Turning 30 today, Chude Jideonwo is one of Africa’s brightest minds from this generation. Listed recently by Forbes in its 30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Entrepreneurs, Chude has successfully redefined what it means to be young and African. In this exclusive interview, he talks about his journey so far and the inadequacies of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative.
- Nice to meet you Chude. So we know you are the CEO of Red Media Africa and Co-Founder of the Future Project, but can you tell Africa who you are and what your story is really?
I’m a media entrepreneur. I’ve been working in the media for 15 years. I have worked in all forms of media; print, online, TV, development, PR and communications. So, it’s the collection of all that experience that we use to form Red Media Africa.
- You have worked in the media industry for about 15 years now, what would you say was your biggest inspiration for choosing to work as a media practitioner?
When I was leaving school, I never thought that a career in media was a possibility, because most of the people who were in the media were frankly poor, and I didn’t want to be poor. This was after the proliferation of media in Nigeria; there were a lot of TV stations and all of that. So I thought I was going to be an Accountant. But I should have known because I was a media consumer, I used to read newspapers a lot; I knew a lot of presenters on TV and radio, all the doyens, as they call them, of journalism. I should have already known that I was a media person, but then you’re a young person and you don’t know, you think everyone is like that. So, when I came out of school and I got my first TV job which was live on TV on Levi Ajuonuma’s Show, he was interviewing me and he asked “So, the viewers, I think he’s a very smart, young man, should he have a segment?” And they said “Yes”. So, once that happened, it immediately clicked for me that this is what I’m supposed to do. But even then, I thought I was going to be in communications because that was where the money was supposedly, not print, not etc. But luckily as my story began to evolve, and I count myself lucky, the industry itself began to expand as I began to see more opportunities to be in this industry.
- So, the Future Awards has been on for nearly a decade now, can you remember the earliest thoughts that birthed the idea that became the Future Awards now?
I remember that I was sitting down with a friend of mine, Peju Adeniran, at LUTH and we were talking about our visions to ourselves. We were outside in the dark of night, in front of her hostel. And I told her that I’m so passionate about young people, that the kind of person I want to be, the kind of brand I want to be is that when people think about young people the first person that they should think about is Chude. And you know, I was just saying these random things, and unlike entrepreneurs these days can be very confident, I wasn’t, it was just something I said like a wish, if I could have it this is what I want to be. And when we were to do the Future Awards we postponed it like three times, we were just so afraid that we couldn’t pull it off without sponsorship, so it’s amazing that the first edition didn’t have any sponsor.
You must remember also that many of the major things in this country started in that year, SMVA (Soundcity Music Video Awards), AMAA (Africa Movie Academy Awards) and I think MAMA (MTV Africa Music Awards) as well. That was the first time we heard that SoundCity did a red carpet at the Headies Awards. So there was no precedence, just a thought that until then the only way that people were engaging with young people was with these boring conferences and seminars, and we thought “What’s the best way to get the attention of young people? What’s the best way to inspire them?” And we thought the combination of what we want to achieve are the things that young people seemingly want, or that capture attention: celebrity, glitz, drama, and that’s why we did the Future Awards. We thought an event would be better than a magazine or a TV show, an event would incorporate all of these elements, but I honestly never thought we could do it, until my partner at the time – we used to have a female partner – said “But we can do this thing o. We can get this from here, get that from there.” Before then my mind hadn’t yet opened to the possibility that we could do it without money, and then again brands didn’t have youth segment managers so it was even more difficult to get money for youth initiatives, but we did it.
- What was your most daunting challenge with hosting the first edition, and compare that with the challenge of hosting the very last edition? What has changed? What has remained the same?
Money, money, money. Challenge, first edition, money. Challenge, last edition, money.
But what has changed is that people respect the Future Awards. It’s now a brand that people identify with, it’s now a brand that has even built other brands. People know that we are not playing, we have credibility, from Nigeria it has become a global prize, winners are coming from all over, the last winner, Sangu Delle, came in from Harvard I think. Global Board of Advisors come from every continent, we have real stories of impact. So, there’s no longer any argument about the necessity of the Future Awards.
