By Cynthia Okoroafor
Last year Ventures Africa published 40 African Innovators to Watch and this year, the astounding talent pushed us to feature 42 innovators this time around. 42 African Innovators to Watch seeks to reposition how we consider innovation on the continent and by extension what it means to be an innovator. Each of the individuals we spotlight, share a commitment to something simultaneously infinite, yet quantifiable: change.
While the public conversation around innovation is often limited to developments within science and technology, in practice, its manifestation is limitless. This year’s list includes leaders within agriculture, the arts, hospitality, healthcare and beyond, because experimenting within any discipline leads to innovations that have the capacity to alter and inform how we live. A joke, which proffers a different way of thinking about Nigerian identity demonstrates an ingenious awareness of culture, that can do much more than simply elicit a laugh; it can shift public awareness and conversation.
Ozoz Sokoh, also known as Kitchen Butterly, notes that “the innovator’s life is one guided by three Ps: Patterns – recognising them; Preservation – innovators discard very few ideas; and Possibility – old ideas aren’t dead and buried. For most of the innovators I know, the desire to create and make a difference is far greater than fear of failing.” And so, this year we present 47 innovators (we have two teams of three), who have shown an inspired commitment to the three P’s, and change, in all its forms.
‘You have to live in the present but have the vision for the future’
What started as a dream to promote black heritage on film and television screens led Cameroon native, Tonje Bakang, to create Afrostream, a video-on-demand platform designed to distribute ‘Afro entertainment’. His goal is to impact black communities in every continent in the world by sharing stories they can relate to, while also providing them with on-and-off screen heroes that they recognise. He hopes that this initiative will create a shift in how black people are depicted in film and television.
While Tonje agrees that Afrostream is thriving. For him, real success will be visible in the next ten years. Afrostream’s plans for the future centre around developing and transforming how Africans can tell their stories.
As one of the founders of She Leads Africa (SLA), Afua Osei is driven by a goal to create the ‘go-to’ community for smart and ambitious young African women. SLA offers young African women coaching, online guides, classes, and on-the-road tours and programmes, where each offering is strengthened by building direct engagement between women in SLA’s various communities.
For Afua, along with her partner Yasmin Belo-Osagie, SLA is a space that is for African women, by African women and about African women. According to her, SLA expands through customer engagement, and understanding what young African women need to help them achieve within their careers as they develop.
‘This year, we’ll be in seven different cities. We’ll also be launching a new and accelerated programme for women startups in Nigeria. The main focus is growth and how to reach more women.’
‘We can make social impact together …It’s about new concepts and the way that we’re doing it.’
Asma Mansour’s journey as a social entrepreneur started because of her experience working with NGOs, which in her opinion, lacked adequate sustainability impact assessment on the people that these organisations were trying to help.
In 2011, Asma founded the Tunisian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Tunisia after a discovery that gave her an entirely new perspective. While attending a conference in Japan, she came across a company that was solely focused on tackling social problems and happened to meet like-minded individuals who would eventually become her co-founders.
The Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the first of its kind in Tunisia. The innovative board co-creates local ecosystems in Tunisia, and the centre comes up with new ideas to tackle social problems, while working with unemployed people in both rural and urban areas.
Asma was an Ashoka Fellow in Tunisia in 2014. Her latest project is expanding “Lingare”, the centre’s latest product from its current location in Mahdia to other regions such as Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Jandouba.
‘I’m happy to solve problems and then see the impact of the solutions.’
Growing up without electricity turned out to be one of the best things to happen to young Evans Wadongo. After graduating with honours from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2009, Evans combined his passion for clean energy solutions to what he learned from his degree in Electronics and Computer Engineering to make the LED lamps he became famous for, at the impressive age of 19.
He is currently the Co-Founder of GreenWize Energy Limited and the Executive Director and Founder of Sustainable Development for Africa (SDFA) in Kenya. Since its formation in 2014, Greenwize’s revenue has increased by 100 percent each year and the employee count has tripled. By 2019, the energy company is set to serve 300,000 clients with renewable energy solutions through a “pay as you go” model.
By 2019, the company hopes to develop ‘EnergieRapide’ an all-in-one solar and wind energy hub. Evans finds being an innovator both ‘tiring and fulfilling’ but for him, it’s all about hard work.
‘Innovation is the next frontier for Africa’
Thanks to Roye’s childhood dream, fans of comic books, graphic novels, and animations no longer have to look beyond the shores of the continent for superhero characters that they can idolise. Rather they can look to ‘E.X.O. – The Legend of Wale Williams’.
As a child, Roye watched all the classics: Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, and more. While he loved these characters and could relate to them as a boy, he also wanted to see a superhero that was Nigerian or African.
Based on his interest in comic books, movies, and entertainment, Roye decided to study graphic design, motion graphics and animation. Soon after, YouNeek Studios was born and Roye’s Nigerian superhero has been making headlines all over the world ever since.
‘…We’ve seen a lot of support, not just from the African community, but the world as a whole. [E.X.O.] is making an impact I could have never imagined could happen outside Nigeria and outside Africa.’
Roye is humbled by the support that he receives from individuals all over the world seeking permission to translate the comic book into their local languages. “The next phase of what we’re doing now is making animated movies based on the books.”
‘You always have to figure out what works in the environment that you’re in.’
Nkem Uwaje founded FutureSoft Software Resources Limited (Futuresoft) in 2008, driven by a desire to change Nigeria’s technology space. FutureSoft, an IT solutions provider focused on online solutions, e-learning and IT security, has garnered Nkem respect and recognition as a leader in her industry, where she remains one of the few women occupying the space.
Nkem is also an expert speaker on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa. She received the Jim Ovia Prize for Software Excellence and the Etisalat Prize for Innovation, for her efforts in improving access to technology in Nigeria and Africa-at large.
Presently, Nkem is focused on expanding Futuresoft into other markets in Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya within the next five years.
‘The process of creation can be a weird one. For some time, you’re creating in a vacuum.’
When Ethiopian native Sara Menker’s nine-year trading career at Morgan Stanley stopped motivating her, then the Vice President of the New York Commodities Group, she turned her attention to fixing a problem in Africa that impassioned her – agriculture. Starting out, Gro Intelligence was primarily concerned with agricultural data issues and commodities on the continent, but soon Sara and her team realised that the scale and technical complexity of the product that they were dealing with, was in fact global.
Currently, the 28-man team of Gro Intelligence is split between Nairobi, Kenya and New York in the United States. “We’re a really odd company… it’s basically a melting pot of engineering, data science, design and domain expertise around markets and actual science. We do have full-time scientists that work on environmental problems alongside the engineering and design teams. It’s a big shift from when I started Gro.”
For Sara, being an innovator is about constant discovery and uncertainty as well as being able to remain comfortable in a world where everything – including your ideas – is constantly shifting. Gro is presently working on improving ‘Clews’ and the overall delivery of the company.
‘Our product (Clews) helps users find connected paths between information and the shortest path possible to an end goal to the questions that they have around agric.’
Sara is a Trustee of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies, a member of the Global Agenda Council on Africa at the World Economic Forum and an Advisory Board Member of Shining Hope for Communities. Sara was named a Global Young Leader by the World Economic Forum and is also a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative of the Aspen Institute.
After a traumatic experience, a bipolar disorder diagnosis, and epilepsy discovery, Sitawa Wafula quickly discovered that there wasn’t enough information on the continent that she could access to help her understand how to cope and further understand her physical and mental health. In addition, there was a lot of stigma surrounding her mental health, which made the process of dealing with things even more challenging.
The three-time award winning mental health and epilepsy crusader decided that she was going to tell her story and make sure that individuals that shared her condition knew that they were not alone.
Sitawa started a mental health social enterprise called My Mind My Funk (MMMF) along with Kenya’s free mental health SMS help line 22214, which has helped survivors of rape and people living with epilepsy and mental disorders all over Kenya, different parts of Africa and the world. She was the 2013 Activist of the Year and East Africa Youth Philanthropist.
MMMF is focused on the social and preventative aspects of mental health as opposed to the curative, which in too many cases involves traditional healers or subpar psychiatric help. The organisation tries to include mental health awareness in everyday life, by working with young people to promote wellness in their communities all across Africa. This way, according to her, “you don’t need to always contact Sitawa or MMMF to get information on mental health,” and you can access mental health information that is suited to you.
‘We become what we think about.’
As a student in St. Ignatius College in Enfield, London, United Kingdom, then 15-year-old Kelvin Okafor steadily honed his talent for drawing. Kelvin took on drawing while his peers were having fun socialising and this is something he is grateful for as it made him the artist that he is today.
Kelvin is known for his pencil and charcoal drawings of lifelike portraits which feature both ordinary people and celebrities which have caught the eye of a global audience. Early pieces of his work include portraits of Amy Winehouse, Tinie Tempah, Mother Teresa, Lauryn Hill Jamal, Nelson Mandela, Rihanna and Beyoncé, amongst others.
According to Kelvin, as a teenager he would “draw tirelessly” until he was satisfied. With the help of his parents, the British-Nigerian artist did a foundation Art & Design course at City and Guilds Art School (2005–06), then studied at Middlesex University (2006–09), where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. His awards include the Catherine Petitgas Visitors Choice Prize, of the National Open Art Competition.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s footwear company soleRebels is one of the most disruptive innovative companies in the past few years. All the Ethiopian-born social entrepreneur wanted to do was provide her poor community in Addis Ababa (Zenabwork) with jobs, and the eco-friendly company remains the world’s one and only World Fair Trade Organisation (WTFO) certified footwear company.
Every single one of soleRebels’ shoes is handcrafted and to Bethlehem they spotlight the “amazing artisan heritage of Ethiopia” as well as the creative skills of the people in her local community. Bethlehem is currently a United Nations (UN) Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship and is on the board of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
soleRebels employees are among the highest paid workers in Ethiopia with full medical insurance which covers them and their families. This probably has something to do with why the brand, which relies solely (pun intended) on recycled car tires and inner tubes, hand-spun cotton and hand-woven fabrics, is the first of its kind to emerge from a developing nation and go global. Last year, Bethlehem launched ‘Republic of Leather’, a new venture which offers custom made leather wears and accessories.
‘Our problem in Nigeria and Africa is not the quantity of food. Our problem is the quality.’
In light of the importance of healthy and safe food, Food Scientist Vivian Maduekeh started to pay closer attention to what she felt was being ignored in Nigeria– food safety. Vivian is the Founder and Managing Principal of Food Health Systems Advisory Africa (FHS Africa), dedicated to advising food companies on food safety management systems to promote safe standards for food to the general public.
FHS Africa bridges the gap between farming and agricultural firms in the agricultural sector of most countries, in order to maximise the economic rewards of agriculture by producing high quality food products. Vivian was spurred to establish FHS Africa after Nigeria was banned from exporting beans to Europe in 2015 because they possessed high levels of toxic chemicals. Through an online resource called the SafeFoodNigeria Initiative, which was launched in 2012, the journey began.
