In 2015, former CNN anchor Zain Verjee and Chidi Afulezi started aKoma, a platform that enabled its users to view, upload, and share stories about Africa. However, the duo’s plans for the business didn’t turn out as anticipated. In this article, Chidi Afulezi shares an honest account of the aKoma journey.
“Chidi, we need to end aKoma. It’s time.”
I remember taking a deep breath, and then exhaling for about thirty seconds after my business partner, Zain Verjee, said these words to me sometime late last year. The sustained expiration of air was not in resistance to her words, but a painful acknowledgement that our efforts to build a creative and media business in and for Africa had failed, and needed to be put out of its misery.
Man, another one bites the dust. Freddie Mercury was literally blaring on the mic in my head as I chewed on aKoma’s demise.
Zain and I started our company aKoma in January 2015. I was a couple of years out of Turner Broadcasting (owner of television assets such as CNN and Cartoon Network; now part of AT&T’s WarnerMedia), and Zain had left her anchor gig from Turner/CNN just the year before. I had struggled to build my product consulting business in those two years, and a couple of companies that I attempted to build in Atlanta had gone kaput.
I was close to pivoting (very reluctantly) back to corporate when I got a note from my mentor Susan Grant that one of our former colleagues from CNN was looking for product help. I took the call, planning to make a quick and easy $3,000 or $4,000. Instead, I was head and heels in, a-freaking-gain, on the verge of starting another company with this “rich and loaded former CNN anchor with the Britico Kenyan Canadian accent” saddled with Ghana Must Go bags full of cash. Or so I thought. Zain and I connected viscerally around the problem of the narrative of the “dark continent”, and the severe limitations that the African creative faced in crafting the stories and platforms to counter and rewrite that narrative.
aKoma was born. We were going to become billionaires, losers.
The early days were exhilarating and energising. Zain is a powerhouse, connected to some of the most powerful and influential people in Africa and the world. She brought not only her Rolodex but also an insatiable desire to learn and problem solve. I brought my product, tech and business operations chops, and combined with our creative and media business backgrounds, we embarked on launching a platform that would enable and unleash Africa’s talent on the world. Our mantra was “The most important person in Africa is the storyteller”, as Zain passionately explained in her awesome TED Talk.
We had a small and scrappy team, with the incredible Alanna Bass joining us from the start. She created our awesome script logo and branding, and we were rolling.
We were on a mission, with many coming along the way with us (Marie-Ange, Mwihaki, Ama, Charles, Naledi, Shannon and more) … but as anyone on a big mission will tell you, adversity was primed and ready to rock our heady ambitions to the core.
The first challenge was our difficulty getting financial support. As I mentioned, Zain is connected. If you are a startup founder and you want to get in front of the people who can make things happen, you want Zain as a partner. And we talked and met with some of the names that you read in the headlines. It quickly became clear that having the words Africa, creative, and business in your pitch were death chimes. The business case we made was compelling: by developing a platform that funded and showcased African visual, written, and spoken storytelling, the continent’s soft power would increase.
We got no love from African movers and shakers. Forget the Americans and Europeans (“did you say Africa and creative economy? How does that even work? How would they consume the content?”). Even with a business and financial model that I constructed that would scatter Elon Musk’s brain … eyes glazed over. We got many promises to help, but it was all talk, they all ultimately disappeared when the rubber hit the road. Some even doubted the veracity of our entrepreneurial plans. ‘Zain as an entrepreneur?’ one heavy hitter wondered. ‘Why not just come anchor some of my shows?’ he said. We even got a $500,000 commitment from a West African banker, but then we were required to deliver dividends after six months. Wait … you mean dividends like Walmart and Apple type dividends? See these people o! And oh, we will only give you $75,000 to start until you meet the dividends milestone. Another potential investor wanted 51% of the company for less than $200,000 invested.
Can you imagine?
I tell you, my brothers and sisters, the mythical Ghana Must Go bags were getting full of hot CO2 and freewheeling tumbleweeds. Deep wells of nothing. Rejection and disappointment galore. It was an eye opener for Zain, and a tough lesson for the both of us. But we kept pushing.