What hasn’t changed is that people who agree with the necessity of it actually bringing out their money to ensure that it survives. It’s still a difficult process every year, because even though they’ve seen the success of the brand, people are still not convinced that you can mix development, they’re looking for sports shows, they’re looking for music shows, they’re looking for TV shows, they’re looking for Nollywood things; it’s just the mindset people have, where they feel like we the young people have to use clichéd means. We’ll keep fighting the battle and we’ll win it.
- In your career so far, more so with your work in the media, locally and internationally, how has your exposure and experience affected your perception of Africa?
Africa deeply disappoints me, especially at a time when Africa is supposed to be writing a new story. I worry about the kinds of stories we hear coming from South Africa, which used to be where everybody else looked up to as a beacon. Of course, I worry about Nigeria, and I’m doing everything I can to ensure that that story does not continue. Our political leadership is a disgrace; our economic leadership is as much a disgrace. There are some bright spots, Tony Elumelu doing things to help Young Entrepreneurs but generally they still have that sense that my money is my money, I don’t owe a responsibility to my larger society, and even worse, many of our business leaders are enablers of the corrupt government, it seems as if they don’t understand the concept of a moral core or values.
So, Africa is struggling to rewrite its own story, African leaders are struggling to ensure that story isn’t rewritten, and unfortunately these are the role models that the next generation of young leaders who have a different mind-set and a different sense, but sometimes it’s difficult to rise above your environment. If we had better role models then we are assured of a future that is bright and progressive.
- You have a Master’s Degree in Media and Communications from the prestigious Pan African University, how do you imagine the media can be used to shape positive outcomes for the African continent, especially as regards leadership and policies?
Media is the most important tool in any society apart from money. Media is the reason why Jonathan is our President, media is the reason why Zuma is the President of South Africa, because of the legacy of the ANC and the images that the people associate with the ANC. The media is the reason why Rwanda can move so fast from a place of war to Africa’s biggest story, because Kagame understood the value of telling a story. The media is why the most innovative companies we have are the most innovative companies we have, because of the kinds of stories they tell, because of the way they shape people’s minds, because of the way they communicate with their audiences. So Mandela, the concerts that were done for him, the interviews with his wife, pictures, images, the thing that moved the needle most was the media. Media has changed people’s lives even practically, there’s a handle called ‘Humans of Lagos’ on Instagram raising money presently for a child who couldn’t go to school because somebody just put up a picture. It’s working with the Future Project now to raise money.
So, because the effect of the media is not something you can necessarily touch, people don’t understand that the most dominant influence in our lives is the media. So it has capacity to choose leaders, to turn people against people, to be able to associate change with a particular party, because of how the media has communicated it to them. Its capacity to change circumstances is limitless, truly limitless. The media has changed an entire creative industry in Nigeria. There’s nothing I don’t believe that the media can do.
Honestly, I believe that the best way that the media affects policies is by affecting leadership. For example, Stella Oduah does whatever she does in the Aviation Ministry, somebody exposes something, immediately, that person is removed from office and the entire strategic objective of that department changes. The media’s most important assignment is to shine the light on places where people don’t want there to be any light, where people want darkness, the media insists that there must be light.
- Your career began really early at the age of fifteen; would you say this reality provided peculiar challenges or opportunities for you?
Peculiar both, but more opportunities than challenges. Honestly I don’t see the challenges, because when I started people used to say that they can’t give money to a small boy for the Future Awards, I’m sure that they still say it, but I don’t hear it anymore, so it’s not really my business, if I lose anything that I do not know I’ve lost, it’s fine.
The opportunities were, I came into the business at a time when the industry was rapidly expanding, and it was expanding at a rate that it was impossible for people who are presently players, the people who respond to change last in any industry are the people who are already in that industry, which is going to affect any company, including ours, as we grow. We need to continuously work on our ability to be nimble and to change, but then the new comers into that industry now have the space to quickly establish their dominance in that industry. For instance, the fact that we were young at the time when youth became the pre-eminent demographic and psychographic in the country meant that we were better poised to immediately understand how to take advantage of that in a way that a Biodun Shobanjo or anybody who is an icon would have to commission a survey or get younger people, but we instinctively understood. Or we come into a place where Facebook or Twitter becomes a dominant means of instant communication, because we were users of it, I mean, the Future Awards came in the year or year after Facebook became popular, so we immediately began to use Facebook because we didn’t have money to use independent media, so we became experts in the use of social media unwittingly. So, my advantage was that I came out at a time of great flux and that created massive opportunities for me to have competitive advantage, even though I didn’t know at that time that was what I was getting.