FHS changes the conversation on food security. Countries and NGOs are concerned about food security in terms of increasing food production, but we need to talk about the standards and safety measures. In Nigeria, such a thing as what FHS is doing is rare because we rely only on NAFDAC.
Vivian is a Project Director at Young Bright Minds Africa (YBM Africa). FHS is currently working on launching an application called ‘Food Incident Reporting Portal’, a sort of eyewitness reporting platform that encourages customers at restaurants, cafeterias, supermarket to report their harmful food discoveries at these places so they can be properly addressed.
‘It’s not about the money… Anyone can stand in front of the camera, but it takes true passion to be different.’
As a sophomore in college in 2012, Henry Obiefule – Chief Obi – incidentally started a comedic career in the United States by making and posting videos on social media media platforms, Keek and YouTube. With a fair amount of nudging from his friends who liked his videos and encouraged him to do more, he kept on, while extending his content to Vine, and finally Instagram. Today, he has 172,000 followers on his Instagram page and his full-time career includes stand-up comedy with hosting and MC-ing duties.
Chief Obi’s videos were inspired by growing up around his Igbo relatives, the “die hard ones that you see in Nollywood movies”, and the experiences of the popular character from his skits – Obinna is actually loosely based on his own experiences living with those relatives.
“I stay relevant by being motivated to do my videos, because I love doing what I do.”
Sometime in 2011, an aunty sent me an audio message on Whatsapp. It was the singsong voice and accent of a middle aged woman from the South East admonishing the youth to avoid being what she termed ‘a waste’- except that she pronounced it ‘weist’, or something like that, with a thick heavily-inflected tone infused with Igbo ‘ethnic interference’. The recording had just the right dose of playfulness and wit to make me reply to her text with ‘LMAO.’
That skit had a whole nation, who recognised the character caricature of the heckling, inadvertently funny Igbo madam, in fits. The irony is that this Igbo madam would be feared by her henpecked charges, unable to laugh at her antics. Yet, in parody, she was hilarious, and I could belly laugh without worrying about the reprimand that would follow. As send up, it was effective and timeless- an instant classic. It was also short, a quickfire burst of hilarity, which I could consume between piles of work.
The singsong voice belonged to Chigurl, AKA Chioma Omeruah, one of the many voices in comedy that has been fostered by the rise of social media. She has since grown into a multi-talented sensation, appearing as a stand-up comedian, in music videos, as a compere and YouTube doyenne with a huge following. Her work has gone viral in a way that seems to be peculiar to the comedy genre: Short sharp skits have taken over Nigerian smartphones so that sharing video and audio of these instant hits has become a national pastime. Many comedy careers have taken off on Instagram, Facebook, and especially Twitter where the rapidity of conversation means that a skit can be absorbed and deconstructed by thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Twitter has become the natural home of online skits and one-line quips. In truth, everyone is funny at some point, and the platform allows for users to microblog a throwaway thought whenever it arises, without the pressure of building it into a narrative or a production that might keep the audience entertained for several minutes or hours at a time. In short, Twitter provides the opportunity for this humour to surface every now and again as opposed to the sustained funny that a stand-up comedy show requires. A 140-character tweet does not call for any more than a cursory glance. For Nigerians- ever ready with sharp tongues and saucy wit- this innovation is gold.
Of course, the phenomenon is not exclusive to the Nigerian digital landscape. The American-based international media site, Mashable, ran an article as far back as June of 2010 with the headline ‘The Rise of Comedy on Twitter’. Staff writer Matt Silverman observed even back then, just four years after Twitter’s 2006 launch, that the most popular tweets were the one-liners and quips that come to life on the app’s 140-character tweet limit. His notion that ‘tweeters love the funny’ is echoed across several social media stages with the funniest posts racking up the most views and ‘likes’ from users. This global trend is blamed on the sociology of the shrinking collective attention span, but has fueled the shift of video content to the smaller screens of smartphones, augmented by ubiquitous Wi-Fi service, allowing people to consume these skits on the go, while in the car, at the gym, on a walk or, crucially, at work. Skits can be created for a wide audience without the heavy costs associated with filming a comedy production, or without the difficulty of seeking employment from a comedy club. All a budding comedian needs to worry about is the price paid to Internet Service Providers and Mobile Network Operators for the data to upload videos or to send an MMS.
On the mobile app, Vine, for instance, users create thirty-second videos where they can capture unplanned slapstick moments- a stumble and a heavy fall in bad weather, a fumble at the dinner table, a tumble in the street. Watched in real time, this might make for an anecdote or a private laugh at a later time. A Vine rewards rewatching, allowing laugh out loud moments one might ordinarily be unable to recollect to friends to be replayed in full, recreating the serendipity that would have otherwise been lost. Vines from all over the world have made small time celebrities of many Internet voices.
These days, everyone with a smartphone makes these skits, capturing humorous events in quick takes and sharing them with friends in a matter of seconds. It is handy that these platforms can be cross-referenced- a tweet links into a vine or an Instagram post is referred to on Twitter. Most of these apps support video- the most adaptable media for comedy. In consequence, a second wave of Nigerian comedians has emerged in the second decade of the millennium from the handful of Internet savvy personalities who are able to manipulate video. The major successes have also been able to cut across multiple platforms and audiences to showcase and market their work. It is, of course, ironic, that this breakthrough has occurred in spite of critically slow Internet speeds, lagging infrastructure and a lack of technological sophistication.
Take Folarin Falana, known by his stage name Falz the Bahd Guy, first heard on YouTube circa 2009, later making his breakthrough with the well-received ‘Wazup Guy’ in 2011. Falz sat for and passed the bar at the Nigerian Law School, then began to pursue a career in showbiz. His first album was a moderate success and seemed to point the way to a career that would eventually taper off in the ultra-competitive Nigerian music industry. That is, of course, until he was able to weld his unique style to the cult celebrity status that social media comedy has bestowed on its Nigerian exponents. Falz raps in an exaggerated Yoruba accent, with a belated h-factor, in a manner that suggests that he might have persistent trouble with English vowels. Taking advantage of the free publicity that social media affords, he began to upload videos on Instagram to promote his songs. One particular video, released in advance of Valentine’s Day last year, skirted around the theme of his song ‘Ello Bae’. The rapper boasts impressive academic credentials, yet his social media persona came off as a confident buffoon clueless about his mistakes. The effect was astounding. Responses to his invitation to mimic his shambling diction were overwhelming and he quickly rose to the top of Google search lists in Nigeria. As one of the most recognizable voices in entertainment, Falz now has to maneouvre between offers to act as Master of Ceremonies at events and, of late, to star in Nollywood productions. With his star on the rise, Falz embodies the modern Nigerian comedian, a nimble and versatile performer comfortable slipping from genre to genre, all the while connecting directly with his fans on social media.
Other members of the second wave, including K10, another barrister-turned-rapper, argue that it is the general hardship in Nigerian life that draws such a huge following to comedy. “Nigerians love anything that can distract us from our daily hustle”, he says, noting that his first video was posted at random, possibly after a hard day at his nine-to-five. K10’s passport bears his given name Koye Kekere-Ekun, but on social media, he prefers his moniker @koye10. The same is true of the entire second wave including the high-drama and explosive wit of Chief Obi, Akanm the Boy and Aphrican Ape (respectively @chief_obi, @iamkanmi and @aphricanape06). They share a mastery of the online skit, able to draw in thousands of viewers to their exaggerated observations in a matter of hours, with performances brimming with a peculiar brand of Nigerian humour. These three, like Falz and Chigurl are able to work their funny magic across the spectrum of social media apps to maximize their appeal to ever-growing audiences and parlay their popularity into burgeoning careers in live entertainment.
When I ask him whether he would have broken into comedy without social media, K10 is probably speaking for each player in the new generation of comedians when he fires back the wry retort, “For where?” And this is part of the thrill of the second wave. The first wave, if you like, headed up by veterans like Ali Baba and Basketmouth, followed by others like man of the moment Bovi, thrived from their command of pidgin English and their ease within the stand-up comedy circuit that emerged alongside the gbedu scene around the beginning of the new millennium. Theirs was the reign of the mic, in the tradition of Western stand-up where laughmakers trot out anecdotes and punchlines one after the other for a seated audience trying to get away from the daily grind. In fact, Basketmouth and co operated almost exclusively in the bastard tongue, steeped in the delicious humour of the streets with a tinge of the poverty, dysfunction and craze that lurks at its underbelly. Their crowds, most of them brought up away from the particular madness infused in the jokes, raved at the otherworldliness of their tales, even as they reveled in the refreshing and unashamed use of a unique Nigerian lexicon.
Standing apart from these pioneers, K10 and his band of merry social media men do not play on the same Robin Hood gimmick of their forerunners who always seemed to be teasing their ajebutter fans for not having waded through the same pools of deprivation that they, the upstarts, had suffered. Instead, they dwell in the gentler techniques of satire and mockery. K10 has put up videos complaining about the stresses caused by the tormenting heat of Lagos and the evil side effects of bad breath, all hazards of his own daily life. He does not need to prop up his jokes with outlandish scenarios or poverty tropes, the point being that life in Nigeria is hard in itself- at every level there are victims. Be it the trampled-upon in the lower reaches where a viciously corrupt state squashes the under-privileged with its bulging potbelly, or the middle class, questing for luxury where there is only frustration, there are daily injustices which can throw off the ordinary person looking for peace of mind.
Another social media adept whose online routines have thrust her into the spotlight is Yagazie Emezi, who came to the fore through her willful and honest posts on YouTube. She doesn’t herself identify as a comedian, although her vlogs leave you with the sense that some unrepresented oppressor (the insensitive, the misogynist, they who would wish to repress self-expression) is being told to #GTFOH. And a #GTFOH which is well timed will always bring on a laugh. Yagazie’s funny is the serendipitous kind I talked about earlier, becoming funnier on every replay. She seems to embody the new social media funny and watching her Instagram videos, you crack up at short notice as she mimes to a song playing in the background and then cracks up at herself.
When Zeba Blay of the Huffington Post interviewed her in March of this year, the accent was on her storytelling, which is the ‘raw truth’ that she is attracted to. However, a glance at the neat way she twists layers of social commentary and comic observation into cartoon sketches on Instagram will do more than make you smile. In her use of the innovative possibilities of social media she demonstrates the elements that have brought the second wave their garlands, the emphasis being on the cult of personality so that the more familiar you are with their work- the better you are able to recognize the stories they are telling- the funnier they become.
So it is not surprising that the greatest achievement of these personalities is that they have managed to bring a more nuanced perspective to the understanding of Nigerianness. Where their forebears thrived off a narrative that separated Nigeria into a simple two-toned picture of the haves and the have-nots to make the one laugh at the other, these social media voices present unique Nigerian stories, which together tell a universal truth. Nigerians are agitated: taking out their anger on their children and other Nigerians, intentionally or otherwise; aggressive in the pursuit of their goals; but always aware of their limitations and the limitations of this society. When they connect on social media, this generation of Nigerians, who have found a new groove online are able to talk about anything and laugh about everything, sparing no topic the caustic end of the tongue. From pregnancy and sugar daddies to Beyoncé and Bernie Sanders, Nigerians weigh in on each issue with fireworks humour. Then innovators like K10 swoop in, select the stories to which they best relate and churn out their very individual take on the issues. You cannot help but LOL.