So, we spent our own money. Zain and I dug into our own pockets to fund building the aKoma platform. And we also succeeded in securing $500,000 from Mastercard Foundation to create and run Amplify, a talent accelerator for African creatives where we built a community of creatives in Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and New York City, giving them a stipend of $500/month to create content from 2016 through to 2018. Amplify has been our gem, and we are proud of the work that we did with Amplify. GE Africa via chief communications officer Patricia Obozuwa also supported our Amplify efforts financially, a boost that still resonates today. We are more than proud of the creatives who had come through the Amplify programme, proud of the success that many of these young creatives have found at the BBC, USC Film School, Nollywood, the Berlin Film Festival, The New York Times, founding their own creative and media shops, and many more. Three of Rwanda’s top filmmakers are Amplify Fellows.
Building a content and creative business is daunting. Doing it in Africa is maddening. Yes, I said it. Africa is no joke. We made so many content proposals and creative partnership pitches across the continent, and over the years we cemented our belief that the creative economy in Africa is suffering and will continue to suffer due to a fundamental lack of structural and financial support. Creatives and storytellers are seen as peripheral and secondary to Africa’s global presence, a mistaken notion that manifests in the common and nefarious offer of “exposure” as payment for their services. This has forced many creatives to abandon their craft just so they can keep the lights on, and Zain and I fought this fight with them. We lost pretty much everything, and went to the brink on many occasions.
The final straw was a content creation contract with one of the most important financial organisations in Africa that we just knew would put aKoma on the right track. It was a five-month $350,000 gig, and we were ready to finally do some serious work. Long story short, it dragged on for almost 15 months, the scope and scale of the work changed, and as a small startup with very limited working capital, we had to take loans from family and friends and online lending platform Kabbage to fulfil the contract. It was the darkest and most stressful time of our aKoma lives, and we knew that aKoma was pretty much over as we haggled and struggled to get our invoices paid. We were distraught that the creatives we hired to work with us were suffering as the organisation delayed payment, and we decided that we were no longer going to be in the content production business in Africa. This project broke and bankrupted aKoma. It was a crushing realisation, but the lack of support, the continued broken promises from people who claimed undying support, the financial hits, and personal stress was just too much to bear. The run was over. aKoma was dead.
The hard truth is, ultimately we had the right problem, the right target market, but it just seemed we didn’t have the means to build the right solution to give us traction. Product market fit was not to be for us.
I have to say this. Without serious weapons in our stress and personal lives management arsenal, we would have shut this mother down and bolted a lot earlier. Maybe even retreated back to corporate with our tails between our legs. However, we knew the messy middle of building a business is something you fight through, not run from. Humour was a weapon of choice at aKoma, as we had no choice but to chuckle at many of our misfortunes, we even took bets on whether that elusive $1 million from the mythical foundation would materialise. Stoic philosophy became a crucial antidote to the craziness, helping me (and Zain) flip the script on adversity, cultivate resilience and perseverance, focus on the things within our control, and keeping our perspectives on point.
So, now what?
Zain and I considered taking corporate gigs. We both are very capable of contributing at a very high level to many gangster companies and organisations, and have been on the radars of many executive recruiters. We even went to an interview or two. Got the Delta SkyMiles and some nice hotel stays out of them. However, we have been bitten by the bug. We are entrepreneurs, we are problem solvers. And so we have reset and reloaded. In order to keep the lights on, we have been doing a number of communications, product, and media projects. We co-founded Rouse Media – a media and events company for women of African descent (continental and diaspora) – with our former CNN colleague and anchor Isha Sesay, and entrepreneur Suneeta Olympio. Rouse was launched in Marrakech last November. Of course, Rouse got hit by the pandemic, but there are some opportunities there to tap into. This month, we helped launch a Covid-19 information and data platform and campaign for Africa in partnership with our Rouse sister Julie Gichuru and her team at Mastercard Foundation, some really awesome work by the crew if I may say so.
Our real focus now, though, is on our new venture called The Massive Company. Name aside, we do have big and bold ambitions for The Massive Company. Without delving too much into details, Massive is a venture studio for creative, communications, and learning products in Africa. There are a number of products already in the works, including Amplify which we are excited to revive and recalibrate. We are heads down cooking, stay tuned. And yes, we do need help, we would love to talk to anyone who is down for our wahala.
We have been tested, bloodied, ignored, under-estimated, and more. Zain and I keep pushing, though. We have fought in the arena, and now we are gearing up to go right back in. We still believe the storyteller, the creative, is the most important person in Africa, and our work will be to continue to play our part in levelling up Africa’s creative economy.
I hope we will have your support with Massive. You know where to find us.
Onwards. And upwards.
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