Zain Verjee: Changing the storytelling landscape in Africa with Akoma

Zain Verjee is the co-founder of Akoma, a collaborative community for African content creators. Her journey to self-discovery has been profound. From battling psoriasis to leaving her high-profile job at CNN to start Akoma Media with her co-founder, Chidi Afulezi. Zain is one very interesting woman with very big dreams. In her recent quote for CNN Africa for IWD2017, she quoted “There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness.” Akoma is the new storytelling platform from Africans to the world.In an interview with Oluwatobi Balogun at the just concluded Social Media Week Lagos, she reveals what makes Akoma different and the future of African storytelling.

What inspired Akoma?

Akoma means heart. It’s a Ghanaian word. We want to get to the heart of African stories; Akoma was built around African stories that have that passion.

Akoma is an open source publishing platform. How does that work? Do you have controls to prevent people from posting just anything?

We want to be able to take risks because there are so many barriers to storytelling in Africa, so why not drop them to see what happens? There are rules on the platforms, people must play by the rules. It’s free to sign up and publish but we have oversight and if a story looks dodgy we check it. The key here is that the open platform allows talents and content creators, whether they are writers, photographers, video producers, and podcasters; it allows for talent discovery, rather than an international organization going through word of mouth that this person is good and the circle is small. Basically, Akoma is an ecosystem of content creators. When we see the gems that surface, we want to find ways to connect that talent to projects they can get paid for. There’s a possibility that after posting on our platform, a brand becomes interested in the content creator for possible collaboration or work. Or a television network is looking to get a multimedia campaign.

What’s Akoma’s sustainability model? Is there a conceptual arrangement between Akoma and her creator creators?

It will depend on the project, it’s not by commission. Right now, we basically have flat fees that are market rates for the work that they (the creators) do. People don’t pursue media very well because they feel it’s not lucrative. The business model is that we would pay a content creator if we brought them unto our project. Otherwise, it’s an open platform. It doesn’t mean that because you post on Akoma you’ll get an automatic payment. We are working with brands and other media organizations to create opportunities for creators, brands want local stories and sometimes they don’t know how to get these stories. Why send a Helicopter journalist into Lagos to write about Lagos and leave, when you can get someone who lives here that can write a story on Lagos and Suya? Brands look for local storytellers to tell brand stories in a local market, and the digital platforms, print media potentially look for content in Africa.

Is Akoma a web application or a mobile application?

It’s a web application. We will see how it goes and then create a mobile app, but not right now.

Are there target brands for Akoma? Or can anybody request for content export?

We are looking to target anyone who is looking for local flavor to a story, with the use of local talents. Brands are looking for audiences and talent, and we want to be able to deliver both. So if an international brand wants to tell a local story or a pan-African brand wants to tell a particular local story across different markets. At this stage, we are quite open to exploring new partnerships.

Sometimes we see people that have posted work and we really like it, we get in touch me them to do something’s for us and commission directly. We are not only relying on brands and other external channels only. We are a media storytelling company; we discover talent and deploy them in different ways.

There’s a program called Amplify on Akoma, tell me about it?

Akoma is the platform, Amplify is our fellowship. It’s a paid fellowship program where content creators from countries that we are focusing on, right now its Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda and we’d love to expand it. They apply and we select; currently we have 25 in total. And for 6 months they get paid, they get trained, we bring experts to talk to them. They try new things, they do different genres and they have to post on the platform.

How do you get the selected Amplify Scholars together?

So in Nigeria, they go once a week to CC-Hub in Yaba, in Kenya once a week to I-Hub and in Rwanda, they go to the Rwanda public library once a week. We use an app called Zoom, which enables everyone to interact even with different time zones. We also visit the countries.

How is Akoma leveraging on Social Media to promote its brand?

We launch Akoma in August of 2016; we are only six months old with an incredible team. We are steadily building our social media platforms. We drive the stories on our platforms to our social media platforms for people to engage in. We have an organic growth around our social media pages; we need more following, supporters and content creators. We have been under the radar for a long time planning and scheming.

Is Akoma like Medium?

We used Medium as an early model to be honest, but we have an editorial operation around Akoma. We see what kind of stories are on the platform and we are building infrastructure through Amplify and other projects across the continent and in the diaspora. We are building a global company, we aim to be the number one go-to place to consume information about Africans and create stories about Africa from our point of view.