Executive Director of Sustainable Initiative for Nurturing Growth (SING) Nigeria and CEO of FOA Africa, Idris-Etanami Abiodun Usman in this interview, explains how African countries can challenge and change wrong narratives about the continent.
One wonders why a known activist would suddenly delve into owning and running a pan-African television station. What informed that decision?
Being in the civil society shows how much I love and cherish my country and the African continent. During my days as an activist, though I’m gradually leaving that space, I always believed that Africa ought to be leading the world and not the other way round. Our stories are not properly told to the world. Today, Africa as a continent is seen as a dumpsite of the world. It is often described as a continent that depends on the benevolence of the West. So, delving into television ownership is to set that narrative straight. We need to change the narrative. For this and other reasons, I decided to establish FOA Africa.
Setting up a television station requires a huge capital. How did you handle that phase?
You’ve heard about companies that are doing well. In this digital age, setting up a successful business is easy. All you need to do is to have your ideas and share them. People will buy into them. That is what we’ve done. We’ve shared our dreams with stakeholders and investors and they’ve bought into it. They believe that if FOA Africa comes into reality, doing businesses in Africa will be made easy. It is tough and the dream is becoming a reality. We’ve made television business in Africa look as if it is not profitable. There’s so much you can make. If you look at the big television stations across the world, they’re making profits.
Contents drive the world and that’s what they’re doing. What FOA Africa will be doing is to develop contents that will sell themselves. Our contents will add value.
We won’t rely on government patronage or adverts to succeed. The dream of FOA Africa is to run a station that will showcase Africa in a good light to the rest of the world.
If you were to quantify the funds that have gone into setting up this station, much would that be?
We’ve invested about $7 million. FOA Africa will be domiciled in four locations. Nairobi in Kenya, Lagos, a State in the South South and in South Africa. We’ll have an office in London. We’ve carved a name for ourselves. We’re glad that a station like AIT gave us this hope that a dream like this could be achieved. We appreciate all the stations. We still believe that African stories are properly told to the rest of the world. If you want to hear stories or breaking news about Africa, it has to be from the CNN or the BBC. Every country in Africa rely on foreign television stations to hear about breaking news. That’s not good for the continent.
We should be able to connect. Even in terms of trade, African countries are yet to connect. It is easier to connect with countries across the Atlantic than with a fellow country. African countries can’t trade with themselves. FOA Africa will break that trend and barrier.
It has been repeatedly told that Africa is a country that depends on aids. How would FOA Africa change that narrative?
Sorry to say this. Many television stations in Africa lack contents. We can’t talk so much about our plans until we launch later this year. With digital equipment, we’ll be able to reach all the countries in Africa. You also know that Africa doesn’t speak one language. We will break those barriers. We’ve broken the continent into different segments. We’ll handle the language issues.
How will you address the language differences in the continent and still reach every country?
We’ll create the first mobile studio in Africa. Representatives in each country will use the mobile studio. This will make the reach seamless. We’re coming to change the narrative in Africa. We’re going to be strictly doing news and documentary. Our contents will have commercial values. It’s time to change the narrative here. Crimes and other bad things happen in other countries. But you hardly hear about them. People still go there for holidays and keep their funds there.
But Africa is described as a jungle. FOA Africa wants to change that narrative. Our black brothers in other continents don’t bring their money to Africa to invest because they’re consumed with the wrong narratives. It’s a new day for Africa.
Whenever you attend international meetings, the narratives about Africa is that of hunger, starvation and poverty. Beyond the documentary and news, in specific terms, how will FOA Africa change these wrong narratives?
Africa is seen as a continent that needs help. We see different donor agencies coming to the continent to give one aid or the other. In all the years of giving aids to Africa, what problems have they solved? In fact, they spend about 60 percent of the funds on man power. That narrative by the Western world is deliberate. It’s a cartel. We need to break it. Most of the wars and civil unrests in Africa are sponsored by the West. Nobody is telling these stories. We know what’s happening in Zamfara State. Don’t see Nigerians operating there. We see foreigners operating there.
