John-Allan Namu is a daring man. Few people have encountered live bullets, seen the real face of war, tracked down drug lords, had threats made on their lives, and still kept at it. Journalism is not for the faint hearted, and it not just a profession for John-Allan, it is a calling.
The investigative journalist doubles up as the CEO of Africa Uncensored, an investigative and in-depth journalism production house in Nairobi, Kenya.
He has bagged numerous awards, key among them the coveted CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award in 2009. Last year Africa Uncensored secured a nomination at the international One World Media Awards.
He is best known for his partnership with Mohammed Ali on Jicho Pevu and Inside Story, a series on KTN that went behind the scenes to uncover stories of corruption and impunity in Kenya.
It is the drive to keep telling their stories as authentically as they could, that led John-Allan and three other partners – Kassim Mohammed, Mohammed Ali, and Wanjala Were – to start the media company, Africa Uncensored, in 2015.
I pick his brain on a few things pertaining to the media landscape on the continent and the insight he has picked along the path of carving out space for himself in the industry.
How has the pandemic affected the media business from where you sit?
All I can say for now is that it has forced us to think of new ways to survive. That’s the one thing I can say for sure.
What are your thoughts on journalism in Africa? Where does the potential lie?
Crisis and opportunity. Those were the words President Uhuru Kenyatta used early July when addressing the nation. In this time of crisis, there is an opportunity for new names to rise as we observe the shift in the landscape that has been media.
The danger in the crisis is the possible rise of demagoguery, the re-emergence of people who want to control the narrative of Africa. That’s a dangerous place to go, given the young population that dominates this continent.
What is the future of journalism in Africa?
I think it has got a bright future because we will be serving a population that hungers for information that helps them makes sense of their lives and that is the timeless function of media. The brighter side of where we are now is that Africa has never seen such a prolonged time of relative stability; this in itself presents us with a great opportunity for growth.
Will it ever be possible for the 4thestate in this continent to stand as a voice without political influence?
To a great extent that can happen. We will always be reporting on politics because it has a direct correlation to the quality of livelihood experienced by the people we report about.
I think this moment of crisis is presenting us with an opportunity to support those that are emerging with a sense of independence.
In terms of money and ownership, the current crisis is helping to bring a cleansing to the industry because, if they (politicians) can’t make money from the media industry, what investments would they make for them to continue to control the narrative? Some will leave, the more powerful will consider how to control the tools we use to access information, and therein lies some danger.
So, my answer is yes and no.
What do the future business models look like as far as media is concerned?
We have to develop new ways of earning revenue, capitalize on collaborations with like-minded institutions, and hunt together. Figure out how to build a sustainable eco-system that is inter-dependent as opposed to independent. I think the seed for a new business model lies here.
How have you managed to harness your potential as a journalist and entrepreneur?
Wow, that is a tough one. I had the privilege of knowing what I wanted to do with my life from an early age. I was not sure of the particulars but I knew journalism was it. It has been a learning process for me. Learning how to follow my gut, how to rise when I feel low and it seems like my efforts do not make much of a difference.
To have come this far, I was very clear on what I wanted to do. I had to have a very clear goal. My kind of storytelling did not get enough airspace on mainstream media, so I decided to create my own platform. The kind of journalism my heart fell in love with is geared towards compassion; that became very clear to me in 2015 but it set me on a path of very unpopular journalism.
Sometimes I feel like I am shouting at the wind, like what I am doing is not having any impact, like maybe I should have stayed on the bigger platform, maybe my work as a journalist would have been appreciated better. Such thoughts come to defeat the purpose of the projects I undertake. But then, many times when I am at such low points, something magical happens on the other side of that hole that connects the dots for me in such a way I could never have ordered them. It is like tapping into something that carries you the rest of the way and the output is better than what I could have envisioned or planned for.
I have a very strong pillar in my wife; she is the woman who has kept me from quitting when I could have easily packed my bags and left the profession altogether. If I was not married to Makena, I would not have come as far as I have. Sometimes I wonder, and this is one of my greatest fears, what would happen if one of us was to pass on or if for some reason our relationship was to end? I do not know how I would ever make it without her.
I also have a good support system; good partners, smart employees, and the safety of structure in business; the ability to multiply yourself, that has been really helpful.
In mentoring young people in this profession, what have you noticed needs rectification?
The hungry ones get it; they absorb all the lessons given. Through some of our partners, we have been able to obtain grants to cover certain stories. This we have extended to some students who have interned at our company. Some run with the opportunity and make the best out of what is availed; others just do not seem to get it.
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For those who do not get it, there are two reasons I would say. These are:
Finding that the profession is not a walk in the park. It involves a lot of hard work.
Some join for all the wrong reasons. They see the glamour in the platform and are more interested in that than they are in the work. In as much as media is a very visual profession and yes we do live in a very visual society, to build one’s career on this alone is to build on very shaky ground.
Sometimes the work that goes into what we do can leaves you jaded and because we were only shown the wrapping we do not know what is inside – college does not prepare us for the complete package that comes with being in this industry. No one shows you the other side of the ‘lights, camera, action’. Yes, this has given me access and enabled me to travel to different nations but I think most students are not prepped enough to understand the 360o experience that true journalism involves.
Speaking of travel, in the quest to cover stories across the continent where would you say you have found the greatest untapped potential?
