It’s a rough, tough, brutal business for an entrepreneur; you risk your neck in places where no one wants to go to find stories that everyone wants to know; it’s months of tedium and travelling where one slip can mean death.
This is the news business in Africa that is the life of Kenyan Salim Amin; it is also the cruel business in which his father suffered on his way to an early grave.
Amin will never forget November 23, 1996, the day word came through. His father Mo Amin, a legendary photojournalist, had survived many dangers in more than 30 years on the road, including the loss of an arm in an explosion in the Ethiopian civil war. His life came to a tragic end in the Indian Ocean.
“I was at the gym when I got a call from mum asking me to come home immediately as something had happened to dad’s flight. I only believed it after I identified his body in the Comoros,” he says.
Mo was on an Air Ethiopia flight home to Nairobi when hijackers took the plane. He tried to rally passengers to fight back but the plane ran out of fuel and ditched in the sea, off the coast of the Comoros, killing all but 50 on board.
“He was still on his feet when the plane crashed trying to get the hijackers off the pilot as he tried to land in the ocean. The hijackers claimed they had a grenade but no evidence of this was found. Mo was flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. He had gone to Addis for a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines as we produced the inflight magazine,” says Salim.
Mo died side-by-side with a friend and fellow journalist. Brian Tetley, who was 61, was a British-born, Nairobi-based, king of the keyboard and bon viveur.
“Brian worked with my father for over three decades and they were very close friends. Brian was often the writer while my dad photographed the major news stories, and they also co-authored/produced over two dozen books together. They were like brothers and travelled all over the world on assignments together,” says Salim.
The plane crash cost Salim his father and mentor; the man who remained a mystery right up to his tragic death, an oft told African story of father and son.
“We had a lot of love between us but I hardly saw him and didn’t really know him very well… we didn’t speak much about personal matters, more about work.”
Taking up the camera, for Salim, was bittersweet.
“I started taking pictures when I was eight years old… that’s when he gave me his first camera,” he says.
With this camera, Salim took a picture that appeared in TIME magazine, making him probably the only 10-year-old African to ever have a picture published in a global magazine.
“I was amazed when I saw it actually in print! If I had had any doubts about what I was going to do before that, then those went out of the window when I saw my work in print,” says Salim.
He started working for the media company his father founded – Camerapix.
“My first pay cheque was from Camerapix… he paid me Ksh5,000 for my first month at work in 1992 (then around $100).”
Salim has no regrets in an unforgiving business.
“I don’t think I would want to ever do anything else… definitely I would want to be doing the same thing in another life.”
This is a trade where you can very easily die, unsung, chasing a story. Salim had his fair share.
“I remember being bombed by government forces in Sudan during the civil war, which was terrifying, the dangers of covering Somalia in the 1990s during Operation Restore Hope, the loss of my friends and colleagues Dan Eldon, Anthony Macharia and Hos Maina in Somalia in 1993, and the genocide in Rwanda which was the most disturbing and brutal story I had ever covered,” says Salim.
Eldon, an English-born Kenyan photojournalist, with Kenyans, Macharia and Maina, were killed by an angry mob in Mogadishu in 1993, in the days when occupying US forces struggled to keep order.
Another journalist who survived that violent day is Angus Shaw, who spent 40 years covering eight wars, from his base in Harare, Zimbabwe.
“We were at the hotel that morning when we heard an explosion five blocks away. We decided to go down and have a look,” recollects Shaw.
“The Camerapix crew drove ahead of us as we headed to the compound where the explosion took place and as we got there, we saw a swelling crowd. The crowd erupted into extreme anger after seeing the carnage and deaths after the bombings of that narrow street, they started throwing stones at our small press convoy yelling ‘Yankies go home’. Eldon had disappeared inside this angry crowd when they started throwing stones. Every photojournalist wanted the best picture so they hardly paid attention to the possible dangers.”
What followed will haunt Shaw forever.