- As you turn 30, looking back and considering all you’ve achieved so far, including being named, alongside your Partner Debola Williams, in the Forbes 30 under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs; what would you describe to be your proudest moment so far? What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?
Honestly, my greatest achievement, and this is not a cliché by any means, but when I wake up in the morning and I look at my team and the company that we’ve built, that is my greatest achievement. It is easy to win an award, not that it is easy, but it is a matter of panellists coming together to analyse your work. It’s quite easy to make money; anybody can do that, but to build a business, to build an actual thing that didn’t exist before, and to keep it running optimally, legitimately, and profitably. You know one of my proudest moments last year was the ability to say to myself that I would increase all the salaries in this business, and I don’t know where I was going to get the money from, but I was going to do it because I think it’s the right thing to do and to be able to do it without having a company that shook because of that. Those daily decisions that you have to make, the complex decisions that you have to make, and to eventually find out that your decisions worked out well and you’re still standing and you’re not just standing but you’re growing.
In the immediate winning the GMB account for me was a proud moment because, you know, in this society, because of the nature of our democracy and because we are evolving and because really our values are not yet well defined, people look at things like that as something to be ashamed of, but you find out that an agency run by 30 and 29-year-olds is the one chosen, and it’s not as though they chose us because they wanted to price us down, we were chosen amongst all the other agencies in the country, or people in the country who do communications to handle an insurgent campaign, so not even a Jonathan campaign so you can say O, it’s the President’s campaign, it’s an insurgent campaign and to handle every aspect of it, and to keep succeeding and to show a new way of campaigning. For someone to give me that project and say we think you people can handle it was such a huge validation for me and for the kind of company that we’re trying to build, that in the immediate it’s possibly my second proudest moment.
- A lot has been said, and continues to be said about Africa’s rise, with reports of agricultural development in Nigeria and improved governance in Tanzania and Ghana, and so many others of such reports; what is your view on these reports? Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising?
Africa should be rising, Africa is rising in certain aspects, but as a matter of depth Africa has not improved. You see, I wrote an article titled ‘My Country is Schizophrenic’; so GDPs are increasing so-to-speak, but then, like in a company, the company is growing but are the staff growing with the company? Are they earning more? Are they being paid more? Same thing with a country, what use is growth if the human beings are not experiencing the growth? What use is growth that keeps going to the top 1%? It’s a useless growth. Any growth, any rise for Africa that does not involve net positive for the citizens of Africa is a useless Oyinbo driven rise that helps you tell a better story. And I don’t even blame the narrative, it’s us Africans that are our problem, we always want the world to treat us with a double standard, that’s why I’m upset with people that complain about aids. So, Economists says we are a ‘basket case’ of the world; we are the basket case of the world. A lot of money has come into this continent that we have wasted, we got a lot of opportunities we have wasted, and we have human resources we’ve wasted. Why do we spend our time battling the Economists and calling them racists and imperialists? This is a fact, we know it, the fact that somebody else says it should only madly irritate us, it shouldn’t make us fight the world. So what has happened is that the world has succumbed to us and has said, fine, you are rising. Meanwhile, we still have a lot of dictatorships, Ebola money cannot even rebuild Liberia’s systems because of the intense and debilitating corruption and failure in institutions, Nigeria claims to have a democracy but you cannot even place an advert on private stations, private channels, quality of life is reducing, major indices, mortality of children etc. are increasing, net positive quality of life has not increased, Ghana’s economic indices are falling, Republic of Benin has been stuck, South Africa is getting worse every year, terrorism has entered into Kenya and is sitting down in the front of the Presidents house. It’s just weird that we think that telling ourselves that Africa is rising and forcing the world to agree with us, I mean, we’re talking about growth rate, the other countries are growing at massive percentages over ten, we’re growing at percentages over two, three, and somehow we’re like that daft child in a class whose parents come to the class shouting on the teachers, so the teachers are now like, you know what, you’re good, who’s losing? Africa is losing. So while Africa Rising is a great motivational motto, it is not entirely true, and it is the responsibility of the leadership of Africa to ensure that you can be motivating your people on the one hand, I mean, it’s