After selling her first company, Yeigo, to South African communications company, Telfree, in 2009, Computer Scientist and entrepreneur, Rapelang Rabana, remained with the company for two more years before starting another equally brilliant company – Rekindle Learning. The 2014 Entrepreneur for the World and World Economic Forum Global Shaper started Rekindle with the hopes of transforming how we learn and utilising digital technology to better facilitate that process.
“Being an innovator comes from the things that you are subliminally aware of which frustrate or annoy you and believing that you can change them.”
Rekindle Learning focuses on the methodology behind learning and how young individuals in Africa can quickly and competently reach mastery levels while also seeking to develop their skills and capabilities. The technology company uses tools such as personalised learning which checks your learning performance by helping you master your weak areas, and ‘real time guide’, a GPS-like tool that helps individuals without experience navigate through organisational processes and rules to help them add value to whatever organisation or corporation they find themselves in.
‘The real-time guides give you contextual advice. Essentially, you can behave as if you’re an expert. Just as you do in a new country with the help of GPS.’
Rapelang hopes to use Rekindle to achieve more within academia and education in the future. In the near future they plan to establish an English learning platform to address the poor quality of written English found amongst youth who are secondary school graduates, with other subjects to follow.
‘We’re still finding out what works and what doesn’t as we go along. The outline is to reduce the time to competency, and whatever can assist with that is what will be part of the plan.’
Trekking up to three kilometres in search of water as a young boy in Uganda, Samuel Otukol could not believe that there was so much water in one place when he moved to Canada. The difference between his hometown where there was a constant water shortage and his new country of residence inspired him to eventually create the Water Distillation System and Process (DSP), an alternative source of viable drinking water, after years of research.
“Some realities [in Uganda] have not changed much… There are boreholes now, but some of them are tapping into brackish water which could be harmful to health.”
Because of Dr. Otukol’s research, drought-stricken areas or those that only have access to seawater, commonly found in Eastern Africa, can now boast of clean water and improved agricultural practices. The DSP also works with solar energy which is an added advantage in areas that witness electricity shortages in addition to periods of drought.
Prof. Lesley Erica Scott
As a professor of Applied Sciences, Prof. Lesley Erica Scott is using her knowledge to transform medical diagnoses in Africa with Smartspot TBcheck technology. The technology checks the accuracy of the results from popular rapid Tuberculosis tests, of which incorrect diagnosis of the deadly disease can put individuals at a risk of going through unnecessary treatment. Smartspot is the first technology of its kind developed by Africans, for Africans, to be endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
‘This is an idea that can be commercialised and impact health in Africa and the world,” says Prof. Scott.’
With Smartspot, Tuberculosis diagnosis and treatment which has saved over 37 million lives between 2000 and 2013 will significantly improve, allowing laboratories to safely and economically diagnose the disease which is the third leading cause of death in Africa. Smartspot was awarded the Special Prize for Social Impact ($25,000) at the 2015 Innovation Prize for Africa awards which held in Morocco.
Jean Bosco Kazirukanyo
Last year, Burundian Chemical Engineer, Dr. Jean Bosco Kazirukanyo, shone at the Innovation Prize for Africa awards with Oil Spill Cement (OSP). His ground-breaking innovation, which was also borne out of climate change activism, mitigates the poisonous effects of oil spillages and lubricants by containing them in lumps suitable for adequate disposal and ecological recycling.
Dr. Kazirukanyo, who is also known for his work with the Advanced Cement Training and Projects Institute (ACTP), which produces highly trained and qualified cement engineers and chemists, is on his way to helping the continent manage potential ecological crisis.
Dr. Edward Mabaya
Born to a Zimbabwean family that lived on a small farm and made ends meet by growing food crops such as, cabbage, maize, yam and potatoes, Dr. Edward Mabaya grew up appreciating some of the rewards of subsistence farming. Years later, and armed with a PhD in Agricultural Economics from Cornell, he began to work with the Rockefeller Foundation on seed access in Africa. He then set up an organisation to help African seed companies market and distribute seeds. Dr. Mabaya’s research and technology helps small farm owners in the rural areas of most of the English-speaking countries in Africa to access maize, cassava, sorghum and other types of seeds.
The African Seed Access Index (TASAI) provides a diagnostic tool that helps farmers, investors, agricultural companies and policy makers in Africa uncomplicate the process of seed systems and supply. Since its launch in Nairobi last year, it has spread to 12 countries in Africa and promises to cover the entire continent in the next two to three years.
‘I’m trying to make seeds ‘sexy’ again. People have forgotten how powerful seeds can be in transforming the lives of small-holder farmers…This very small technology can be the key to improving food security in Africa. It’s simple yet complicated.’
Dr. Mabaya, whose life has been directly impacted by agriculture, believes that it is one of the answers to the eradication of poverty in Africa. As the Associate Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food and an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow (2007) amongst other notable achievements, Dr. Mabaya credits his current status to his firsthand experience with seeds as one of ten children on a small farm.
‘[Seeds] transformed my own life. I’m where I am now, partly because I saw the power of seeds in rural Africa. What keeps me motivated is making sure that more people get the access that I was able to get.’
Paulo Miki Akpablie
Paul-Miki didn’t like struggling to study because there was no electricity or seeing his grandmother give her phone to a driver who had to journey miles out of rural Ghana, just to charge it. Years later, his concern for energy in Africa and passion for entrepreneurship, witnessed a boost after he won the United World Scholarship in high school to study in Hong Kong, after which he moved to Colorado College in the United States where he is currently a senior.
Paul-Miki established Kadi Energy during his sophomore year in Colorado; the young innovator believes that energy is the difference between those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ and those in the developed world, and is devoted to unsettling the inequality that obstructs equal access to energy around the world.
‘As an innovator you’re constantly thinking about the things around you and what could be made better. It’s also about empowerment and leaving a legacy. It shouldn’t start and stop with one person.’
Kadi, which in ‘Ewe’ (a language from the Volta region in Africa) means “light”, hopes to become one of the major players in energy in the world by producing energy storage systems and launching unique 50-port charging stations for micro-enterprises. The prototype for the charging stations was manufactured and assembled in Nigeria and the company hopes to expand manufacturing to other African countries.
In Ghana, Paul-Miki’s is building a ten megawatt solar farm to provide energy for 10,000 homes with plans to achieve completion in the first quarter of 2017. Haiti and Sierra Leone are also posed to witness the launch of the charging stations in the near future.
It is no surprise that Malawi owes its first and only technology hub and incubator space to Rachel Sibande, CEO and founder of mHub which identifies, nurtures and incubates young technology entrepreneurs. A PhD candidate in Computer Science at Rhodes University in South Africa, Rachel’s research focuses on the use of mobile technology for citizen engagement.
When she was young, Rachel was curious about gadgets, and would break old radios and move parts from one gadget to another to learn how they worked. Earlier on in her career, Rachel taught Information and Computer Technology (ICT) at an elite high school in Malawi and was a Statistics lecturer at the Mzuzu University.
With a membership of over 120 young technology enthusiasts, mHub has championed the development of local technology solutions in Malawi. The company intends to become a leading software development house in the East African country and penetrate global markets. Also, mHub plans to nurture and mentor more than 40 technology startups by 2021 by establishing a formal training institute for practical and dynamic technology-related courses that respond to the fast changing world of technology.
Rachel’s passion for enhancing female participation in Science and Technology led her to establish a ‘Girls4Code’ initiative and a ‘Children’s Coding club’, where children and girls between the ages of 9 and 18 are taught the basics of computer science and mobile application development skills in order to take up careers in science and technology.
“I find satisfaction in creating change that unravels new value. For me, not even the sky’s the limit…it is about being creative and dynamic.”
At just 20 years old, Winnifred Selby is a 2016 New African Woman in Science, Technology and Innovation Award winner, a 2015 World of Children Honoree, a 2014 Set Africa Fellow, an Anzisha Fellow 2014 and a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum. The Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative, of which she is a co-founder, is at the centre of these achievements.
The Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative employs 35 people and is focused on the afforestation of degraded lands and exportation of bamboo bike frames to generate revenue for the Ghanaian economy. The initiative also serves as an empowerment scheme for women as bamboo briquette (making a type of charcoal from bamboo residue to use as a cooking fuel) entrepreneurs with added training on leadership and entrepreneurship. More than 100 women have been trained in professional technical courses since the programme’s inception.
The outstanding leader and serial social entrepreneur dedicates her life to the economic empowerment of young people in her community and as the President of the EPF Educational Empowerment Initiative, her varied abilities are directed toward a single purpose: the ever-widening implementation of her mission to keep school children, especially young girls from deprived communities in Ghana, in school.
‘Moving forward, we seek to position the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative as the number one bamboo bike manufacturer and exporter in Africa, creating employment opportunities for hundreds of young people. We also want to go into large scale commercial bamboo plantation as a means of creating employment opportunities for the youth while encouraging processing of the bamboo by adding value to it and exporting them to earn foreign exchange for the country.’
Winnifred has travelled extensively worldwide, shared platforms with notable international figures such as the Executive Director of the World Trade Organization, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon whom she was able to convince to take a ride on one of her bamboo bikes.
Damola Taiwo, Tola Ogunsola, Dolapo Taiwo
In 2014, three friends teamed up to start a company using their extensive backgrounds in web development, digital design and their love of music. In June 2015, MyMusic was launched in Lagos offering Nigerians the opportunity to download music in a cheap and easy manner.
According to Dolapo Taiwo, one of the co-founders, “we had an idea for people to download music in one click…we didn’t know how it was going to pan out.” Damola and Dolapo returned to Nigeria in 2008 to start Unitech Media (which is still in operation) and later joined forces with Tola in 2014 to start the company. Today, MyMusic is integrated with all the telecommunication companies in Nigeria and about 60 million Nigerians with a phone and internet connection can download music.
“Our lives are action packed and unpredictable. Sometimes you work till 2am and other times it’s for 24 hours,” says Damola who is also the CEO of the company, and Dolapo echoes this sentiment. “As an innovator you’re on a quest to solve a particular problem, and until you solve it you never really sleep. You have to never take no for an answer.”
Damola, Tola and Dolapo have plans to make MyMusic Pan-African with a short-term plan to expand into five other African countries through an aggressive marketing plan. In time, the company hopes to go global, as they note “African music is very dynamic and big all over the world.”
MyMusic currently partners with Facebook on the social network’s ‘Facebook Music Stories’, as Facebook’s first African partner in this capacity
‘The passion of trying to save lives, imparting knowledge and creating change is what drives me.’
Nigerian-British Geneticist and Scientist, Ify Aniebo, is on a mission to find out why malaria drugs are failing by exploring drug resistance. According to her, Africa is living on its ‘last life’ for malaria drugs and the medical community is not working quickly enough to develop new solutions. Ify’s dedication to these issues was born from her experience with malaria as a child and a desire to educate people about science and health.
