By Noah Davis
Image by Jerrie Rotimi for Guardian Life Magazine
Uzodinma Iweala walks in many different worlds. He turned his 2004 Harvard thesis into the novel, Beasts of No Nation, which led Granta to call him one of America’s 20 best young novelists and became a movie directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The 34-year-old graduated with an MD from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and served as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Now, he’s championing Waiting for Hassana, a short film that he produced, through the festival circuit, while serving as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Ventures Africa, a publication based in Lagos, Nigeria. He found the time to write another book, one set in Washington, D.C., that ‘deals with, among other things, fun topics like police brutality,’ he said. As for the future: ‘Now that I’m almost done with the novel, hopefully I can chill out a bit.’ Iweala talked to Noah Davis about his film, his inspirations, and his nascent media enterprise.
ND: What was the inspiration for Waiting for Hassana?
UI: Waiting for Hassana is a short film about a young woman from Chibok, Nigeria. She was one of the original 300-plus young women kidnapped by Boko Haram almost three years ago. On that first day they were kidnapped, there were a number of them — about 57 — who escaped. A bunch of them ended up jumping off the trucks in the middle of the night and running to safety through the forest. Some of them walked for days. But they managed to escape on that first day, these really, really crazy brave young women. I got to know them through my mom. She’s the former Nigerian finance minister. She had been up to re-open the school where the kids were kidnapped from. She was really the first government official to go up there. She’s always been really in support of women and girls’ initiatives, especially around education. This was very near and dear to her. She introduced me to a couple, a doctor and his wife, a journalist, who I got speaking to about these young women and their story. I think the story of the young women who escaped was eclipsed in the larger story about the women who didn’t come back and a lot of whom have still not come back.
We decided to try to make a film that told the story of those women who were initially kidnapped, to talk not just about the tragedy of the ones who haven’t come back, but about the strength of the ones who have and about their commitment to education. I’m not a filmmaker necessarily. I tell stories but I’m not a professional filmmaker, so I talked to a good friend of mine, Ifunanya [Funa] Maduka, who’s out in California at Netflix. We agreed to team up to try to make this story a reality. She directed and I produced. Her creative vision helped us put together this story that focused on one young women named Jessica, who was able to escape, and her best friend Hassana, who was not able to escape. It’s about that absence and that loss felt, but also the commitment to honor those girls who haven’t come back by really focusing on education.
‘I think the story of the young women who escaped was eclipsed in the larger story about the women who didn’t come back and a lot of whom have still not come back.’
You’re a producer on the film, which can mean any number of things. What was your role?
In the initial iteration, I was very hands-on. For me, one of the motivations to do this story was that I live in Nigeria and it’s a topic of grave importance. When your mom comes and tells you that this is a story that needs to be told, you’re like, ‘Okay.’ The initial parts were making sure we got it shot, got financing, and all that stuff. I was heavily involved. Getting the film into film shape, Funa really took the lead on that. Another team member took the lead on editing, but Funa’s energy and expertise was super crucial there as well. I was hands on, dialoguing about story and whatnot, but when it came to being in the editing suite, especially because it was in LA. where Funa is, that was about her input.
You made the film in part to bring attention to the issues. Are you pleased with how it’s been received, both critically and as a vehicle to explain what happened to a wider audience?
I am. Obviously, it’s always great to have the recognition of something like Sundance or South by Southwest. That shows that people are listening. But the idea was that people would come up to us after a screening and ask questions, to say they didn’t know. How do you get people to know that’s not voyeuristic, that’s as sympathetic as possible, and that is as close to the ground as possible? You don’t change the way that people perceive a situation or get their attention by bombarding them with facts. There’s plenty of scientific research that shows people don’t change their opinions when they are bombarded by facts or told that this is something they should care about. But if you have a film, and I think this is sort of the brilliance of how Funa put the story together, there’s a human emotion that people attach to it. I think that has gotten a really good response and that’s something that we are really proud of.
You’re also involved with Ventures Africa. How did you get your start in media?
I’ll preface this by saying that if I had known before I started to do this [how tough it would be], I never, ever, ever would have done this. But that said, it’s been really eventful and cool. We’ve been around since 2011, really 2012 is when we ramped up. The idea, and this is something that I co-founded with my uncle, who is down in South Africa, is that we were looking at the space. Our first iteration was a print magazine with an online presence, focused on business entrepreneurship in Africa. That has since evolved. We don’t print anymore. We’re only online. If you look at our content, we still do a lot of business innovation, entrepreneurship, and economics, but we’re also looking at the policy space. That was deliberate because how do you tell the story of these other things when everything is so intimately connected? Policy, innovation, business, and the cultural spaces are all so in flux and they all play off of each other.
The other thing that we noticed was there was a gap for high-quality news and analysis, and also for the presentation. A lot of the news that comes out of Nigeria is very information-based. It’s a resource-scarce environment. When it comes to analysis and how you think about a particular issue, that’s where we said we were going to try to make our mark. Over the last few years, we’ve noticed that while we might not have market share in terms of millions of page views, a lot of people really respect us as a news source for a number of reasons. One, integrity is the first thing people know about us. And then, two, people think about a different style when they think about us. We push the envelope. It would be nice to also have millions of page views alongside it but what we’re trying to do is change the game and be on the leading edge.
‘It would be nice to also have millions of page views alongside it, but what we’re trying to do is change the game and be on the leading edge.’
You said you wouldn’t have started Ventures Africa if you had known. What did you mean by that?