“I saw a handful of people armed with AK-47 rifles firing shots and I saw a nice young man, Macharia, going down. He had been shot. We realized this was getting out of hand and we started driving away and at that point, they had started shooting at our car which was about 25 meters away.”
Days passed with no trace of the 23-year-old Eldon, last seen disappearing into the angry crowd.
“One morning we woke up to the sight of Dan’s bloody shoes at the doorstep of our hotel. This was a warning to us.”
Shaw says, as they were wrapping Eldon’s belongings, Mo reminded the press corps that covering atrocities was more than reporting numbers.
“When you start wrapping the belongings of your own, then you discover that that’s what people go through all over the world,” says Shaw.
Salim wishes the continent that gave birth to many great journalists could spare a thought for their hardships.
“I wish Africans would celebrate journalists more… we are seen as ‘lowly’ people and in a corrupt profession by many around the continent, and unfortunately even African media organizations do not celebrate African journalists enough. My father was recognized and decorated more outside Africa than within. We should do more and maybe have a commemoration day each year for African journalists that is a celebration of their sacrifices and contributions.”
Salim found himself at the helm of his late father’s business at the age of 26.
“I had no experience at running a company; luckily my father was good at filing all his work so I had to study his documents and correspondences,” he says.
“The first day was chaotic. We had to re-register and restructure the company. We started by giving everybody their dues, close the company and re-employ them again under the new registered company with new shareholding. It never really struck me that I was now running the company, it just happened as there was no succession plan. I had no choice.”
Salim concedes he has to move with the times.
Media and development expert, Rashweat Mukundu, says the internet is changing the news business.
“Traditional models of doing business are being challenged, yet some traditional elements, that include the human touch, will remain necessary, yet more enhanced by ICTs. We are in an era of either business adapts or dies,” he says.
Bruce Mutsvairo, media professor at Northumbria University in Britain, says Africa should plough its own furrow.
“Our innovations should underscore, support and provide the basis for Africa’s cultural and economic needs. We have to come with our own innovations, even if they get rejected in the West.”
In Mo’s day, it was all about hard news, hotspots and wars. The news business these days is more about fashion and business, says Salim. With more than four million images of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and 8,000 hours of video footage, Camerapix Archive is the largest library in Africa.
“Our only asset is our archives. I am not so sure I would attach any monetary value on the company. It’s a family business that I would not dream of selling.”
Like many in the media industry, Salim struggles to make money as there is a lot of free content floating around.
“We are producing a lot of content; it’s not giving us much revenue as yet. So we have to sell our content to multiple broadcasters. There are more opportunities presented through mobile devices but expensive data remains the main impediment.”
Salim plans to ease himself out of the business to make way for the next generation.
“We did the first private-public partnership with a local university where we are also helping develop their postgraduate degree. We have just moved into the Multimedia University where our production team is housed; in exchange we are helping them develop their master’s program.”
Another chapter for Africa – a great story that many journalists have paid with their lives to tell.
The Maverick In Tech
The founder of some of Nigeria’s best-known startups on the mistakes and the millions that made him click in the technology business.
Sometimes, the simplest business ideas can come from strange places, or even strangers.
In his first year studying law at Waterloo University in Canada, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was approached by a stranger who asked to stay in his house.
“I was like ‘I don’t know you, you have long hair and you are white; I don’t know about this’, but I said, ‘ok cool’, and he stayed over and we became good friends.”
About a year later, Pierre, the friend, decided to head to Silicon Valley for his cooperative education term.
“He told me about this amazing world of Silicon Valley, tech and investments, and I was sold. A few months later, we decided to start our own tech company called bookneto.com,” says Aboyeji.
It was a platform that enabled students to download past examination questions and work with a team of people at the school to help answer them.
The company did decently for three years until it got sued by the university, but at least that marked a turning point in Aboyeji’s entrepreneurial life.
