Behind the Story: Fu’ad Lawal on Journalism, Naira Life and Jollof Road

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Fu’ad Lawal is definitely one of the brightest minds in the Nigerian media space. From understudying the game at Pulse with Osagie Alonge and then transitioning to Big Cabal, he has worked at some of the best media platforms in the country while focusing on the little nuances that constitute the Nigerian experience. Naturally, he’s a great fit for any discussion on the creation of content and the current state of things. We spoke to him on getting a start in the game and some of the headline pieces/formats he’s worked on.

It makes fascinating reading.

How did you get into journalism/ content creation?

I was looking for work. I just needed somebody that would pay me money, and it seemed like people were willing to pay for me to write for them, and that’s how I got into this. My first job at a media company was Pulse in 2015 – that was like boot camp. That was my first full-time job. I’d been writing for people, like copy-writing, and people mostly working in advertising but by the time I was ready to get a full-time job, I grabbed the first opportunity that paid me. And, I kid you not, it was not any journalistic passion or anything because I had another opportunity but it was paying less.

What has been the most challenging thing about getting content made and telling stories in Nigeria?

I think it’s the same struggle everywhere- it’s the case of whether there is a market to sustain the kind of stories that you want to tell. So, for example, in a large publication like Naij or Pulse, you want to tell stories that require time to make, but the question is does it make business sense to tell those kinds of stories? If a business is going to pay your salary by advertising, it means that they want to get as many eyeballs as possible, and eyeballs work with clicks. And if eyeballs work with clicks, the more clicks the more eyeballs; the more clicks mean you are writing shorter stories, shorter stories means you are not going as deep into the stories as you want. Someone once said, and I am paraphrasing, ‘what is required is Coca-Cola content, but what you want to do is Hennessy content.’ So, it’s like eating your humble pie and moving on.

What do you look for in a story? What are the things that make stories important to you and what do you seek to convey when telling these stories?

A lot of it is around the human condition. Why do people do the things they do? What directs people? The rabbit hole that has led me to is that it is almost impossible to just see something at face value, without all the context. Statistically, if you grow up in certain neighborhoods you become a criminal. You get to ask who exactly is at fault that this person became a criminal. Yes, adults make adult decisions but the statistics are saying this person didn’t exactly choose this life. I hate black and white narratives, so it’s all about that human complexity.

Last year, you went on a round trip around West Africa, tell us three things you learned on that trip that blew you away?

Nigeria is too important. So, it’s like, you are outside Nigeria and someone is asking you, ‘ah, wow, you’re from Nigeria,’ and you are like, ‘Oga, this place is full of shit o.’ And all numbers say Nigeria is important: population and size of the economy. It’s just annoying because everybody has light (outside of Nigeria) and we don’t have light as important as we are. There’s this thing where you suddenly get into the flow of not having to worry about light, it’s a privilege – that mindset is a privilege. What now happens is that you don’t charge your battery until it’s like 20%, like, why are you rushing?  I also found it interesting how much sameness (West Africa has). It’s like a super-state where everybody just speaks three different languages, but a lot of the food is the same. For me, deep down, it felt like using a passport to go to Enugu.

Before that, you had done a trip to all the 36 states in Nigeria. What was that like?

That was the real shocker. I can summarize that one into a scenario and the scenario is that I arrived at this park in Yola and I’m asking this woman, on a Sunday morning, what she has and the woman doesn’t understand. So, I say rice, and she doesn’t know what rice is. And my guy that was with me goes, ‘Omo, it’s sad o, these people cannot speak English.’ And I’m like, ‘Fam, it’s sad, we cannot even speak Hausa,’ because they don’t even need your English. Like it doesn’t do anything for their life. In Buhari’s village, Daura, I found a French-speaking person before I found an English-speaking person because a lot of the people that come to work in Katsina come from Niger. And in Niger, they speak French. That was the real horizon explosion for me.

What are the levels of preparation that go into these sorts of trips?

We need to know who is paying for it, that’s very important. There are some things we need to establish, the first being that everything will fall apart. It doesn’t work too well if you are a control freak, but I realized that anything you plan for minimizes the shock of everything else you did not plan for. All that one that people say on YouTube, pack your bag and see the world, is a lie. First of all, you don’t even have the passport. I think it is first of all understanding where all the costs will sit in, they generally should be in three buckets, if it is within the country. Outside the country, a fourth bucket will do. Within a country, the three buckets are transportation, food, and accommodation. Once you identify those three and associate all the costs that go with those things, it starts to make more sense. Outside the country, the fourth bucket is border fees and that stuff. Again, it depends on the person and how much of a control freak they are, but for me, I’d rather pack a backpack and change my clothes every few days instead of packing my entire wardrobe.

With these trips, what are the things you are looking for and how did you find the format that fits the purpose?

Another thing I’ve realized is that it is just natural for people to notice what they are looking for. People see the world how they see the world. For example, a writer in a movie cinema, people are laughing but you are just there saying good dialogue. A cinematographer is saying ‘Wow, great shot’. There was a period in my life when if I saw something, I’d go, it will be good to write something about this. It got to a point where I’m like it’ll be nice to take a photo of this. It’s just forces of habit where if you want to think about something you have to force the habit of thinking about those things.

So, did your state of mind determine the format of the content during your West African trip?