We are great. I do not say that loosely or to push the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative—I genuinely mean it. Every country has a beautiful uniqueness about it.
My favourite country outside of Kenya is Ghana. I love the vibe, the politeness. There is a very progressive and very PanAfrican culture in this West African country that I often do not see in Kenya. They are very accepting of their Africanness.
I love South Africa’s acceptance of their rich history and Uganda’s appreciation of their local cuisine. I attended a conference in Uganda a while back which was hosted at a 5-star hotel. Everything on the menu was Ugandan cuisine, an example of African excellence. In as much as we have a long way to go in terms of getting to where we need to go, every country has something beautiful to offer even now.
What do you think it will take to harness the potential of the young population in AfricaWe must have a reckoning with our history, recognition of our past, and what we need to rectify. If we were to compare the problems of race that Americans are dealing with now, to the problem of class in Kenya and the impact that has had on how we have developed, what would be the difference? We prioritise projects over people. A majority of the people in Kenya cannot relate to the life portrayed in poster cards and billboards. They live in spaces that we would rather not talk about or deal with. This is the young population that you are talking about—a young man who isnot sure he will make it to the age of 35. He might end up a victim of extrajudicial killings; it is not uncommon in this country. Changes in culture start with changes in leadership because leaders set the agenda for the people they are leading. We have a serious leadership problem. At every turn, it feels like the leaders of the day are frustrating every tool that people can use to better themselves.
I am not campaigning for having young people in leadership positions, what I am saying is, leaders need to understand the experience of a young person in this country and develop systems that work for that population.
What do you think it will take to change the leadership of this country?
Courage. Each of us has to apply ourselves in whatever space we are in. The little we can do, we must do. If courage means paying your employees better, then please do.
Courage is saying that we need to look at things at a deeper level and deal with our personal challenges. Fight our own demons. Courage means supporting others. Sometimes I feel like people in this country are built up to be broken down. We sometimes celebrate people’s downfall instead of helping them get back up or laud them when they make meaningful strides. We must be our brothers’ keeper and genuinely celebrate those trying to make things better.
Your most rewarding moment?
It used to be starting Africa Uncensored but at this moment in time, it is seeing someone I mentored doing well in their craft.
My prayer is when I hang my boots, I will have done enough for someone to remember and say, “The reason why we do things like this and do them well is because one John-Allan invested in us, in the industry.”
People who have had the greatest impact on your journey?
My parents and my siblings. My elder brother has had a huge impact on the person I have become. As far as my career is concerned, Linus Kaikai taught me how to write, how to have journalistic rigour. He taught me a lot about being calm and courageous; that is what I admired most about him, he was calm but he always asked the hardest questions. Joe Ageyo has a softer approach; he cares a lot about people and how stories are reported, a man passionate about people’s issues. Then there is Moha (Mohammed Ali) I learnt a lot about myself from interacting with him; he is a man of substance. I have a lot of respect for him. Khaseem Mohammed used to be our producer when we were working on Jicho Pevu and The Inside Story. He is a very thorough journalist. I struggle to think of people who are as thorough as he is; who have the kind of work ethic he does. Last but not least, the icing on the cake and the cake itself, my wife. I need an entire session just to break that down (smiles).
The one thing you would like to tell the African youth, or the Kenyan youth, a general insight on finding yourself and living life under the sun.
Every time I have been dishonest with myself I have failed. Do not underestimate the power of honesty. It is a scary thing but it will keep you in check. As a young man, you will make many mistakes but you have to endeavour to get back on that track of honesty.
Do not believe the hype that you must be corrupt in order to be rich. That road ends in tears. If there is anything I have seen behind the curtain of working in this industry, it is the severe consequences of short cuts paved with dishonesty.
Lastly, be teachable.
What was the most challenging thing about starting Africa Uncensored and getting this baby grounded?
From the end of journalism, running Africa Uncensored has been rewarding. Everything else has been a learning curve for me. One challenge we’ve had to perpetually deal with is finding the brand of storytelling that we could commercialise and gain some revenue without selling our soul. It remains a tough balancing act.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt;
Nobody is going to buy into your vision except you, so you have to be very faithful to that vision.
Listen to the people around you, the people you’ve hired may not do things necessarily as you would, but if they understand your vision,allow them to take you on a journey of doing things differently.
The decisions you make are yours. You live and die by those decisions. There is a place for management by committee and there is a place for you to just stand alone and make certain decisions.
Go with your gut. When I started out, I would consult a lot and second guess myself too much. This would result in having output that didnot feel like a reflection of my vision. I’m trying every day and learning to go more with my gut and be okay with making mistakes sometimes.
I like that part where you mentioned the effect of going with that gut. Is there a time when it led you to a place you did not like?
Interestingly, with Africa Uncensored, no. The opposite is true. There are times when I have over-consulted and become paralysed by people’s views and opinions as they pertain to projects and decisions made.
How easy is it to get people who work for you to buy into your vision?
It is a learning process. Sometimes it has meant working with pressure to meet deadlines because I am more focused on the quality of content than the money end of things. Maybe sometimes I worry too much, trying to get it right and make those who work for me get it right; at times I feel like I have been overly cautious. It is tough; I do not think I have mastered the art of balancing between not being overly cautious and not compromising on the core of the message that Africa Uncensored is about. What virtue do you appreciate most about people?
Compassion and genuine concern for other people’s welfare.