It turned out that the intellectual property for past examination questions belonged to the professors at Waterloo University, a fact that was “unknown” to the pair of entrepreneurs and they were found “guilty of piracy”. The venture was eventually sold to a professor who wanted to teach students not enrolled on campus, for a small fee.
“We had it for three years, and by this time, I had graduated and looking for a new adventure and I was pretty sure I did not want to run another business in Canada, so I had started looking at other markets and Africa was a big one for me, Nigeria in particular,” says Aboyeji.
After graduating, he returned to Nigeria in 2013.
His proclivity for identifying opportunities inducted him into the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The dominant players at the time were Coursera and Udacity.
According to a report by Component, globally, the MOOCs market is estimated to hit $20.8 billion by 2023. Aboyeji wanted in. He set up a company in Abuja called Fora.com focused on incorporating MOOCs into the university environment especially for courses that were relevant but not provided by Nigerian universities due to a lack of quality resources.
“I was very naïve. I imagined that it would be a breeze to build that business and learned the hard way that anything regulated doesn’t operate rationally. So, the regulators didn’t give me any approvals and universities were skeptical and didn’t want to be laid off so it didn’t work out. We ended up pivoting that business and ended up selling online MBAs instead. Our typical clients were young bank managers who wanted to get an MBA or advanced degree courses to improve their chances of being promoted,” says Aboyeji.
The firm began to gain some traction. People were paying for the application courses and Aboyeji decided to pilot a loan program where financial institutions would offer loans to students.
“So, we were making money but it wasn’t popping off. I went to New York with the team because we had just gotten some new funding and we had to meet the new investors. I had met a guy named Jeremy Johnson when he was in Nigeria earlier so I pinged him and told him what we wanted to do. I wanted to learn from his experiences. He agreed to meet for coffee in New York.”
During their meeting, Johnson expressed his idea about a new form of education geared towards skills rather than degrees. Aboyeji also talked about unemployment in Nigeria and how that represented a massive opportunity.
It was a match made in heaven.
“One of the things he told me was that he could not find a sales force engineer for $150,000 in New York. They just didn’t exist so I said, ‘man, I can train you sales force engineers’. And he said ‘if you decide you are going to pivot, what you are doing or adding to it… I would fund you and I will be chairman and we can do this together’. So, I said ‘someone is going to fund you to do a new business, why not’.”
Aboyeji had just stumbled on a new gold mine and Andela was born. He started with one person and began teaching him how to code. He repurposed the team from Fora into coding masters, bid masters and operational staff, and shifted the focus of Fora because they had the flexibility to do it.
“I don’t think at the time we had any idea how big what we were doing was. We did the first one, it was semi-successful, we trained the next four, which was really good. We put out a job description saying no experience required, we will pay you to learn how to program and we had over 700 applicants off Twitter and we knew we had something.”
They whittled down to about four or five people that completed that program. To find work for his new coders, Aboyeji used Upwork, the popular freelance jobsite, to bid for jobs.
“We didn’t know anybody, so we bid for jobs, executed it and before we knew it, we had about 150 people in the room. That was how the transition happened from Fora to Andela,” says Aboyeji.
The company has since gone on to raise $180 million in venture funding from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and other notable investors from Silicon Valley. Aboyeji left the company after three years in search of his next adventure but is still a major shareholder in Andela.
That voyage led him to co-found Flutterwave, an integrated payments platform for Africans to make and accept any payment, anywhere from across Africa and around the world. Under his watch, the company processed 100 million transactions worth $2.5 billion.
Turning his eyes firmly on future opportunities has led Aboyeji to set up his own family office called Street Capital, with a focus on identifying passionate and experienced missionary entrepreneurs with the integrity and courage to flawlessly execute in Africa.
With a solid track-record of unearthing diamonds in the rough, Aboyeji hopes to empower the next generation of African entrepreneurs to achieve their fullest potential and help build some of Africa’s fastest-growing and most-impactful tech businesses.
The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business
Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.
