Idia Aisien: Positively Showcasing Africa to the World 

Idia Aisien

Idia Aisien, an international model, philanthropist and ARISE TV News Anchor, holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism with a minor in Business Administration from American University, Washington D.C. She also has a Master’s Degree in International Public Relations and Global Corporate Communications from New York University. Born 27 years ago to a Nigerian champagne, wine and spirits magnate father and a Cameroonian jeweler and philanthropist mother,  Aisien, on  graduating worked with Discovery Communications, Fox5 News for the United Nations and had a successful career with Atlas Maraa financial services company before she decided to join the entertainment industry full-time in 2015 after she quit her job and kicked off a career as a TV presenter. But none of these were fulfilling until when she recently unveiled the International Development Initiative in Africa, the IDIA Project, an NGO, whose major aim is to change the negative perspective about the continent, Africa. In this interview with Mary Nnah , she talks on why she embarked on such project and how she intends to carry through with it. Excerpts:

What exactly is this project about?

None of the things I ever did in my life before now made sense to me if I could not implement change in my own country and continent. I had all these big dreams of things I was going to do around the world. But I when heard people saying I guess you are so hardworking because in your country you don’t have roads, bridges and schools I got so frustrated.  And I would be like you need to go to Africa and see what we have there. But they would say when we google Africa all we see are children who don’t have clothes, poverty, death, terrorism and war and I would say that is not Africa. And another thing that was also common was me telling someone I am from Nigeria and they would ask if know so and so person in Ghana. African is not a country but a continent and I just feel like people have so much to learn about different countries in Africa and the amazing things that are happening – organisations, advocacy groups and many individuals that are doing things that are ground-breaking every day.

We have a lot of Africans in the diaspora that do not want to come back because of the negative things they are seeing in the media about Africa. We all know how in the negative light Nigeria and Africa at large, is usually depicted in the eyes of the world, as a result many people around the world feel that Nigeria is a very bad place to be.

It is true we have our issues as Africans but there are also parallel stories, as many of these issues are arising, governments in various countries are still breaking barriers every day and there are still people that are doing amazing things. But if keep spreading the negative information, it is still going to incite more negativities. So the way they depict negative things about us, we also need to depict positive things about Africa by telling positive stories about ourselves.

So I came up with the International Development Initiative in Africa – the IDIA Project, an initiative project that will capture the good things that people are doing across Africa. With the IDIA Project, we are trying to change that negative aspect about Africa through the media. Instead of concentrating on the bad and terrible aspects of Nigeria and Africa, we are going to be concentrating on the positive aspects of what is happening in Africa. What are those aspects of the positive side that the media seldom report? And how can we appreciate the many progress that is going on in the country and continent that no one is talking about.

One of the most amazing things about IDIA Project is that it links the media aspect to impact. Most times, those two parts are often broken, so we either have people documenting things about Nigeria but not doing it right, so that we have so much negative things about Nigeria. So, now we are about shifting away from the negative perspective and document great things that are actually happening in the continent, especially in the areas of social entrepreneurs that are doing great works in education, for start-up in business and also the part of giving back and impact.

We would be looking at how to ensure that we multiple the amount of solutions that are in our custody and beyond that, actually portraying this stories so that we can get more investors on board to expand or help those that are already doing great works to stay. The media aspect will impact and also connect people that are doing great works to help them stay.

Who is your focus? 

This particular project is just to motivate ordinary Nigerians and Africans that for a particular person to walk through a successful journey, you also can walk through it, so, every single episode is so well rounded that it took at least three months to shoot each one. We are going to be documenting successful people in Africa.  For instance, the refinery that Dangote is building is a very big deal because its possibly going to provide more than 4,500 jobs directly and 150,000 jobs indirectly. What that does is that it communicates to people at Dangote’s level that if Dangote is doing all these for his country, then what are they doing? And then we have an episode on a farmer that started with just subsistence farming, for his family and himself, from there he started expanding and got a huge plot of land, and now he has started farming commercially. Now he started training other farmers; from training other farmers, they now have been able to buy their own plots of lands and they are also training more people who are providing more meals on a commercial scale. In addition to that, this farmer also has one of the largest juice companies in Nigeria. So not only has he created jobs and help his community and also help his family, he has now also changed the way Nigerians think.  He has a story because he started very small. This now speaks again to someone that can relate to him that every single person has a part to play. And then in another episode, there is a girl that took 60 hawkers off the street.  She didn’t take off and started giving them money because she didn’t have it. What she did was basically connecting them to different people that would train them in various skills so that they won’t have walk on the street again. And of cause when they are trained in those particular skills, they also hired workers themselves. So we are targeting every individual at various levels.

