our team continues to engage and work closely with local creators and partners through programmes such as #LevelUpAfrica. Safety on the platform is also a key focus for us. We look to continue to work with local partners to drive home a very important message emphasising the importance of parents, teachers and guardians getting more involved in the digital wellbeing of teens and young people in their care. TikTok should be a family experience and this is why we have created resources such as the Guardian’s Guide. We look forward to sharing more of what we will be doing in Kenya in the near future.

Question: Any final comments?

FMS: We are always proud to say that TikTok is the last sunny corner of the internet and we remain committed to ensuring it stays that way for our users across the world. We encourage our community to be a part of this initiative by ensuring that they report content that goes against our community guidelines. The TikTok community and its creators are the lifeblood of the platform and so we encourage keeping the platform safe collectively.


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