Q & A: Namu’s daring investigative reporting business
What is your academic background and how does it inform what you do at Africa Uncensored? Also, what does your role entail?
Namu: I am a trained journalist. I have a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree and a minor in International Relations from the United States International University (USIU). I have done a couple of training courses on journalism and some professional courses, such as on leadership. I mean, it literally informs the kind of quality that I want from journalism that has inspired what we produce at Africa Uncensored. In terms of entrepreneurial skills-set, I really did not have that. I really did not envision stepping out, doing good content and creating some sort of business out of it. And so from that I will have to say that I am learning as I go. As the co-founder and Editorial Director at Africa Uncensored, I ensure, from a strategy point of view, that we are thinking about the same things. On our future editorially, of course, I ensure the quality of journalism is of high standards and that the vision translates into what we do. Additionally, I look for business opportunities to sustain the company.
How about your professional background?
Namu: I interned at Kenya Television Network (KTN) in 2005. Three months later, the company employed me. Before long, I got into the Features department, where I started to develop an interest in in-depth story-telling. I later on made friends with Mohammed Ali and started working together, doing investigative reporting which deepened my interest in the field. I left KTN in 2010 to join NTV as Features Editor until December 2012 when I went back to KTN. I was at KTN from 2012 to 2015, serving as Special Projects Editor, with the initial mandate to set up an investigating reporting desk which would push a lot of in-depth features and oversee the planning of special events coverage.
What motivated you to start Africa Uncensored and which gap(s) is it addressing?
Namu: Africa Uncensored is an investigative and in-depth journalism company. We are based in Nairobi. We have the ambition to cover Africa and our motivation is to make investigative journalism a mainstream part of story-telling in African newsrooms and that the investigative approach starts to be used more in terms of story-telling in media houses. We started four years ago, on November 30th 2015, and since then we’ve been doing what we do.
What was the initial startup capital for African Uncensored?
Namu: Some savings came from us while some came from some grants to do investigating reporting. That has been part of our capital, so is commercial revenue. I cannot name all of the donors but they are all on our page. I really do not want to talk about the funding.
As a journalist-cum-entrepreneur, how do you profit from Africa Uncensored?
NAMU: We have not yet profited from what we are doing. We are looking at diversifying our revenue streams by assessing our storytelling approaches and the expertise we have hence make some money out of that. There will probably be more residual income streams coming from one place to another and eventually we will build on that.
What differentiates Africa Uncensored from other media houses?
Namu: Anyone who does investigative journalism can be considered a competitor but I do not think we are in that phase. Our investigative method of reporting does not focus on the day-to-day stories since they are perishable. We look at more architectural and structural issues that affect us, then we take our time to look into and investigate the issues, perhaps a little more than others. So that is what sets us apart. We really put a lot of care into what we do and hopefully that kind of shows in the kind of quality content we produce
Why did you start a company that deals with investigative journalism, yet this is a field considered highly risky and such journalists are often subject of harassment, torture, unfair trials, sentencing and threats?
Namu: It’s an experiment we are trying. We have had some success in making money by selling our content. We are partially funded by different donors. The media business model in general has collapsed. How the media traditionally used to fund itself was either through subscriptions or advertising or a bit of both; either weekly or daily purchases of the same. But with the advent of the internet, people are able to reach their customers directly so the need for advertising goes down. Subscriptions have become more and more focused on individual interests and so as those interests narrow, the need for it narrows further. Finding that sort of niche content and trying to get money from it is what we are trying to do so as to support ourselves and do public interest reporting. Public interest reporting is difficult in terms of funding probably because Africa’s public broadcasting services are not as robust as they should be. But you cannot just do it for free. You have to find a way to support yourself and that is why we are trying to find out how we can commercialize the content and make it accessible to the public.
Why would an award-winning journalist who has worked at some of Kenya’s reputable media houses such as NMG and SMG, leave the comfort of paid employment to start his own media house? Why take the risk?