You hardly see young people of your age going into a serious project like the kind you are doing now.  So what has been the reaction of your peers?

Honestly, I have not really spoken to people my age about this.  I know a lot of investment bankers and a lot of people that work in banks from New York as well as in London who are saying that they would love to give back but they don’t know credible organisations they can work with and that if I started something like this they would be very willing to partner me so that they could fund various groups and I thought that was very interesting. So with regards to what my peers are doing, I don’t really look at what others are doing, but I am hoping that this will challenge and awaken  the spirit of giving back in everybody else because a lot of people don’t like to give back, because they don’t see progress being made. That is why this initiative gives back sustainably, so rather than just carrying a carton of Indomie or whatever it is to you, we are saying, how can we train or partner this person with an opportunity that will help them fend for themselves. We are looking at stuff that will last long term.

Tell us, what actually inspired you to go into an initiative like this?

First of all, I would say I have been inspired mainly by my family. They were always very keen on giving back to the less privileged. I have a lot of people in my family and every single of them, including those that are well to do and those who just have enough to take care of themselves, will go out their of ways to always try to help people around them and I thought that was very important growing up and just seeing that, it doesn’t matter if you have a N100, you can give out N10. So, when I was growing up, we have always done a number of initiatives just by ourselves to the communities. My mother was president Lions Club and my father was always trying to figure out what young businesses or entrepreneur he could help or fund. So I took a note from them as they were huge examples for me.

Also over the years I have observed that more people have access to various media channels; and viewer engagement online is growing rapidly but that  most content is negative, depicting natural disasters, poverty, political instability, recession and economic downturn. And when I thought about how people were always talking about my country and Africa, they would say Idia, you are from Nigeria, so do you know my friend Anthony from Ghana? African is not a country but a continent. A lot of people don’t know that and so people need to know that there are different countries in Africa. There are a lot of information that people don’t even have about this continent. So it’s a huge investment and a huge project but I think it’s worth it because it is also an exploration project for me because I have learned so much shooting every single episode that I have been able to shoot so far.

When I used to work for the United Nations as well as a private equity firm in New York, like five years ago, I had the urge to do something like this that will basically change how people thought or spoke about Africa. I was in school in the United States and it was really annoying like my friends would come to me and would be like Idia are there roads in your country? And it was so offensive because if you look at countries like Mozambique, South Africa and Nigeria, we do have a lot of progress that is taking place. But every time you turn on CNN International, all they depict about Africa are negativities – Boko Haram, death, poverty, corruption, diseases, etc and I don’t think that it should be so. So the idea for this project came up.

We are also looking at connecting entrepreneurs with investment bankers and a lot of people in government. But I just do not trust certain platforms and processes and I don’t know where the funds will be going to. I also have capital that I want to use to help businesses to grow but for me, there has to be certain things in place to ensure that the money is going be used properly. And then I am passionate about education. I am passionate about giving back, but I may not know everything about rape. I have not been in certain circumstances and so I can’t speak of it the way another person who runs a rape organisation can. So what I can do for them is to help raise funds for them.

What are the criteria for raising funds for the said organisations?

It is just a research on the organisations and then for them to show us what they are going to use the funds for. We would also measure impacts. So it is not really about what they are going to use the money for, but it is mostly about the impact. Are they thinking big enough or are they going to help enough people with that initiative?

Has there been peculiar challenge doing this?