If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.
Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.
As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.
The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.
“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.
And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.
With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.
“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay. The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.
The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.
Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.
READ MORE | Will Cinema Just Disappear?
The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.
“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”
In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.
“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.
The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.
“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”
The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.
Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.
Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.
In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.
With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.
“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”
Advances In Nigeria’s ‘Burglar Watch’ Industry
The escalating safety and security issues in Nigeria raised the alarm for this innovative entrepreneur.
Today, organizations not only face escalating risks but also the certitude that they will face a security breach at any time, if proper precautions are not taken. Such was the case for Paul Ajibulu when his office premises were ransacked by thugs in Adeola Odeku, Victoria Island, Lagos.
“We had just got our office fully furnished with MacBook computers and the whole works. When we came in the next day, we found the locks broken and all the office equipment had been looted. I lost about $20,000 in all that day and that set our business back for a couple of months,” says Ajibulu.
To solve his problems, he reached out to Extreme Mutual Technique, an automated digital systems solution and renewable energy service provider.
The company says it boasts top-tier clients such as MTN, the Embassy of Sierra Leone, South African Breweries, and Africa Finance Corporation, amongst many others.
Akpobome Ojoboh, its founder and Managing Director, is adamant his systems are a must-have for every organization in Nigeria.
“We initially started the business called Extreme Surveillance Systems limited. Coming from my previous background, we decided to focus on CCTV and digital security. Considering the fact that Nigeria was being terrorized by security mishaps, we decided to [resolve] that,” says Ojoboh.
Safety and security have never been discussed in Nigeria as they are now. Threats are from everywhere, and at all places. Routine security checking at offices and shopping mall entrances has become the norm.
The idea of preventing crime is an appealing twist in today’s times and although it’s comforting for many to imagine a competent police officer monitoring every camera in Lagos, the question remains whether CCTV systems really do prevent crimes from happening or do they merely help in nabbing a criminal once a crime has occurred.
In a city like Lagos where you have constant disruptions to power, the long-term success of these systems presented significant hurdles for Ojoboh in the early days.
“There are so many limitations to digital security vis-à-vis the lack of a proper database that even when you have [identified] the culprits, you cannot find them. Furthermore, there were limitations to how people took ownership of their equipment because there was [often] no power. So, you put a system and people say ‘what if there is no power’?”
To combat these challenges, Ojoboh decided to provide another solution, by moving into the world of inverters.
“Then again, these inverters run down when there is no power to charge them so we went into renewable energy called solar to back up our inverters and digital solutions. That is when we changed the business to Extreme Mutual Technique Limited,” says Ojoboh.
Security is one of the largest businesses in the world, according to Ojoboh.
He has seen an increase in more families opting for peace of mind by having big brother watching over their loved ones whenever they cannot be with them.
“When I first became a mum, I would always worry incessantly about my daughter left alone at home with my nanny. Then, we started noticing strange marks on my daughter and I had heard about people mistreating children they cared for but I never thought it would happen to me. I reached out to a security company to install a camera in the house and lo and behold, I saw the nanny hitting my daughter. My whole world crumbled,” says Rebecca Gyan, a grocery store owner in Accra.
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“You have to be prepared because if you are not, then you almost cannot stop any security breach. It helps you to know some proactive measures to protect yourself. If you have a CCTV system and you notice there is a particular group of people visiting your building, you will be able to notice and react,” says Ojoboh.
As organizations become familiar with probable threats and vulnerabilities, they will be able to establish both preventive measures and responsive systems, to decrease the likelihood of intruders and attacks.
Since starting out in 2007, Ojoboh has grown the team to a 40-member business spread across Lagos and Abuja. The company has also moved into IT and engineering services in the areas of energy infrastructure, home automation, fire safety and digital security solutions.
With power still an issue in Nigeria, Ojoboh sees the future of his business in the area of renewable energy to power his systems to provide that all-important peace of mind to his clients.
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