Namu: Majority of the awards that you are looking at (arrayed on the wall cabinet in the office), we have won together as a team. But yeah, life is a series of choices that you take. I felt that this was a calculated risk. I have always wanted to own a media house. The big media houses, such as Cable News Network (CNN) and Al Jazeera also started from where I did. I am not in the scheme of things like a big journalist. And there will be people before me who will do more and after that there will be others who will do the same. Every person’s journey will be unique to them, so I do not think that it will be fair for me to say that I am this big hot shot journalist. That we look at media organisations in the West as vanguards of quality is not correct. In the literal sense, they have been setters of trends and standards for the longest time, but whatever happened to African excellence? Why can’t our own make it? Who have set our own quality? It is also important to see ourselves as excellent. I think that it is important to see ourselves of doing good in terms of our professions and our contributions to the society because there will be people who will come behind us, who will take over from where we left. I did not just start this from nowhere. There were people who internationally and locally I admire. I stand on their shoulders. One day, there will be people who will stand on mine. And, that is what African Uncensored represents- An opportunity for Africa, really, in one way to shine. It might be in 10 or 15 years. It might be confined to the rubbish of history, but I will attempt for it to be successful.
What has Africa Uncensored done to rectify criticism that was levelled at it for the misrepresentation in the documentary titled: In The Footsteps of Felicien Kabuga, where photographs of an Isiolo businessman instead of those of Kabuga were used?
Namu: I did that story when I was working at NTV in 2012. It has been quite a number of years since that story was done. It was not intentional that that happened but I still believed that my sources were infiltrated and we were given some bad information. Fortunately for me, had it not gone through the editorial board committee at Nation, for sure, I would have been out of a job. That said, what we have done at Africa Uncensored years later, is becoming more specific about the story-telling process. We document how we investigate. We put it down in certain documents in story plans and the like. We also assess the hypothesis method in our investigation, perhaps with more rigour. So, of course, mistakes like those happen, but you try your best and hope that you learn from mistakes that you made in the past.
What are the African-centric ills in society that Africa Uncensored trying to unravel?
Namu: I do not think that the problems in society are specific to Africa. There is violence and impunity everywhere, as demonstrators in the world move towards nationalism and sub-nationalism. I think that what Africa has suffered from is that the telling of those things have been located and being forced onto us so much so that we think that we do not know these problems. We think that corrupt governments were only discovered and perfected here in Africa because there are so many of them. We forget that there are so many of them, in the journey that the United Kingdom and the United States of America, walked. Fundamentally, these two countries serve as an example of impunity, corruption and the robbery of human resource from Africa. So, in that way, the very foundations of those countries are in many ways corrupt.
What is Africa Uncensored’s biggest milestone to date?
Namu: We have been here for the last four years. That we are here is a big testament to the amount of work that everybody here has put in. We look at the awards as important to what we have done. We have won two global awards, that is, the 2019 Trace International Award and 2009 CNN Journalism Award. We have done some really good story-telling. The real milestone is that we are leaving a mark. We have left a mark so far, in terms of, the kind of quality that we want to be known for. I am hoping that that sort of becomes widely known. We are still very young. We started with about seven employees and now we have 19. We are a small enterprise, compared to the other broadcasting houses.
Does African Uncensored Have Any Form of Partnerships With Other Broadcasters?
Namu: We are doing a more sort of documentary with Maisha Magic East on a documentary series called Maisha Mkanda, which launched three weeks ago. We are not a production house because we publish our own content. We do some productions based on content and that is what helps us sort of sustain ourselves. We are not a production house because we publish our own content. We require broadcast partners to publicize our work and that is a revenue stream, which keeps the lights on. In terms of content partnerships, we have worked with KTN; British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); NTV; Maisha Magic East and have a licensing deal with TV 47, a local station launched last year.
Are you looking to diversifying as an investigative journalist?