like our creative industry in Nigeria, someone somewhere is shouting that, and again you have to forgive me these are political times, this someone is shouting that the President respects the creative industry and you go and look at the NPS statistics only three jobs were created in the entire creative industry in the past one year. So you ask yourself, what exactly are these people dancing in Aso Rock for? Do they not understand that it is better to have an industry that actually creates jobs and expands wealth so that when you fall sick tomorrow you don’t have to be begging us on Encomium, BellaNaija, LindaIkeji and Y!Naija to donate for you? That you have a system that actually works. To have a President that understand the complexities of copyright infringement and all of that, and I’m talking about across Africa. So someone is celebrating the fact that the President understands the fact that Nollywood exists, is he not supposed to understand it? I don’t understand. We’re celebrating the fact that a small country like Malawi is inviting P-Square, this is supposed to be path for the course, can we move on to the serious minded things of how can Africans build industries that are actually sustainable, why is Nigeria the only country in Africa, I mean Europe doesn’t have a film industry like Hollywood, but Europe has a viable film industry with viable film festivals, people are moving units. Why can’t we even have a Cameroonian film industry that actually builds real stars with income? Why is Ghana’s film industry so heavily dependent on Nigeria’s film industry? So there are all kinds of complexities that we have not thought about, it’s incredible!
- How would you say young Africans in diaspora can contribute to Africa’s rise and general development?
When I go abroad to speak, some of these people approach me and tell me that they really want to come back home, but I mostly tell them not to, and I’ll tell you why. The Chinese have a structured way of ensuring that the knowledge that their children go and acquire from these societies come back home, but also, the Chinese have a way of building ecosystems within these countries that are flourishing for themselves. There is no necessity for people to come back home. We have enough qualified people at home, or better, we have a burden to create even more qualified people at home. Again, Nigeria is itself a corrupting influence and a frustrating influence and most people that come back home do not have the social skills or the mental preparedness to do so and then a simple solution they had to a particular problem becomes so complicated.
They’re not ready, most of them, when I speak with them, I tell them how they’ll come back home, add to the population, add to the frustration, you don’t have the local knowledge, you come in with a mind-set, you compound the problem. It’s better for you to stay in a place where you can exert the kind of influence that cannot be corrupted by Nigeria’s present structure, where you are not beholden to this patronage system, where you are not beholden to the frustration that stop us from being creative. I have no need for Chimamanda to come back home and be raised in Nigeria, let her go and be writing outside, she serves me better; Chimamanda, Wole Soyinka, Achebe serve Nigeria better outside, influencing their home from a place of relative sanity, than coming back home.
You know, coming back home, there’s nothing intrinsically positive about people coming back home. Love your country, yes; work for your country, yes; fight for diaspora voting, yes; contribute money to candidates, O yes; send money home for your brothers and sisters to be better educated, yes; come home and be frustrated along with the rest of us? I’m not exactly sure whether it is such an encouraging thing to do, I’m honestly not sure.
I’m selling hope; the Future Awards is selling hope so it’s not as if I’m this person who talks bad of Nigeria, nobody should come to me with that. I live in Nigeria; I was born, bred and buttered here in Nigeria. I live here, I work here, I pay my taxes here, I’ve visited more African countries than the average thirty-year-old, and I work for Africa, but I’m saying that the best way to improve a situation is to understand it clearly and truthfully and then decide what that situation needs, and the way we’re going about it now, we’re just dancing, and you know I wrote in my book that the government of my country is a continuous Owanbe and it’s time for the music to stop.
- What should Africa look out for from you? What is the next big thing that you are working on right now?
O, this year we’re on fire! Future Awards is going to be ten this year, we’re going to be visiting a number of countries, and we are going to be visiting between five to ten African countries speaking directly to the young people there. We’re also unveiling a few media brands targeted at the African market. Again, because I’m not a person who likes to say this is what I’m going to do in five years, I like to see where God takes me, I don’t like talking too much about the things we’re going to do. It’s not a false humility, If I knew I would say it. I honestly don’t know. I’m interested in seeing where God takes me, I’m as much a spectator as those who are watching me, but I know that we have huge plans, we’re consolidating our brands, Future Awards, Y!Africa, all of that, and this is going to be the year where all of that is going to be unveiled.