Zain Verjee’s journey from CNN to queen of creative content

The United Nations declared May 3rd World Press Freedom day when journalists, broadcasters and publishers get to celebrate the importance of free media to society.

In recent years, the day has been underscored by debate around the disruptive nature of digital publishing technologies and how traditional media can leverage on the same to remain relevant.

This year, the day was marked on the backdrop of the US elections and UK’s Brexit referendum campaign that illustrated the danger of elements such as fake news to distort campaign messages or provide a false sense of support for an idea.

Kenya-born Zain Verjee who worked as an anchor for the Cable News Network (CNN) International for 15 years was one of the people who recognised that the digital revolution was a wake-up call for traditional media channels to explore.

“Coming home multiple times during my work at CNN, I could see that the stereotypes about Africa still persisted,” she recalls.

“It was still about war, poverty and drought and I wanted to change this because I knew there were so many positive stories that were not being told.”

Zain left CNN in 2014 and signed up for a two-year Masters programme in creative writing at Oxford University. “I realised that there was no more growth for me at CNN and I was looking to broaden my horizon so to speak,” she explains. “I also wanted to have more free time to spend with my family.”

She later teamed up with co-founder Chidi Afulezi to set up aKoma, a content and storytelling platform that focuses on Africa with Zain as CEO. “The goal was to counter western stereotypes I had encountered in my career as a journalist and I had seen there was little understanding of Africa in the international news community,” she said.

Fresh creators

The platform provides a publishing space for previously unpublished writers, journalists, animators and photographers to share their creations.

The idea according to the founders is to provide an opportunity for young and fresh creators to get exposure and earn from their work.

aKoma went live in August last year and ran a test phase for ten months before being officially launched. “What was clear to us from the beginning was that if we were going to do it properly, then it would have to be digital and it would also have to be mobile,” she explained.

Last month, 25 fellows of the inaugural class graduated at during a ceremony at Nairobi’s Kempinsky Hotel with Zain stating that the country provided a strategic location from which to launch the inaugural fellows.

“The Kenyan market is big with a large pool of both content creators and audiences,” explained Zain. Connectivity is also good in Kenya and the level of creativity and talent is rich - making the country one of the natural choices to launch.”

aKoma is set to expand to Ghana and South Africa in September this year during it’s next cycle. The firm has already penned sponsorship deals with General Electric and the MasterCard Foundation to help facilitate the next round.

“The support from our partners has enabled us deliver mentorship, facilitate pan-African collaboration between young creatives and foster a community of learning, shared interests and passion for authentic African storytelling,” explains Zain.

The platform is also an open source that enables writers and photographers to log in and publish their work. This, she explains, lowers the barriers to entry for many who might not have the connections to get published.

aKoma itself makes money from syndicating the content and re-selling the same to other third parties at a pre-arranged revenue sharing formula with the creators. The transition from the airwaves to the harsh world of entrepreneurship has however not been without its pitfalls.

“I expected it to be difficult but I did not know to what extent or that it would be such a rollercoaster,” she fondly recalls. “Mental grit and psychological persistence is essential to get through the early stages and I really had to measure my value business-wise.”

“This is where my co-founder has been very helpful. He has been a rock and we really support each other because I realised I am good at journalism but I know little about entrepreneurship which I’ve had to learn on the job.” Her knowledge of the newsroom was however not entirely out of place.

“I am bringing a lot of the things I learnt at CNN into aKoma, key being the editorial rigour when it comes to checking stories for facts which is crucial especially in this day and age.”

Even after more than a decade working with one of the largest international news networks, Ms Verjee observes that entrepreneurship teaches her something new every day. “I have had to learn to be more disciplined with my time and my resources and get my priorities in order,” she explains.

“I am also appreciating the importance of taking a break as an entrepreneur and a support system because the harshness of the startup environment can easily make you walk away.”