It is like I am always smiling and enjoying life but it has really not been easy. The first challenge was just getting things done because in Nigeria something that is supposed to take one week, can take three months. So registering the organisation and dealing with people has been a challenge. Another challenge was getting people open doors for us. So the thing that kept me going was persistence. I kept writing to organisations and if they didn’t answer me, after two weeks I will write again and on and on, till they answer me. There is so many people in between that would always want to stop what you are doing. A lot of people are cynical and there is lots of apathy and that is another reason for this project. So getting things done was a big issue.  When it now came to funding, in the beginning, I had money in dollars because I was being paid in dollars when I first came to Nigeria. But when you start paying for things and yet you don’t achieve anything from it, it gets frustrating. For example, after you transport your entire team to Bauchi, the person you were supposed to interview and had booked appointment with left the office and for the whole day you can’t get him to interview. I had to get a hotel in Bauchi, and I flew six people with me to Bauchi. We were in the hotel in Bauchi for two days before we could get the man to interview. So because of little things like keeping to time of appointment and unpredictable nature of people and things happening, you realise that something you budgeted maybe N20,000 for will turn out to be N40,000. So it got to a point that funds that were set aside for shooting other episodes were used for the episodes that we were shooting. That was when I said I was going to reach out to family and friends and interestingly, a lot of people have been interested in things like this and so they said let’s help you. But now we are using crowd sourcing platforms to expand on this initiative all over the world. Now we are opened to a wider audience and to people who are into investments and are looking for something like this to put their funds in.

Also, starting this was very difficult because from the beginning I had a lot of capital from the Investment Banking but I said to myself, I can put a lot of money towards this but there has to be a way to generate funds. And what we want to do was to eventually get to a point where we can go further and fund other initiatives and other groups that are trying to start exemplary things across African. So now we are just at the beginning.

How soon is the programme airing and where?

The TV episodes start from next year. We couldn’t start it this year because my bosses of course have said we need to launch the project first, before it starts airing. Apparently, we have to start showing in the new quarter. So it makes sense to just start from the beginning of next year.  Well, we are currently sitting in the THISDAY office, so it is going to be most likely aired on the ARISE TV. That is the partnership agreement right now. And then after each episode has aired, then we can now start putting it on other platforms. And of course we are going to use the online platforms; we are creating a YouTube platform. We would have 13 episodes a year, one each month and then a final one that encompasses all the episodes for the year.

Tell us a bit about growing up?

I come from a really big family. We are 12 children and I am number 12. We are eight girls and four boys. My Dad is Mr. Joe Aisien. My Mom is Mrs. Emmanuella Aisien. We are just simple, very simple people. My family is very quiet. We grew  up very happy. After high school when I was 16, I went abroad to school and came back at the age of 23. I came back with an international company that I was working for then. I really wanted to be on TV, I had always wanted to be an anchor but I didn’t know how I was going to get there, so I took any opportunity that came to me. When I came, someone offered me a TV job, just like presenting in entertainment and lifestyle. I took the job and was working there and someone saw me and said, why don’t you anchor business? And because the international organisation I had worked for was already in the business sector, it made sense because I had knowledge on the industry, as well as the fact that I always saw myself becoming an anchor but I didn’t know how it would happen.

So when was your first job as an anchor?

My first job has actually been at ARISE News.  I am currently the business anchor. I talk about the global news that is taking place in Nigeria. I connect to Hong Kong, London and various other places in the world every day to talk about their markets around the world. Before ARISE News, I was with SPICE TV as the Lifestyle and Entertainment presenter for three years. Before that, I used to work for a private equity firm in New York that brought me  here. I have also worked at Discovery Channel. Before that, I was at FOX 5 News, Washington DC, during which I studied Journalism and International Business as my first degree at American University, Washington DC. And for my second degree, I studied International Public Relations and Corporate Communications at New York University.

What makes your project different from others?

I would say our unique selling point is that a lot of people are coming up with initiatives that are wonderful to help various sectors and fields in the society and the country at large, but this one is not just measuring those initiatives. It is also documenting those initiatives. I am not necessarily giving back, I am also documenting people that have given back and I am using the media as a tool. So it is completely different.

What have you learnt during this process?

I have learned that it is not easy to do anything and that it is very easy to get discouraged along the way.  I have learned that if you are persistent and if you have actually started it out of passion, it is easier to stay. And this has definitely changed my life because rather than go partying and shopping all the time, I finally feel like I have a purpose – something that I have been given to do, where I can help other people. My focus and priority have changed, like I have scaled down on lavish vacations because I feel that I have to save a lot of money for my project and then I have got to learn a lot along the way.

What is your advice to young people?

I would advise them not to give up on themselves and their dreams, neither should they be discouraged because anything is possible. It is hard but it’s possible. Life is hard. Life has hit me but my goal is to make a difference.