How many storytellers does it take to change a lightbulb? How many sides are there to a story?
aKoma might have all the answers, it seems. Six months ago, the new storytelling platform began nurturing twenty-five young Africans selected from over a thousand applications that came into the pool from all over Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria.
Since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s ‘rebuttal’ in Things Fall Apart over half a century ago, the onus has been on African writers and storytellers, in general, to collate and complete inbred stories of the area sometimes infamously described as the ‘dark continent’. And since Chimamanda Adichie’s viral ‘Danger of a Single Story’ TED talk in 2014, it has become even more imperative to showcase under-reported stories as well as beam the spotlight on unseen angles of overexploited themes across Africa, from Djibouti to Dakar and Yaoundé to Yamoussoukro – and beyond.
For Zain Verjee and Chidi Afulezi, co-founders of aKoma and both ex-CNN staff, the task of shouldering an ambition in this direction was lofty but necessary. Says the former: “While I was at CNN, I was contacted by many people – friends, travellers, potential investors in Africa and individuals – who wanted information about different countries and I would tell them to go to this website or go talk to that person. Everything was fragmented and so I realised that there’s no one place that people can go to get authentic stories that aren’t from international media only.”
“So the idea was…why not figure out how to build a digital entity that in an innovative way can capture storytelling with quality as well. Some friends set me up with Chidi who I had never met before but was coincidentally looking to build a similar platform and we got to work.”
With the help of the Mastercard Foundation and General Electric (GE) Africa, the duo set their new ship on the waters and like drunken sailors, hit go, regardless of the overwhelming challenges of pioneering such a unique platform.
Perhaps it was a stroke of oddly poetic coincidence that the graduation of the first set of fellows should hold on the 23rd anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. Easily one of the most buoyant economies across the continent today, it is gradually rewriting its post-genocide history from a trauma narrative to being the poster child of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. It is the phoenix arising from the ashes of calamity; what better way to celebrate than herald the arrival of new griots, some of them Rwandan-born, digging out untold stories.
“We are very passionate about telling stories from Africa…of Africans doing great things,” stresses Patricia Obozuwa, Director, Communications & Public Affairs GE Africa. Another thing we are passionate about is developing skills in Africa and the aKoma Amplify programme is doing exactly that with these young storytellers and content creators. So, it was a no-brainer that our paths meet and we support this.”
“We are also passionate about partnering with local organisations and people that promote innovative solutions to different challenges in Africa. Telling the wholesome African story has always been a challenge.”
At the graduation ceremony, all three country contingents assembled a final presentation; the Nigerians harped on among other things, the beauty of innovation and the brilliant stories being engineered at the GE Garage for the young and restless back in Lagos; the Rwandans emotionally captured the essence of women empowerment especially highlighting the breadwinning strides of a female Kigali taxi driver and tugging at the heartstrings of all present; the Kenyans fused animation and some humour in documenting the silent work of the GE Community centre in one of Nairobi’s ghettos as it daily transforms the lives of street kids into computer whiz kids.
Rotating the cube of truth to show the other sides that have yet been brought to light is what is driving Zain and her team to go ahead. “After six months of a programme, we have built great relationships and had great content come out,” she says. “So this is a validation for Chidi and I that we’re on the right track to curating innovative ways of storytelling.”
Empowering African storytellers – and helping them get compensation for their craft – will transform the image of the continent, she reiterates. “A big complaint for international media has been where to find talent and when they do, how to determine how good it is as well as the entirety of managing the process,” says Zain.
As the jolly band of storytellers disperse to keep with the job, their skills have been honed far beyond belief. One of them, Nigeria’s Chioma Nnanana gushes: “The Amplify experience was great in that it was an opportunity to benefit from peer reviews and improve my craft whilst earning money. Writing often – once a week – has helped me become a better writer than I was.”
With a new cohort set to be selected in a matter of months, it appears that aKoma has started a revolution – to change a light bulb and to tell the other sides of the African truth.