Ify founded African Health Magazine to provide better information around health and science, particular to health concerns facing people around the continent. Her work is centred around trying to stop the spread of malaria drug resistance in Africa with detailed research which serves as a surveillance tool for clinical scientists.
In order to do this, the molecular geneticist spends most of her days and nights in the laboratory. “Sometimes I’m not aware of the time. It’s tough and it also gets lonely for scientists. You’re in your own world a lot. If things don’t work out you try to find why. But when you do get a little bit of progress it gives you the energy to carry on.”
While the award-winning scientist admits that her PhD candidacy at Oxford University (which is almost over) doesn’t afford her the energy to invest in her magazine as much she would like, she plans to move back to Nigeria in September and make the magazine and initiative more programmatic with outreach strategies in addition to the use of mobile and internet technologies.
“Education is empowerment. People need to know the signs to look out for. However, not everyone can access the internet. I plan to go into the rural areas to provide information to those who need it the most.”
‘Language is a beautiful thing.’
Adebunmi Adeniran created NAILANGS, the keyboard that allows you to type in Nigerian languages, three years ago after a conversation with friends in the UK about the importance in embracing their languages.
NAILANGS is a multilingual keyboard which supports and enables writing in at least 12 Nigerian languages and aims to ensure that local Nigerian languages do not become extinct by making them easy to learn.
Ms. Adeniran studied Russian Language at the University of Lagos, along with minors in the Italian, Yoruba and English Languages.
However, she was always passionate about teaching her language (Yoruba) to others while also learning to speak theirs. She is fluent in English, Yoruba and Russian, can speak some Italian and is currently learning to speak Portuguese.
The linguist believes that passion begets innovation; she plans to visit Nigeria soon to market NAILANGS and make the keyboard something that any Nigerian can use. “I want the future generations to be aware of how beautiful our languages are. This is just the beginning.”
In the future NAILANGS hopes to incorporate language translation as one of its features.
Takunda Chingonzo’s passion for technology and entrepreneurship led him to create Neolab Technology P/L at the age of 19. Neolab Technology provides free internet to the public through Saisai Wireless and other similar startup networks. These other startups include Neo Effect (empowering underprivileged youth in southern Zimbabwe through Information Technology (IT) literacy), MX Project, and BOOT Africa (promoting student startups in tertiary institutions).
The award-winning 23-year-old university student believes that any business can thrive with access to the internet. He is committed to technological innovations that bolster a vision of revolutionising entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe’s economy and the rest of Africa.
Saisai is going to become a gateway for local developers, content creators and curators to reach their targeted customers.
Takunda also plans to establish 100 sustainable companies on the continent by 2020 with the launch of 20 per year. His business model for Africa is investing in products with visible potential in order to guarantee lasting success. For Takunda, innovation is an extension of ourselves as humans and must be practiced with frugality. He believes an entrepreneur should create and transfer value to the end user using the least amount of resources.
Last year, Moroccan researcher, Adnane Remmal, won the Innovation Prize for Africa’s $100,000 cash grand prize for a patented alternative to livestock antibiotics. A professor of Biotechnology at the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Remmal’s innovation seeks to address the health problems that antibiotics in livestock feed can cause humans.
Professor Remmal directed his research towards studying the quality and strength of livestock antibiotics and replacing them with the most natural and harmless compositions for livestock, which offer the same antimicrobial results and prevent resistance. This way, livestock remain healthy, the agricultural sector receives a tremendous boost, and people can consume livestock products without fear of transmitted germs or carcinogens.
He currently runs a small company that manufactures and distributes the product with hopes to attract investment in order to increase production levels and expand into other countries in Africa and the world.
According to Professor Remmal, innovation is the most important means to contribute to African development.
The entrance of Nigerian artist, Victor Ehikhamenor’s home is a vibrant and diverse trail of his artwork. The first is a play on collage with hundreds of old film cartridges arranged into a square, around picture cut-outs of a camera in the middle, bare African women, and article clips from foreign magazines. The second is a multi-coloured painted carcass of an old generator, and the third is an old typewriter sitting on a wooden box covered with inscriptions and the Ehikhamenor’s characteristic drawings. Titled, Their Point of View, Power Play, and Klakitiklak of Ineffective Policies, respectively, these pieces occupy most of the balcony as Ehikhamenor welcomes guests into his home as well as his artistic vision, which over the past decade has made an indelible imprint on contemporary African art.
Ehikhamenor’s rise to prominence has been based largely on his originality and inventiveness; his ability to move past the use of traditional art materials, and to transform anything into a work of art. One of his works, Lagos Rush Hour, is made out of scraps; pegs, plastic bags, a sponge, and a broom. “It’s a girl in a rush,” he says, of the paper bag figure in the shape of a girl on a run, with pegs as legs. Lagos Rush Hour, which takes up a prominent space on the wall of his living room, is a departure from his characteristic paintings of abstract intersecting and overlapping figurative forms, appropriations of the signs and symbols he grew up with, on the walls of his village shrines in Udomi-Uwessan, Edo State.
A majority of Ehikhamenor’s works are influenced by his rich traditional past as a village kid. “I grew up in the village; the vibrancy and everything you see in my works is a conscious reflection of my upbringing,” He says at the beginning of our conversation, as he so often does at most of his interviews; he tells everyone who cares to know, that he is a “village man.” For him, years of studying and living in London, and the United States did not result in a foreign accent. Not even his frequent trips Europe to show his work could take away his Edo tinged accent, one that becomes prominent when he switches to Pidgin. “I am from Africa. I am an African artist. I have no identity crises, I know where I come from,” he tells me.
Growing up, Ehikhamenor was surrounded by art. From Christian iconography in the village Catholic Church, to traditional markings on the walls of his community shrine, he notes, “I was surrounded by a whole lot of it [art].” Art runs in Ehikhamenor’s bloodline. His uncle was a photographer, his maternal grandfather, a blacksmith, his mother, a local artist, and his grandmother, a cloth weaver. Both women had a great influence on him, reflective in the female figures, layered copiously throughout various pieces of his work.
Ehikhamenor breathes art. You can see it in the acrylic or oil brush strokes in his paintings, the complex lines and symbols of his charcoal and chalk drawings, the cultural and political dimensions of his installations, the tiny holes of his innovative perforations, and the bluntness of his writing. Everything is a canvas to him. His bookshelves, which stand tall against the wall on the left wing of his dining room, are not spared from his deliberate doodling. Neither is his Mac laptop case, his iPhone case, his glass frames, nor empty exotic wine and perfume bottles; they all bare the trademark of abstract stylised drawings. In one of my meeting’s with him, we stop by a friend’s home in Lekki to pick up wine bottles of varying shapes and sizes soon to be transformed into works of art.
“I see in forms and colours,” he says while setting up a sculpted canvas in his living room for me to see. “Because I am an abstract painter I don’t really deal with things the way they are. The way I deal with things is different from painting them the way they are. If anything impresses me, I change it to a different form.” He must sense my desperation in trying to make sense of what seemed like a crumpled cloth of rioting colours, for he goes on to explain, “This is a soft sculpture, influenced by the way we wear our clothes or hang them, people going to church on Sunday, this is the kind of colour that swells around the market woman, and people going to a meeting in the village.”
Undeniably one of Africa’s most innovative contemporary artists, Ehikhmenor constantly seeks to reinvent his work. In a 2013 interview with Nigerians Talk, he said he aspires to keep creating works that plays with material, which is exactly what he has done, quite successfully over the years. And though he is consistent in the use of his biomorphic shapes and forms, his materials and process continues to develop. “Regardless of whatever he does, it’s always something fresh, but then you still have the staple signs and symbols in it,” says Adenrele Sonariwo, owner and manager of Rele, a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Lagos.
Ehikhamenor invented “paintforation” – drawing by perforation. This technique involves using nail perforations to fill in sketches on white canvass. “The whole idea is that this reacts to the light”, he says, unveiling one of his unique ‘paintforations’. “So if I put off the light”, he turns off the light in the room, “can you see what I’m talking about?” he asks me. In the dark, the images on the canvass lit up, becoming more defined, whereas with the light on, the canvass glowed, and the images looked like silhouettes. Either way, the beauty of the work does not elude you. “For a place like this where power is an issue, I am constantly thinking of ways people can appreciate my works. And as you’ve seen, different lighting give different meanings. Paintforation works with shades and shadows, not colors,” he explains with enthusiasm.
Foremost Nigerian writer and poet, Toni Kan, who’s been friends with Ehikhamenor for over a decade also attests to his creative ingenuity, “The uniqueness of Victor as an artist is that he constantly improves his game,” he tells me. “I have closely watched him evolve overtime, constantly changing things. One can see the progression in his works.” He adds, “He is constantly innovating his art. Every time he does an exhibition, it’s something completely different. There are certain artists I know who are static, but not Victor. He always challenges himself. ”
Successful artists often embody dedication, patience, and a huge dose of discipline. Therefore, it came as no surprise when most of Victor’s friends could not describe him without noting that he is a “hard worker.” Ehikhamenor is quite a busy man, whether he’s working on a new painting, installation, or sculpture, or jetting around the world for residencies or to hold exhibitions, he’s always up to something. When we met earlier in September 2015, Ehikhamenor had listed some of the events he had scheduled for the last quarter of the year, and in the first two quarters of 2016, including an exhibition in Jogja, Indonesia, and a residency in South Africa. We are in the middle of a conversation when his phone rings, “That was Jude Anogwih, he’s a curator … I have a major work that I need to do for an exhibition called Indonesia meets Nigeria, so I need to meet him to discuss certain things …” he explains once the call ends. Victor was one of 11 Nigerian artists invited to join twenty-three Indonesian artists in the grand exhibition at the Biennale. It was there at the Jogja National Museum he showcased the ‘major work’ he’d mentioned back in September, an installation titled “The Wealth of Nations.”
The installation consists of two parts, one in conjunction with Indonesian artist Maryanto Bebo, at the entrance of the Jogja National Museum, and another inside the museum. The former was a neatly arranged pile of old drums standing about 30 feet high. The drums bore drawings typical of Ehikhamenor as bright red-coloured biomorphs encircled each one. Inside the museum, an entire room was engulfed by Ehikhamenor’s work- he left no space unmarked. This is how Emmanuel Iduma, writer and art critic described it, “The walls of the room were covered in black drawings on a yellow background … the shapes and forms seemed to join without end, painstakingly linked, with the adeptness of a calligrapher.” Both installations addressed political issues of corruption and violence surrounding oil exploitation in Nigeria.
“On January 15th 1956 commercial quantity oil discovered in Oloibiri (In today’s Bayelsa state, Nigeria). On January 15th 1966, Nigeria military discovered its first coup d’état.Those who discovered oil and those who discovered coup are bed fellows, not strange to each other. Welcome to the Wealth of Nations”, Ehikhamenor wrote on his Instagram page sharing his newly completed installation art to his over 5000 Instagram followers. He seemed to echo the words of late Oronto Douglas, a former human rights attorney who defended Ogoni leader Ken Saro Wiwa, when he said in a 2009 interview, “There is a symbiotic relationship between the military dictatorship and the multinational companies who grease the palms of those who rule…. They are assassins in foreign lands. They drill and they kill in Nigeria.”