Starting any business is not fun. I love what we’re doing and I would do it again, but I’m a writer and a public health person. That’s what I was doing before I decided I was going to try to start a media company. Nigeria is different from the United States. There are all kinds of challenges that we face here the you wouldn’t. In the U.S., you could start a media company out of your living room because you have your internet or you could rent a small office at WeWork. The talent around you is of much more variety and it’s easier to get. Here, we have three different internet providers in our office because it could be that two of them aren’t working at any given time. Or even more basic than that: half the time we’re running on a generator because electricity isn’t constant and we still have to get our stuff out. These are some of the challenges that you don’t necessarily think about but that still weigh heavily on what you’re doing. If your generator goes down and there’s no electricity and you can’t post for four hours, that’s a day’s worth of work that’s gone. I don’t think you necessarily have to deal with that in other environments. It’s all part of the challenge.
And you’re running an internet-focused media company in 2017, which isn’t an easy business in the best circumstances.
Exactly. It’s definitely not. There’s quite a bit of internet penetration here, but most of it is through smartphones, so consumption is different. I’ve had to learn. I’m old-school. I write books. The way that I approach things is different than how the set of folks we’re trying to target approaches things. But we’re learning. I have a young staff. They are all in their early- to mid-20s. It’s about relying on them and trying to understand how they see things, and at the same time, trying to impart different ways to see issues that they might not think about because they grew up here and I didn’t. That interchange is helping us along. How do you make sure that you’re staying true to the values that you espouse and the kind of publishing and quality of work that you want to do? There are ways to grow really quickly. We could do gossip and celebrity stuff, but that’s not what we’re about. What’s really awesome is watching the commitment of the young folks I have working for me to those ideals. We have an internship program, and there are folks who seek us out because they say they’ve read stuff on the internet of ours and that speaks to what they want to write or who they are. That’s really been important for us.
Does your audience skew older or younger?
That’s been changing over time. Initially, we skewed a bit older because of that more business executive-type thing, but now we’re sitting in the 25- to 35-year-old range. A lot of them are Nigerians here or elsewhere. The other decision that we made was that trying to be pan-African is interesting but maybe not the ultimate way that you really reach an audience. We still have a pan-African lens, but we focus more on Nigerian issues.
It seems like you’re the perfect person to attempt something like this, a person who has an understanding of the media world in the United States but also who knows Nigeria.
I guess in some ways. What also might be better would be to have someone who has a bit more of a business mind than I do. That is one of the things that would be super helpful, to have someone who is more about the numbers than the fluffy ideas. But you make do with what you can.
Inside the Ventures Africa offices
What’s your business model?
It’s ads and sponsorships. [Advertisers] know that they are reaching a set of people who are really into what we do. When people come to us [to advertise], a lot of times it’s people who read us, who say they like what we do and that they want to be associated with us. It’s something that you evolve as a publication and come to understand. We’re learning like everyone else across the world is learning in this space. It’s fun, but stressful.
What are a couple successes that you’ve had?
One of the things that we’re really proud of is having one of our pieces win the CNN MultiChoice African Award for best feature. We’ve had one that was nominated as well. Our writers have been selected to go to workshops at Yale. We were selected to go to the World Economic Forum Africa to cover it. Those are the kinds of things that show that we’re reaching the people that we want to reach and that we’re getting to the quality production that we want.
How hands-on are you now?
I’m still the editor-in-chief. I have a great team that’s growing and learning, and in the past year I had to step back a little bit because you can’t write a novel and also run a publication. I have a wonderful managing editor, Maryam Kazeem. She’s also a Nigerian-American. Our general manager, Edore Nakpodia, is someone who has worked in the Nigerian space and understands how to get the best out of a pretty young staff and keep them focused. The two of them together, plus the rest of the team, have really made sure that we’re staying on track and trying to grow. It’s subtle, but when you see people’s dedication to what we’re trying to do that speaks to the importance of our mission. I’ve stopped viewing and editing everybody’s pieces because you can’t do that, but we’re a small team so when it comes down to what we’re going to cover, it’s very much all hands-on.
Are you getting better at the business side?
I think we’re becoming more innovative and improving our hustle game. But, again, these things are all about learning and growing. Each of these environments is different. What works in the United States is not going to work in Nigeria. You have to learn your environment, your audience, and the people you are trying to reach. I think that’s something we’ve been doing and will continue to do.
What’s one thing that you thought would work that hasn’t?
If you think about what people pay attention to, it’s all about cultural idiom and expression. Nigerians tend to be on-the-nose sentimental. I was born and grew up in the States, so my sense of humor is more influenced by that than by here. I think some of my approaches to things had to be corrected by people who know this environment a little bit better. What I considered to be of paramount importance is different than what someone who grew up and was raised here does. We’re trying to be a place that’s the best at generating new thought and new ideas, and to examine old ideas from a new perspective. The way to do that is to bring all these perspectives together, whether it’s me and Maryam growing up in the United States and coming back or one of my staff members who is a woman from the oil-producing region versus another who is from some of the northern areas of the country. All that stuff goes into how we see issues in our country and across the continent, and come out with something really interesting.
You think that’s working?
I do. I would love to do it faster. Some things take time to gestate and grow, but I think it’s working.
This article appears in Kit Issue 02. Two days prior to online publication, the Nigerian government announced the release of 82 Chibok schoolgirl abductees (with 113 girls still captive). Follow Ventures Africa for further coverage and analysis.
Special thanks to Chidera Muoka for image permissions.