Go to Lake Chad Basin. This is what the rest of the world wants Africa to be. We want to change that narrative.
Some big media houses beside those domiciled in Western countries have the backing of their governments. Is there any form of government involvement in FOA Africa?
We don’t have such. Government is the people. We’ll partner with governments across Africa. There are some things we’ll be doing that will need the backing of government. The narratives are changing. If you look across the continent, African leaders are talking. They’re speaking out. Kenyan, Rwandan and South African Presidents are speaking up. So, Africa needs a media partner like FOA Africa to drive these messages.
There are trade barriers in Africa and lack of interconnectivity. Will you focus on how this can be addressed?
We’re going to be present in all African countries. FOA Africa will be the platform that will connect the continent. Look at our television stations in Nigeria. How many advertisements do you see on our stations from other African countries? None. If you watch CNN and other international media, you see a different thing. We intend to change that narrative. Going to Europe by air is easier than going to West African countries. That needs to change.
These dreams appear very ambitious…
We’re launching in Nigeria and Kenya first this year. In the next five years, we’ll be delving into South and Northern Africa. It’ll be taken in phases.
Some Africa countries like the Republic of South Africa are very hostile to Nigerian businesses. How would you address that?
It depends on your partners. Just like you’ve KFC Nigeria, we’ll have partners who have localise our ideas. It will be a one network, but the countries will take ownership. If for instance it is based in Mozambique, It’ll be run by the people and it’ll be a local ownership.
Let’s go back to Nigeria. In the Niger Delta region, activities of oil companies have continued and there appears to be no justice in sight for the people. Will FOA Africa take up this fight too?
We’ll tell their stories. Any stories not told can’t get solutions. If there’s darkness, we’ve to beam the searchlight. What’s happening in the Niger Delta region is a failure of government. We’ve leaders who lack ideas and don’t know how to address the issues. We’ve seen small countries with small populations. They’ve developed their tourism sector and the rest of the world is coming in to see. But this problem has a solution. Africa has people with great ideas who can change the narratives. But we need a strong media that can beam its searchlight on these activities. If CNN beams its searchlight on Nigeria, we see our leaders reacting. Whenever Transparency International ranks Nigeria high on corruption index, we see them running round. But the media here, how have we held our government accountable? If you’re independent, you’ll be able to hold government accountable.
But the media can’t be completely free from government because they depend on government patronage through advertisements to survive too…
At the earlier part of the interview, I talked about how our contents will create revenues for us. We’ve looked at this and have discussed on how we can sustain it. One thing is that, we’ve to commercialise our contents.
Buy there’s an argument that paying for news erodes credibility…
It’s a problem. In the coming months, there are some things we’ll reveal. We’ll break these barriers. We can’t reveal everything until the official launch. One thing I can assure you is that FOA Africa will provide that voice for the continent. Business community is looking for that voice to showcase businesses in Africa. We’ll be that voice. Through our voice, the rest of the world will come to Africa to invest.
Some big international news media have arrangements with local stations to reach more people. Is FOA Africa considering that too?
We’re already working on that. We’re building that partnership across the continent. We’re making significant progress. If you look at the digital space, an influencer online has more viewers than the traditional television stations. We’re at a digital age and we want to pioneer that phase. Wherever you’re in Africa, you’ll be able to hook up and know what’s happening. The beauty of this dream is that, we’ll connect and link Africans. Our contents will be solely African and we’ll reflect this boldly.
How would you handle the recruitment process to drive this dream?
Look around you and you’ll see creativity. We’re not after degrees, bug creativity. We’ll look at what you can do. We don’t need 6our certificates. Africa has such potentials. We’ve seen these talents across Africa since we started this process. After our launching, we’ll see a new television that will be different.