For Ehikhamenor, art serves as a medium of intervention in political conversations within, and outside Nigeria. Like the pieces that welcome you into his home, “The Wealth of Nations”, served a political narrative for corruption, and resource exploitation in Nigeria. “I am from Africa. This means I am an African artist and writer, and must address what matters, the issues that plague us,” he said to me.” This statement seemed a reiteration of what he told the Financial Times two years ago, “I would feel a fraud if I ignored some of the issues of my country.”
As a writer, Ehikhamenor is a political satirist. When asked why he writes in satire, Victor notes, “When I was growing up, chloroquine didn’t have capsules, there were only two ways of taking it; it’s either you are very sick and you take as a capsule or you put it inside Eba and swallow it with soup,” he explains to me giving a light demonstration, “because when the food dissolves, it [the chloroquine] goes into the blood stream. Though it’s very slow process, it eventually works. So when I write, you read, and you laugh, but in the end you realize what I’m talking about is extremely serious. That is what satire is – serious issues delivered in a humorous way. My father was a big satirist, he shared the most important messages in funny ways.”
For him, writing is also a form of creating art, but the difference is the immediacy of it. When I told him that he better addresses political issues in his writing than with his paintings, he disagreed, “Equal measures”, he says. “Although writing is art, it is immediate. But with my paintings or installations, you have to digest them to see what I’m referencing.” It is this unhurried, progressive art that is currently commanding worldwide attention, and bringing him much deserved widespread acclaim. Ehikhamenor’s characteristic biomorphic form of imagery has taken him across the globe, “I can’t count the number of countries I’ve been to, they are many,” he replies when I enquire of him. This peripatetic nature of work certainly contributes to his love for luxury; not necessarily for a lavish lifestyle, but one of great comfort and elegance. One can tell from a number of things including the setting of his home, his choice of restaurants, and hangout spots, his love for exotic food, and in his sense of fashion. Ehikhamenor is a debonair; whether he’s in a laidback tee and all stars, a formal wear, or traditional garb, he’s always dapper.
Driving through Carter bridge from the Island to the Mainland, and overlooking the ancient storey buildings that span the Marina road all the way to Akpogbon, Ehikhamenor longed for the classic architecture of the past, “Every single building in this place is art, built by well-known architects when Nigeria really fancied art”, he said in an almost wistful tone. “So why do you think people don’t pay attention to art in this sense/depth anymore”, I ask. “Because our orientation shifted from what is important to money and “fast” life,” he responds. Later, he admitted that this attitude is changing and that people are beginning to pay attention to art, especially in terms of business and monetary value, “people are beginning to see the benefit of collecting art, there is an upswing in the secondary market. Nigerian art is being recognized all over the world, we are going places now, the international media have been talking about it … serious value is coming to the Nigerian market right now.”
According to Adenrele of Rele Gallery, the business of art in Nigeria has the potential to become quite lucrative in the long run. However, there is a need to keep educating Nigerians on the value of art. “We need to keep educating people, and start producing a new generation of collectors” she says. “Although we have a good amount of art collectors, they have been in the industry for quite a while, so its time to educate a new generation of collectors, and see how we can increase the market, and also bring a new audience to buy art.”
Educating or garnering a new audience to value, and collect the works of an artist like Ehikhamenor shouldn’t be hard, he already has a following, his own audience. The originality and dynamic nature of his works, coupled with his lively personality, appeal largely, but is not restricted, to a young demographic. “Victor makes ‘cool art,’ says Toni Kan. “I’ve met many young people who want to own an Ehikhamenor art work, or branded product,” he told me, adding that contemporary art has evolved, and that Victor’s work has got quite the appeal, “especially with his involvement in fashion, and product branding.”
When it comes to marketing his art works, Ehikhamenor says he likes to “shy away” from the business aspect of the industry, particularly the bargaining process. “I leave that to the gallerists, like Rele.” But in every sense, Ehikhamenor is as much a business man as he is an artist, even he can’t “shy away” from this truth. “Art is business and business is art,” he says to me. “When you are done painting, and you’re out of the studio, what next?” came the rhetoric question. “I want my work to sell. As an artist, it’s not okay for people to just say your work is fantastic. You want people to pay for it; it contributes a lot to how you are rated as an artist,” he said matter-of-factly. Apart from passion, business is what drives some of his innovations, be it individual product branding, or co-branding, “Victor is taking art everywhere. He’s not sticking to the traditional concept of just putting his works in galleries, he’s taken his art to the street,” Kan says, referring to his glass frame, and phone case that Ehikhamenor drew on. This intricate balance of accessibility and grandeur is what makes Ehikhamenor relevant, and relatable as an artist.
When I ask him where he sees his work in the next few years, he replies, “Only God can answer that. I take things one day at a time.”
Victor Ehikhamenor is currently on a residency program in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In 2012, Bilikiss Adebiyi left a five-year-long job as a Software Programmer at IBM in the United States to return home to Nigeria and execute an idea that came to her while she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): A recycling company now called WeCyclers.
WeCyclers collects waste from low-income communities and rewards the participants with points that can later be exchanged for prizes.
The generated waste materials – which are also collected with help from the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) – are then sold to recycling companies, making WeCyclers both a social and economic enterprise.
Before founding WeCyclers, Bilikiss attempted to establish a scrap metal venture with her brother which didn’t quite pan out. However, that failure led her to an even better innovation. Bilikiss hopes to turn WeCyclers into a movement that will change the way Nigerians and Africans view waste.
According to Bilikiss, “Waste management is one of the main problems for poor populations in Nigeria. We want to create a system that would change how people see waste from a problem to a solution.”
Young Madiba Olivier always thought he was going to end up working as a game developer in either the United States or Europe, but it turned out his home country of Cameroon had much more in store for the game lover. Upon realising the lack of dynamism and African characterisation, as well as mythical and cultural representation in games, Madiba decided to make games that would address these issues while entertaining game players both home and abroad.
To this end, Madiba began developing Aurion: Legacy of Kori Odan, a Role Playing Game (RPG) inspired by one of his favourite games ever – Final Fantasy. He launched Kiro’o Games, which is now the first gaming studio in Central Africa, in 2013. Last year, Kiro’o Games received $50,000 from a Kickstarter campaign to fund its projects.
“As an innovator, you’re a little bit alone. A lot of people don’t understand how you see things or how you see the world”, Madiba says. The Computer Scientist also thinks that while some people are born with the gift to come up with great ideas, others are trained. For Olivier, it’s 50-50 and the key is to keep an open mind and learn how to process ideas better. Kiro’o plans to organise with other games studios in Africa to make the continental market one of the best in the world.”
‘The video game industry is moving towards virtual reality/augmented reality. In ten years, Africa can invent the next way to entertain. America already invented sight cinema and video games. I want to have a team ambitious enough to invent the next step.’
“We’re in the last stages of trying to release the game. This is the end of the road of a 12-year dream. We will decide on the future of the industry in the region if Aurion is a success. If we succeed, we will pave the way for other games to be produced in Cameroon. If we don’t, we may have closed it for a long time for investment and giving others a shot. That gives us a lot of pressure and equal motivation.”
Aurion: Legacy of Kori Odan launches in April 2016.
Since 2002, Chimurenga Magazine has been redefining African culture through music, literature and visual arts. Founder Ntone Edjabe, DJ, basketball coach, journalist and researcher started his ‘revolutionary struggle’ (the translation for Chimurenga) as a tool to draw attention to the complexities and diversity of the African continent and realign the global discourse surrounding it.
Chimurenga was originally a magazine but it now incorporates additional platforms such as the Pan African Space Station (PASS), which is Chimurenga’s broadcasting wing and online music radio, the Chimurenga Library which is also online and collects pan African periodicals and personal books, and a broadsheet produced every quarter known as The Chronic.
Edjabe’s platforms and publications are known for their blunt and unbiased perspective on the politics and cultural development of the continent; he posits that music and creativity are the most crucial tools in liberating Africa from its struggles.
Brazil-born, Abidjan-raised Ivorian designer, Loza Maleombho, runs a fashion brand that takes creativity to the next level. Educated in the United States, Loza directed the artistic aspect of her Fine Arts in Animation degree into establishing a fashion career that has seen her work with ZARA, Diesel, Jill Stuart, Yigal Azrouël, and Cynthia Rowley in her early days in New York.
Loza’s brand, which is now based in Abidjan, has been featured in VOGUE, ELLE Magazine, MARIE CLAIRE and a slew of other fashion magazines.
My creative process is very much centered around using tools available at hand; local fabric and materials, social media and storytelling in order to start a discussion between modernity and tradition: Two antagonist notions. I believe there is a link to be established in all things, there just needs to be a reason for it.
Last month, one of Loza’s designs was featured in Beyonce’s video for the song ‘Formation’ causing a lot of buzz for both the designer and her designs. Speaking in an interview after the video was released, Loza says she watched the video four times just to catch a glimpse of her design.
Presently, the Loza Maleombho team consists of six people but plans to grow into a larger team of solely women to promote female empowerment as well as social and economic development. Loza also plans to establish a training workshop for young women from unprivileged backgrounds to teach them sewing, pattern making and production so as to improve their economic situations.
‘…See the bigger picture. The work has to be the reward. Anything else is just a bonus.’
Zina Saro-Wiwa first carved a niche for herself in arts and film-making in 2008 with her documentary This Is My Africa which transformed discussions about the continent in international media. A former BBC presenter, Zina’s experimental video installations, documentaries, photography and films take an interesting stance in the scope of young contemporary African artists.
In 2013, Zina moved back to the Niger Delta in Nigeria to make a body of work that aimed to tell new stories about the region through contemporary art, food projects, and her own contemporary art gallery called Boys’ Quarters Project Space which is based in the city of Port Harcourt. Zina’s work has been shown in museums all over the world including Seattle Art Museum, The Fowler Museum, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Stevenson Gallery, Goodman Gallery, Guggenheim Bilbao, Nikolaj Kunsthal, Tate Britain and many others.
Shuttling between Brooklyn and the Niger Delta, Zina is currently set to show her work based on her Niger Delta residency at Brooklyn Museum in April, the Serpentine Gallery programming in May, and also at Arles Photo festival this summer. Her Port Harcourt Gallery, Boys’ Quarters Project Space, moves to London for the summer where they take over the Tiwani Gallery for one month.
“An innovator’s life – especially that of a woman’s – is often a lot more tedious and thankless than the outcomes may suggest. You have to be prepared to sacrifice comfort, stability and relationships to see an idea through to the end. You have to love what you do and see the bigger picture.”
Tired of the lies that politicians were constantly feeding Kenyans through journalists, in 2008 multiple award-winning photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi decided to take up a more profound role in the documentation activism amongst Kenyans.
Mwangi’s unbridled passion for social justice and change led him to establish the first-of-its-kind ‘artivism’ hub called Pawa254 in 2011, a platform which “empowers young professionals and disadvantaged youth to effect social change through new innovative projects.”