Namu: In a sense, yeah. I am doing a lot of training. Africa Uncensored trains a lot of young journalists on hard investigative reporting. Leading the company, I have to have a different skills-set, different from investigative reporting, from what I have gained as a journalist. We are also looking into different forms of story-telling; like shorter forms of story-telling, graphic-led stories, explainers and fact-checks. But then again, that is also private. Mohammed Ali, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Nyali, is a co-founder of Africa Uncensored. When we registered Africa Uncensored, we were all trained journalists. The intention was to run it together.
What can you tell us about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and South Sudan as per the documentary The Profiteers? What about other projects?
Namu: This was a real investigative effort on our part. It was interesting that we are able to travel to different parts of the region to investigate the impacts of very serious humanitarian crises. South Sudan is celebrating nine years of independence as the newest country in the world. But as for majority of those years, it has been in turmoil. It is estimated that almost 400,000 people have been killed in the country and money stolen there ends up here and in Uganda. As a nation, our governments are complicit in the stealing of wealth from our brothers (South Sudan). Now, we will look at that kind of predatory capitalism that happens in the West which also happens here, increasing cases of money laundering and other vices. We do a lot of things. For instance, we did a documentary titled Bitter Harvest last year, which focused on the impact of pesticides on food in Kenya. We have done stuff on mental health, a documentary on the city council askari and how they were harassing informal traders in the city, stories on extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances from across the country and stories on terrorism.
What is the greatest inspiration of Africa Uncensored so far?
Namu: Linus Kaikai (currently Director of Strategy and Innovation at Citizen Television) was a big inspiration to me and helped me with script writing. There are very many investigative journalists in Kenya, like; John Kamau from The Nation, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Waihiga Mwaura from The Citizen, Asha Mwilu, Purity Mwambia, Dennis Onsarigo and Dennis Okari. Look at the work Okari did on ‘White Alert’ last year. There is a whole bunch of people and a lot of young guys who I have spoken to and have helped train. Even globally, the number of investigative journalists is growing. In regards to what we’re seeing across the world, investigative journalism can be a very important tool in shaping the history of countries. Look at the kind of the car wash scandals of South America that has affected Chile and Brazil. A lot of it came from investigative reporting. The investigative reporting of the 2016 general election in the USA and the rigging of the poll. The organized crime and reporting project has done a lot of work in East and Central Europe including Africa. The Gupta leaks in the ‘State Capture’, a state document published in 2016 which exposed how Asian bothers, the Guptas, had a powerful hand in running of the state under former South African President Jacob Zuma. And, there are investigative centres coming up everywhere; in Botswana, Nigeria. I would be remiss if I did not mention Ana Aremeyaw from Ghana. There is a whole network of us who are coming up at the same time who are doing different things in the world and drawing inspiration from one another. That is how I look at it now. At the same time, there’s been a regeneration of interests in investigative journalism. The likes of Ghana’s Ana, who has nerves of steel, Musikilu Mojeed from Premium Times and other guys doing the stuff in South Africa and Botswana. The people I work with inspire me, including Mohammed Ali, who was a great inspiration.
Where does Africa Uncensored see itself in the next five to ten years?
Namu: Hopefully we see ourselves becoming more of a part of the global investigative journalism community based on the quality of our content and investigative techniques. We hope to get our work published on other big platforms. Our priority is not to grow in size because however much this has its benefits we need to keep our costs down and make profits that we can then invest in our people.
What advice can you give journalists seeking to venture into in-depth investigative journalism?
Namu: That the skills that will take you there will not be the ones you need to survive. Think a lot of how to plan, how to start a business, those kinds of things. How to organize yourself, think about the structure that you need to put into place first. Think of the business as completely new, as a separate identity from you and start to plan for it in that way. I would say any venture, the net result of a system, is due to a number of processes. So think clearly about the processes behind the kind of journalism you want to produce, so that if you want to step aside, someone else can come in and fill your shoes. Physically, we are based in Nairobi but we hope to expand into other places through brick and mortar, in terms of our network and the kind of people who can produce content for us.