The TED Senior Fellow applies an artistic voice through Pawa254 to revolutionise journalism by standing up to Kenya’s political elite, and fostering dialogue in Kenya through a platform known as Picha Mtaani.
He is currently working on ‘Boom Twaff. Boom Twaff, a book which documents his work from 2005 to 2015 and summarises his journey into photography.
A Co-Creation Hub Hackathon set the stage for public finance analyst, Oluseun Onigbinde, to launch one of the best ideas that Nigeria has seen in some time – BudgIT. Because of BudgIT, Nigerians now have access to federal budgets while they are being drawn up.
BudgIT uses SMS, infographics, interactive applications and games, amongst other tools, to bring transparency and accountability to civil society while aiming for a more socially and economically evolved Nigeria. According to Oluseun, BudgIT simply aims to provide budget access, which both he and his team believe is the key to civic engagement and institutional reform.
Oluseun is presently working on international partnership to advance BudgIT’s vision. The Africa Transparency Initiative, a Pan-African initiative, USAID, Ford Foundation, and the Knight Foundation are some of the partners that the company has managed to make progress with over time. Additionally, BudgIT has developed tools such as ‘Tracka’ and ‘Fitila’ to monitor local community projects.
The idea is that rather than having reports just being entirely narrative, we want them to be backed by data. We don’t want 1000-word opinion pieces not backed with data guiding the thoughts.
BudgIT currently employs 22 people and has future plans to build “sustainable cities” that are data-driven. To do this, Oluseun is ready to “pull the old order down and rebuild a new experience for stakeholders” while strengthening access to citizens in digital and offline communities.
“We want to publicise finance data in the hands of citizens, raising their ability to ask questions and demand service delivery. But we don’t want to do this with heavy dependence on donor funding, so we want to ensure that we fully establish a thriving business segment that focuses on private clients and development agencies in areas of data science, visualization and civic technology.”
Dr. Chrystelle Wedi and Dr. Kopano Matlwa Mabaso
The Ona Mtoto Wako (See your baby) social initiative was founded by South African Rhodes Scholars, Chrystelle Wedi and Kopano Matlwa Mabaso. It was developed in order to tackle the leading causes of maternal and newborn deaths in rural and low-income areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by identifying high risk pregnancies with the use of mobile clinics offering ultrasonography and health screenings to expectant mothers.
The aforementioned exercises are aimed at drastically reducing the numbers of preventable deaths in mothers caused by complications such as pregnancy-related anaemia, hypertension, HIV and malaria. At the screenings, the phone numbers of these ‘high risk women’ would be collected in order to stay in touch and connect them to healthcare facilities in their area.
This thoughtful initiative won the first ever Aspen Idea Award in July last year with a cash prize of $25,000 to bring the idea to life. Dr. Mabaso is an award-winning author, a pioneer of the World Economic Forum Global Shaper – Johannesburg Hub and a 2015 Fellow of both Tutu and Aspen New Voices.
Dr. Wedi is currently the Secretary General of Vandelo NGO and co-managing partner of Watoto Hospital & Karibuni Hospital, based in the DRC, as well as a 2016 Aspen New Voices Fellow.
“I am passionate about issues affecting the African continent especially those relating to socio-economic, public health and gender inequalities. I hope to play a significant role in improving quality and accessibility of healthcare for women and children in Africa and plan to coordinate research which can be translated into effective and efficient health policy in African states.”
‘I collaborate with craft.’
Beninese artist, Meschac Gaba, disrupted the international art scene with a conceptual five-year-long, 12-part project entitled The Museum of Contemporary African Art which commenced in 1997, following his relocation to Amsterdam to further his studies. Gaba’s nomadic museum, which explores globalisation, consumerism and the ‘Western museum’ (just as his other artistic endeavours do), fuses art with daily life and serves as a contemporary biography of the artist himself.
Gaba uses braided hair extensions, sugar, banknotes and other unconventional materials to make sculptures and artistic objects.
Since his emergence, Gaba and his gallery have received global attention which led the high profile London art institution, Tate Modern, to purchase most of his work. However, Gaba still holds on to the Library room in his ‘museum’ with plans to keep it in his hometown in Cotonou, where he currently resides.
Dr. Thumbi Mwangi
Dr. Thumbi Mwangi’s research focuses on the link between livestock health and human health. His research in East African rural households helped to inform the 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, at risk of falling ill following the consumption of sick livestock.
A trained veterinarian and member of the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Dr. Mwangi carried out a study which tracked 1,500 households and their livestock in Kenya in March 2015, and has since been documented in an open journal Plos One.
Presently, Dr. Mwangi is focused on researching the human-animal interface in East Africa and investigating the relationship between livestock health and productivity, human health, nutrition and welfare in order to improve health and welfare among livestock-dependent households by improving animal health and productivity.
Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo, Esther Olatunde
Ghana and Nigeria combined forces to provide a basic service to black women- hair styling. Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo and Esther Olatunde created Tress – an application which provides Black women with information on how to style their natural hair, where they can find salons, and what products to use for various hair textures.
Hazel, Sarfo and Olatunde met at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana and instantly connected based on their shared frustrations with their hair and options available to them. Last month at the Lagos Social Media Week, the three friends launched Tress amidst rave reviews.
CEO Priscilla Hazel agrees that it can get awkward for women to approach strangers and inquire about their hairstyle and this is a barrier that the application is helping women overcome.
‘For us at Tress, after identifying the challenge that we faced we wanted to find an easier and convenient way to solve the challenge of finding details of amazing hairstyles we constantly see online.’
Tress is available for download on the Google Play Store with more versions to come. The founders have disclosed plans to expand into e-commerce, as well as make Tress active on various media platforms by partnering with “likeminded organisations and individuals”.
“We envision that in the near future, Tress will be the go-to app for black women looking to find hair inspiration, hair-stylists and high quality hair products. We believe that Tress will continue to evolve and grow into a multi-faceted global brand.”
Ozoz Sokoh’s passion for food in all of its ramifications can probably be rivalled by only a select handful of individuals on the continent. From her vivid descriptions of food and her love of it, to her artistic and mouth-watering – also beautifully photographed – expressions in the kitchen, her culinary brand, Kitchen Butterfly, is constantly evolving and exploring a variety of ways to amaze even the most accomplished foodie.
Sokoh is an Exploration Geologist ‘during the day’. Her affair with food and Nigerian cuisines began while she was living and working in The Netherlands, where she became more aware of Nigerian food and developed a deeper appreciation for Nigerian ingredients and techniques.
“Whether with geology or food, I use the same skills – curiosity, data gathering & observation of the facts, synthesis and concept selection, experimentation and documentation. I’m an explorer, through and through.”
Ozoz, who would rather “shop for veg than shoes,” never restricts herself to the provisions of a recipe and loves to create colourful and pretty dishes. Her successful gustatory experiments involve using ‘unusual’ foods, fruits, and vegetables such as sugarcane and agbalumo to create never-before-seen-nor-imagined cuisines and drinks.
The ‘Traveller by Plate’ sees the world through food, which for her is “for more than eating.” One of her dreams include going to a Nigerian restaurant in Paris and stunning and interesting people with Nigerian innovative culinary skills.
‘In future, I would like to establish a Culinary Institute focused on the entire value chain – from agriculture to the table, finish writing my first cookbook and host a TV show.’
Kitchen Butterfly is on a mission to create awareness of Nigerian food, at home and abroad. Ozoz calls this ‘The New Nigerian Kitchen’ – redefining Nigerian cuisine to showcase the colours, flavours and textures.
Eco-friendliness takes an amazing architectural form in plastic bottle houses, constructed by the Developmental Association for Renewable Energies (DARE) in Nigeria. DARE constructed these homes from thousands of recycled plastic bottles which are filled with sand, cement, and mud. These components form a highly formidable wall which is 20 times stronger than brick walls, fireproof, bulletproof, and earthquake resistant.
DARE CEO, Engr. Yahaya Ahmed, co-founded the Kaduna-based non-governmental organisation, which seeks to promote the understanding and use of renewable energy resources as well as promote clean indoor air through energy autonomous plastic bottle houses and other environmental projects. The houses are fitted with energy saving stoves with little or no emissions which mitigate desertification and climate change, urine filtration fertilization systems and purification tanks.
Yahaya Ahmed’s environmental projects seek to aid Nigeria’s issues with deforestation and pollution, in addition to other forms of environmental degradation. The energy efficient kitchen stoves were recently made available for purchase in Kaduna and plans are in the works for nationwide availability.
DARE currently trains young people in Kaduna to assemble the stoves in order for them to become future entrepreneurs. Additionally, the organisation is training local masons in the bottle building technique with the help of Andres Froesse, the founder of Eco-Tec Soluciones Ambientales.
Igoni Barett is a Nigerian author who explores literature through a dynamic lens by writing stories about Nigeria and race with an intent to stimulate fresh conversations around how they are perceived and challenge the norms surrounding them.
In his most recent piece of work, Blackass, which is also his first novel, the author demonstrates his astuteness around unearthing critical and complex debates surrounding race in Nigeria, a topic largely suppressed in mainstream conversations.
Born and educated in Nigeria, Igoni’s widespread acclaim was cemented with Love is a Power, or Something Like That, a collection of short stories published in 2013, which explore contemporary life in Port Harcourt. Igoni is also lauded for how he uses local dialect, without translation, further emphasising that he is more focused on the craft of language, than explaining things for a western audience.
Blackass, was inspired by Igoni’s desire to spark a conversation on how Nigerians view race following the incident in Ferguson in the United States, and the conversation around African American perceptions and fantasies of life in contemporary Africa.
Travel Noire (TN) founder Zim Ugochukwu has been listed as one of the “10 Amazing Black Women Changing the Game” by Teen Vogue given her role in dismissing the age-long myth that black people don’t like to travel.
Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, Zim worked as a Biologist and community organiser (she was among the organisers of the Obama campaign in 2008) before her love for travel led her to establish Travel Noire in 2013. In less than three years, her establishment has become the go-to guide for young black people who want to travel around the world.
‘It’s challenging but rewarding. As an innovator, you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.’
Travel Noire presently employs seven people who “live wherever they want, are productive and very happy.” The brand offers two major products at the moment; the Travel Noire Experiences, which curates a group travel experience, and the community based product.
According to Zim, the experience is about connecting with the local environment, more than mere sightseeing. The TN experience package is available in Italy for now but will include six to seven other locations by summer this year. Next year, Travel Noire plans launch another product to teach people how to work while on vacation, to encourage people to travel more. Zim believes that “you can be in Fiji or Darfur and still have your ‘nine to five’.”
On November 13, 2015 Genevieve Nnaji, the Nigerian actress who some have called the face of Nollywood, premiered her latest movie, The Road to Yesterday, at the close of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF). The event took place at the Genesis Deluxe Cinemas inside The Palms, a shopping mall in the upscale Lekki Neighborhood of Lagos. It was a gathering of Nigeria’s most influential film and television personalities who mingled with an onslaught of unknown actors, actresses, and filmmakers hoping to break into the increasingly glamorous and lucrative Nollywood, the world’s third largest film industry. I tried to navigate my way through the crowd of people towards the interview stations along the red carpet, but there was almost no room between the women in long dresses and men in crisp suits. If Hollywood is a well structured machine with actors systematically tiered by A, B, C list categories according to their earning power, popularity and ultimate cultural significance, then its African cousin Nollywood, is an altogether more chaotic but egalitarian affair where everyone is welcome, but you must hustle or shout for attention in an improvised industry that is remaking and redefining itself as quickly as the country that birthed it. This frenetic creativity combined with the Nigerian love of the hustle made for a boisterous environment in which conversations were shouted over the Naija-pop playing through the overhead loudspeakers. I could feel the room’s vibrational energy. An American friend of mine in town to research Nollywood remarked that this was the most fun she had ever had going to the movies.
Then Genevieve arrived wearing an immaculate white, curve hugging, floor length dress with a daringly revealing scooped back and knee high front slit framed by graceful frills. For a moment the room paused as bodies parted and Genevieve floated gracefully from the entrance, down the red carpet towards a VIP section. Her producing partner and business manager Chinny Onwugbenu, the film’s screenwriter and director, Ishaya Bako, producer Chi-Chi Nwoko, and co-star Oris Erhuero assembled around her as she took questions from a hungry media that had been starved of Nigeria’s brightest star for the last three years. The Road to Yesterday had only been prescreened for a very limited audience of media executives and industry professionals. It was under the strictest embargo until that night to prevent the piracy that still plagues Nigeria’s creative industries. Even AFRIFF did not get a screener copy until the moment of the premier. The curiosity was intense, the questioning even more so. What was the world to expect from Nollywood’s leading lady?
The unexpected is a familiar realm for a woman who originally thought she would study law in university and then found herself at the forefront of the completely new world of Nigerian film. The first time I met Genevieve was at the Wheatbaker hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos towards the end of 2014. I had received a random call from Chi-Chi Nwoko, a New York based film and television producer who asked if I would be interested speaking to Genevieve about developing a new television show. My previous exposure to Genevieve had only been through newspaper articles, magazine covers, and the pernicious murmurings that follow celebrities – “she’s arrogant and aloof.” I expected to meet an entourage of aides or at least some security. Instead I found Genevieve and Chinny sunk into the wicker chairs on the outdoor patio of the grill room, unconcerned by the fact that the wait staff was freaking out about her presence. Chinny sipped a glass of ice water. Genevieve was lost in her favorite past time, the game Candy Crush, which she plays religiously.
It is hard not to fixate on her obvious beauty, but the most powerful aspect of Genevieve is her ability to read and control the emotional tone of any interaction. It’s a skill that has been mastered by American celebrities and politicians living in a society where public opinion matters, but unsharpened in Nigeria’s more prominent personalities who dominate an environment where worship is expected, not earned. Genevieve’s emotional intelligence stems from what she calls a strong connection to real people in Nigeria. One need only visit her Instagram feed with its over 1.5 million, mostly Nigerian, followers devouring her posts that capture a mix of the mundane, the glamorous, and the aspirational life. Almost all of her posts receive tens of thousands of likes, engagement numbers that would make even the most global of celebrities jealous. I experienced this power personally when I posted a picture of myself jokingly kneeling down before her in a mock proposal at the Nigeria Beasts of No Nation premier. Within minutes I had received hundreds of followers, and many more comments wishing us well.
“I’m one of the masses, and I’m a Nigerian. I’m self employed. [I] continue to run my own businesses here and there…” Genevieve told me during one of our numerous conversations. “I’ve done something with myself – by God’s Grace – because luckily he gave me a gift and I had the wisdom to discover that gift, and I used it to my advantage.” While it is clear that her acting talent has propelled her rise and will help to maintain her influential presence in Nollywood for some time to come, Genevieve’s assent and continued relevance will likely have more to do with her desire to test limits, especially through filmmaking, in a country that has only just recognized the importance of the creative economy.
For all the glamour and fame that presently surrounds her, Ihunanya Genevieve Nnaji, who turned 37 on May 3rd, comes from a relatively ordinary Nigerian, middle class existence. She is the fifth of eight children born to an engineer father from Mbaise, Imo State in the South Eastern Igbo region of Nigeria and a schoolteacher mother who sometimes engaged in petty trading. She grew up in the Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, which has always been a solidly middle class enclave in a city run by the wealthy and dominated by the extremely poor.
“I was a tomboy. I had three brothers right behind me. My sisters were too busy with themselves – you know how elder sisters are. I played football on the street,” Genevieve told me. She also used to engage in fistfights with the boys who lived in her compound. “I got into a fight with a neighbor of mine who was a boy and I beat him up… I was six years old. We were mates and he was fat. He definitely asked for it and he got it,” she said. She told me her home was a traditional Igbo household where her mother acted as the primary disciplinarian. “My dad was the kind of person you didn’t want to speak to you because you would actually feel the disappointment that you are at that time,” she said. “In fact he had a way of – its not even pleading to your conscience – I think it’s a silent threat to your conscience.” At the same time her household was very liberal when it came to her studies and artistic pursuits. As a child Genevieve participated in plays at school and church. “I watched a lot of TV as a child, so I think I was pretty much screen trained. Of course there was no Nigerian cinema then, so everything was on TV,” she said. As a primary school student she excelled in the arts, painting and even producing a comic book series that became very popular in her school. “I would have my classmates bombard me to write the next one while they were reading,” she told me.
Genevieve’s comfortable, even idyllic, childhood changed dramatically when she turned 12 and her father lost his job at the construction equipment supplier Caterpillar because of tribal discrimination. He also lost a subsequent job at the Nnamdi Azikiwe founded African Continental Bank when it collapsed in 1991. Forced to curtail expenditures, her family moved from Surulere to Egbeda, closer the Lagos, Ogun State border. Where once Genevieve and her siblings enjoyed their father’s assigned staff car and driver to take them to and from school, they now found themselves “trekking” to school and spending their afternoons helping their mother sell provisions to make up for lost income while her father searched for work. “She traded, she sold stuff, she got her children to sell stuff for her and we had to. We had no choice. We were living in her house. We cried,” Genevieve said. “She did things you needed to do at that time. Your friends are not doing it. Why should you be the one to be doing it? You’re embarrassed about it, but I’m grateful for that because I think if I wasn’t even given that chance to be humble, I probably wouldn’t appreciate what I have today and understand that it doesn’t make me better than the next person. And [I] just know that everyone is equal and everyone is entitled to love and respect,” Genevieve told me.
At the same time, in what could be interpreted as push to escape the intensity of daily life, Genevieve began to pay more attention to the acting she saw on television. When she turned 16, Nollywood was still in its infancy. The Chris Obi Rapu film Living in Bondage, which is widely credited with bringing real attention to the new entertainment phenomenon, was only a few years old. “But then Nollywood was pretty new and I was watching one of the films back then—I can’t remember the title—and this was me watching another actress, and in my mind I was criticizing how she was performing: ‘No that’s not the reaction she’s supposed to be having to that line.’ I was thinking ‘Oh, I would have done it this way’ or ‘No, I can do this!’ and it’s deep in your gut that you actually know, you actually believe you can. There’s no doubt about it, no questions about it. That was when I realized that I had interest. Did I ever think I would do it as a profession? I don’t think so.”
Her original intention to read Law or English at the University of Lagos, morphed into a major in Creative and Performing Arts. Then she landed a small part in the film Most Wanted. “My role was to interview Regina Askia, a former beauty queen turned actress who was a goddess at that time. That was major. I had to pull it off as a pro and I did it, and the producers asked me if I had done it before and I said no. They were amazed at my confidence—probably I had some training in church or something— but I remember I enjoyed doing it,” Genevieve told me. After this performance, she quickly landed other roles. At the end of her first year in university, stressed by the triple load of acting, coursework and modeling, and frustrated by the continuous strikes plaguing the university system, she made the decision to leave school to pursue acting full time. “My dad didn’t find it funny,” she said. “He wasn’t happy about it, but I kind of reassured him that I would go back, that it wasn’t over. He was mostly concerned about the amount of exposure film was going to bring me, coming from a very conservative, almost prudish home of a Catholic Igbo family.”
Since then, Genevieve has starred in over 80 Nollywood productions for which she has gained domestic and international acclaim, including resounding praise from Oprah Winfrey. The resulting fame and lucrative endorsement deals on products ranging from makeup to watches, a reported multi-million Naira contract to represent Range Rover in Nigeria and a brand ambassadorship for telecommunications giant Etisalat has lead to enormous financial success. She is often listed as one of Nigeria’s wealthiest celebrities and enjoys the fancy cars, the immaculately appointed house in upscale Ikoyi and the trips to exotic locations that are the trappings of celebrity life. She is also thoroughly allergic to any discussion of her earning power or wealth. “Even the kind of car I drive right now cannot give me that kind of joy that my first ride gave me,” Genevieve told me. “I must have a minimum of my first salary in my wallet — two thousand Naira. I can have more, but that’s the minimum. It was my first salary. It’s dear to my heart. That was my welcome fee into the world of entrepreneurship. It’s just there. I love it. I spent more than that to get the two thousand though on transport faire, cause by the time they tell you to go and come back so many times, you’ve spent way more than that, but that was who I was. I worked for it. I have to get paid for it. I’d probably squander every money that is dashed to me, but the one I would sweat for, I don’t play with,” she said. “I don’t talk money because I want people to focus on work,” she told me as we sat on the white leather couches in her living room. Her fluffy white dog, a Brichone-Frise, Lahsa mix named Prince lounged by her feet on the white shag carpet. “Money is not good for creative people. I don’t value myself materially. Take everything,” she said.
In 2011, Genevieve’s production output slowed to one film per year from a career average of four to five films per year. Many in the industry interpreted this as the antics of arrogant, local movie star with her eyes set on international, Hollywood fame. It is easy to see how that impression formed. Between 2011 and 2014, Genevieve’s on-camera work consisted of a role in the universally panned Hollywood adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s award winning novel Half of A Yellow Sun where she acted with international stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. She also worked with the American actors Isaiah Washington and Vivica Fox in Dr. Bello, the Nollywood-Hollywood mash up about a Nigerian spiritual healer who cures a dying boy of cancer. Neither production received the recognition necessary to make Nigerian films about Nigerian subjects more accessible to an audience beyond Africans and the diaspora. During that same period, Genevieve was approached by Chinny Onwugbenu, an ambitious young graduate of the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. Chinny and her sister had just launched MUD, a makeup line for African women and they were looking for a prominent celebrity to be the face of a new campaign. Chinny, who grew up in Nigeria before attending university in the United States is an incredibly direct, no-nonsense business woman and entrepreneur with an intense dislike of the spotlight. She often sports a bob and designer glasses with her understated but clearly style conscious wardrobe. Where Genevieve sees the world in stories and images, Chinny sees numbers and balance sheets. She and Genevieve are natural counterparts and behave like sisters, often yabbing each other about everything from clothing to relationships.
“It was business before friendship. We became friends during that whole [campaign] process and we share the same values. We want the same things, I think,” Chinny told me when I asked her why her partnership with Genevieve works. “She doesn’t play when it comes to her craft. I respected that from the first time we worked together. She had a 6 AM call for two or three days and yet she was very tired, but there was that integrity with the work, like ‘I don’t play around with this stuff; I’m going to give it my all.’ ” Their initial collaboration turned into a lasting partnership where Chinny now manages what she calls the “business of Genevieve,” helping to create a structure for Genevieve’s multifaceted career. Their partnership also led Chinny back to UCLA to for a short course on the film industry as both a creative space and an economic engine. The two ladies eventually formed The Entertainment Network or TEN, a production company that Chinny calls fundamentally Nigerian first. “We’re embracing the term Nollywood,” Chinny told me. “I think it’s unfair that people disassociate themselves from it. They have to be a part of something. No matter how powerful you are or how rich you are, we all come from somewhere, and I think for Nigerian filmmakers, you are privileged to be a part of Nollywood.” At the same time, during her hiatus Genevieve and Chinny made a conscious decision not to take on more Nollywood projects, many of which they felt did not live up to the creative promise of Nigerian talent. For Genevieve, taking a step back was also a matter of personal and professional growth. “Individually, every artist owes it to themselves to grow and we weren’t getting that,” Chinny told me. “[Genevieve] would be like, ‘If I have been standing my ground for so long, why not leave it till I know somebody out there is going to bring the right platform, the right product and I will gladly be a part of that?’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we create the right product or platform?’ ”
If TEN is the platform, then The Road to Yesterday is the first product. With a reported budget of over 150 million Naira, it was a large gamble for a pair that had acting talent and business acumen but precious little behind the camera production experience. On account of its larger budget and higher production value, the film has been classified as part of the neo-Nollywood movement, occupying a space next to recently released films like Kunle Afolayan’s enormously expensive (by Nollywood standards) 320 million-Naira budget, October 1. Neo-Nollywood is essentially the Nigerian film industry emerging from its adolescence of producing as many stories as cheaply and rapidly as possible and moving into improved storytelling, acting, and more sophisticated production aided by technological advances that allow filmmakers to do much more while spending a lot less. It is an acknowledgement that Nollywood’s global footprint demands more of the industry, especially when the competition is the billion dollar studios of Bollywood and Hollywood.
Genevieve’s The Road to Yesterday is a contemporary story about how relationships struggle with the shifting mores of a globally exposed and frantically changing modern Nigeria. Addressing complicated issues like love, infidelity and gendered double standards when it comes to male and female attitudes towards sex, The Road to Yesterday is in many ways Genevieve’s first foray into feminist commentary and the struggle for women’s equality in a society firmly invested in patriarchal dominance. It could also just be a love story embedded in a thriller set to a timeless journey narrative played out along the thoroughfares of peri-urban Lagos.
“I’m someone who’s dark a lot of the time,” Genevieve told me when I asked about how the narrative developed. “I just wonder a lot. My mind really travels a lot and I think during one of these mind journeys of mine, I was wondering about the thin line between life and death and I was thinking about something my mom had told me, stories in the family and stories from random people about how their loved ones who have passed, have appeared to them, right before they passed or the time they’re passing.” Chinny made Genevieve write the story down, and then the pair began shopping for screen writers who could translate the story into as screen play. They initially worked with a talented Canadian screenwriter but found that he could not adequately capture the nuances of Nigerian life. A subsequent search for local screenwriters led them to Ishaya Bako, a 27-year old, UK-educated, Nigerian screenwriter and documentary filmmaker whose controversial short film, Braids on A Bald Head, about sexual identity in Northern Nigeria earned him international recognition and acclaim. (Note: I have known Ishaya Bako personally and professionally for four years). Ishaya, who runs the production company Amateur Heads, was initially wary. “It was tricky because you have the story from her, and then she’s producing as well, and she’s a star as well, so it’s like there’s [only] so much I can do – just like a lot of control and power vested in her.” Ishaya told me. Ishaya, who comes from Kogi state and often sports a full beard, is a fury of moody creative energy and quick wit that worked well with the informal but results-oriented attitudes held by Genevieve and Chinny. Where a script can take months to produce, Ishaya spent four weeks reworking the storyline and screenplay before the team decided to shift into production mode. The Road to Yesterday was Ishaya’s first full-length feature as both screenwriter and director. He asked for more time to get the script and production prepared but Genevieve and Chinny were anxious to get started.
“It was a disaster. After like ten days we had to call a recess and start all over again,” Chinny told me. She said, “It was tough to make that decision because to make that decision meant to throw away the footage that we had made already. But it was either that or we bring out a shady product on [Genevieve’s] first production, on her own come-back movie. We didn’t want to compromise on any of that and still we still needed to tell the story the right way, so we stopped, took a break, put certain things in place and then we came back and everybody came back in like a renewed vigor and said ‘Let’s really do this.” It was a lot of hard work.”
One of the things put in place was Chi-Chi Nwoko, a Nigerian New Yorker and the experienced production executive who had successfully developed and produced Nigerian Idol, the franchise of the popular international on-air talent show. Chi-Chi has long kinky braids, a disarming smile, and a soft-edged Nigerian American accent that fits perfectly with the modern parenting that she practices (her children call her and her husband by their first names) but that contrasts completely with the reputation of workaholic task master able to optimize a drifting production. Her presence completely changed the dynamic on set. “She really got everyone together, especially during the recess, and [brought] some more hands on deck that we needed. And she was doing this while pregnant, with a two year old by her side!” Chinny told me. “She was like on fire, waking up at 5 AM, calling people, making sure that people are going to be there at call time… and that kind of dedication is rare to see. It just wakes you up…” Ishaya concurred.
In March of 2015, I attended a late night script run through for The Road to Yesterday at the Lekki Offices of Chinny’s company MUD. I arrived just before 11 PM to find Genevieve, Chinny, Chi-Chi and Ishaya all huddled together in a small office with Oris Erhuero, the film’s male lead, who had just flown in from London. Oris, who was clearly the odd man out in this gathering, is a physically imposing man with an action hero’s squared shoulders, a narrow waist and a perfectly kept, unkempt set of twists in his jet black hair. He busied himself studying the script while standing in the only uncluttered corner of the office. An air conditioner struggled to cool the tiny space and an open bottle of wine sat next to a stack of plastic cups on a rickety desk. The team had been awake since 5 AM that morning. They faced at least another three hours of work before another early morning call the next day. Genevieve and Oris went through the motions of a scene where the young couple engages in a lovers’ spat before kissing and making up. Ishaya sat on a low press board cabinet holding the script shaking his head. He was not impressed. “Let’s do this again,” he said. Genevieve began to giggle. Ishaya’s scowl soon cracked into a smile and Chinny began filling the plastic cups with wine. Soon the whole room was a mess of punchy, fatigued laughter as they took a thoroughly welcomed break. Then without warning Genevieve said, “I’m ready,” stepped back into character and said, “Lets get back to work.”
For Nigerian born but UK raised Erhuero, who began his 25 year acting career in Los Angeles before leaving to pursue independent films because of a lack of positive roles for black men, this was his first time working in Nollywood. Despite the crazy hours and sometimes improvised solutions to problems on set, he found it exciting to work with the industry’s biggest star. “First of all it, was an incredible feeling returning home. I haven’t been to Nigeria in almost 30 years. I was in Nigeria from the ages of five to 13, so she kind of opened this door to another world I never really saw coming or knew existed. I saw the old Hollywood, the reason why a lot of us wanted to act, working with Genevieve – the passion, the joy, the teamwork, just fighting over beautiful moments to create beautiful moments,” Erhuero told me. Having acted in films like Raul Peck’s award winning Patrice Lumumba biopic, Erhuero was most impressed with the work ethic and perseverance of the whole team which he credits to Genevieve’s passion and the synergistic relationship of Chinny, Ishaya and Chi-Chi. Ishaya told me that one of the key facilitators of a smooth time on set was Genevieve’s ability to quickly absorb a script and her staying power as they dealt with challenges ranging from faulty equipment to security personnel trying to shut down their shoot. Chi-Chi told me that working with Genevieve it was “ very easy for you to forget that she’s supposed to be this ‘person.’ Immediately you think you’re just working with a colleague. She speaks her mind. She knows what she wants. She’s not apologetic about it, and from a business perspective, she’s definitely a go-getter. She’s a hard worker. She’s involved. She understands the business, and even though she has the element of ‘I’m the star,’ she’s still very down to earth.”
For Genevieve, making The Road to Yesterday was exactly the sort of unexpected, challenge filled experience that has helped to shape her career and her person. “I made this film because I realize people grow and move on. Things change in their life, but they don’t expect things to change in yours. People don’t expect that you are human because you are a superstar. In other words, you can’t grow, learn, and make mistakes. They don’t expect those normal things from you. You are expected to know it all because you are famous,” she told me.
Despite, or perhaps because of the mistakes and challenges, as a test case for the newly conceived TEN, The Road to Yesterday caused quite a stir. At the end of the AFRIFF screening, the audience stood to applaud the cast and crew. As they exited some viewers murmured that this was indeed a game changer. In wide release, The Road to Yesterday received generally positive if somewhat critical reviews but it is unclear whether or not the film was a box office success. For Genevieve, however, the point was not to make money but to forge a new path for herself as an actor, producer and media entrepreneur while also taking the industry in a new direction. The success of the production in this regard has led industry behemoths like DSTV and Africa Magic to take note and express serious interest in the projects TEN and Genevieve are currently developing. Chinny told me that she and Genevieve felt “like we’re making a difference with TEN. We get to work with a lot of young talent—even old talent that has not been given the opportunity. We want to respect everybody that can contribute something to Nollywood, so that just allowed us to do this kind of thing, to open up TEN to bring that on. We have a slate of projects that I’m excited about now… and people are going to get work, and if this our own way of contributing to the economy, then why not?”
It has been a long journey for Genevieve, a nearly twenty-year career that has required her to develop a Nigerian movie star aesthetic and build a path where no one has walked. “Entertainment is new in this country. It was new when I started. The celebrity lifestyle—obviously, there was no blueprint to how things worked,” Genevieve told me during our last conversation at her Ikoyi residence. When I asked her earlier about her role models she said, “I didn’t set out trying to be the next somebody, to be like this person. I just set out to do something that I didn’t understand, but something my heart wanted, something that comes out from within, and I just wanted to be given the chance to let it out and express myself.” Genevieve’s commitment to individuality drives her understanding of her place as a cultural icon and economic force in the Nigerian creative space. “I am me, but I am also conscious of the fact that am being watched. I have a responsibility not just to myself but to young people,” she told me. “I didn’t set out to be anybody’s role model but you grow up, you grow into yourself and become aware of how much impact you can have on the lives of other people. I don’t take it for granted and I believe in setting an example. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not saying I’m a saint or I’m going to be perfect. But I’ve learned that acknowledging my imperfections and my mistakes has enabled me to become wiser and smarter in the choices I make in my life. For me it’s all about being true to yourself. When you do that you will never be a ‘wanna be’, you will be who you want to be.”