It was also like expectations. For example, if you work at NTA on the A.M. Express thing but you are a writer, they are not going to send you to one village and you come back with a script to play on their teleprompter. You are not going to say I don’t have videos but I have this script or paragraph that we can put on the screen. You are going to have to find a video because it is a platform requirement.

What were the challenges that you faced while traveling across West Africa?

Uncertainties mostly. Everything falling apart, accumulated fatigue, language barrier, when you can’t ask people enough questions because all you can say is Oui, Bonjour, and C’est Bon. The language barrier was really big, you can’t have a serious conversation with a person. What that means is that you are at the mercy of the fixer’s whims and moods. For example, if I’m talking to someone and they say something very problematic, I will not flinch, but your fixer can be visibly irritated and the person you are talking to just withdraws, and you are like ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

As editor-in-chief of Zikoko, you built a relatable and fun content home for young Nigerians. How important is it that Zikoko keeps that fun at its core?

It’s at the core of Zikoko’s identity. It’s not a matter of it being a phase, it’s at the core of its identity. A lot of how we think of Zikoko is Zikoko is your friend, so your friend cares about the things you care about, your friend is funny on some days, and has serious conversations on other days. It’s a range of experiences but just trying to put as much care as possible to everything that we make.

Your column, #NairaLife, is very popular among Nigerians for the manner in which you tell financial stories. How was the format created? Why do you think it resonates with people?

It is so weird that we live in where we know more about people’s sexual activities – which should not really be our business most of the times – than their financial status – which should be our business to a large extent. It should be our business because it is afarawe (comparison). I feel like there’s so much about our financial life that we don’t know that we fail at, and it (NairaLife) is a medium to get people to know about these things. If I’m being honest, there’s nothing revolutionary about it, it’s just that people just like to speak and you find out that the difference between people that earn more and earn less is because they have someone to talk to. At my first job, for example, I was like, I just need data money for four months, and I got a job that paid me 80k. I was like ‘wow, wow, wow, balling.’ You realize that sometimes you want to ask for a gig and, in your mind, you are like N50,000, then you ask what their budget is and they are like help us manage N200,000 and you are like heiiiiiiiii. Knowing about those blindspots helps us improve the quality of our decisions. I spoke to someone for NairaLife who told me that she was going to demand a particular amount at the office simply because someone like her earns that amount. So, that’s it.

You were going to tell me how the NairaLife format was created?

It was a weekend and I’d announced at the office that I was going to publish something on Sunday but I did not finish on time. And I just felt like this might be a good way to start the week by 9 a.m. on Monday. So, it was experimenting with a bunch of formats: if it is prose, it’ll be too heavy. For me, it was important that we were letting people into a conversation, the reader had to be the third person in the room; like, we are letting you in on this conversation that has never been heard before. There are probably better formats but the interview-esque format/ question and answer just felt like a good fit. Another thing I worried about is that there is a tendency for formats like that to get boring, so I was a bit worried about how it would work. The way was to make it less question and answers and more conversational.

Is it a struggle to get people to open up about their finances?

It will surprise you that it is not. The struggle is that there are specific people I’m looking for that are a little harder to find. But, see, therapy is expensive in Lagos, and people just want to talk. NairaLife is a lot of talking and not worrying about the consequences, very few people have to worry about the consequences. So, a person could tell me that, ‘Oh, I smoke weed every fucking day.’ There’s someone I spoke to that is constantly high, but her mum does not even know, and if she was not anon, she won’t have told me about this. She would have told me about how she focuses on her work.

You have evolved across multiple media platforms and formats. What lesson have you taken from each phase and what are you trying to do these days?

Lessons from each phase: my first full year was a crash course in understanding the engine, the media engine, basically, how things are made. 2016 was the year of learning how to improve quality. At that time, a lot of work at Pulse was about your speed and efficiency, it was less about your own creativity, it was just how efficient are you. Later in 2016, I was at a job that required that everything I wrote did not exist on the internet previously, that was Party Jollof – interestingly, people used to compare us to Zikoko then. I was there for a few months, then I went back to Pulse and the goal was to attempt the thing I had now had the room to learn while I was working at Party Jollof. Somehow, one day, the thing sparked inside my head to convince my Oga to allow me to travel.

So the next year was learning how to convince them to let me travel, I mean, I had three options: one, I’m going to quit my job and travel the world as I’ve seen on YouTube or, the second option, tell Osagie (Alonge) that I’m going to be gone for like two months and when I come back I still want to have a job. The third option was, ‘Hello Osagie, there’s something I really want to do and I think it will benefit us if we have content like this,’ so they can pay me salary when I’m away.’ That was the sensible middle ground, that year was, for me, learning about working with brands, understanding the business side of things, and realizing that every time creatives says, ‘Uggh, my work,’ someone is saying, ‘Oga, someone has to pay for this!’ And if you cannot get anyone to pay for this, keep it to your diary. Then 2018 was like starting at Big Cabal (Zikoko), and this is my most difficult job ever. Just to give you context when I say that, I’ve done two jobs in Lagos where I was working at a night job and I was working during the day, but this is my most difficult job ever. Interestingly, I was not primarily editorial (at Zikoko), I started out in content strategy. My KPI is now head of content at Zikoko and TechCabal, while Ope Adedeji, our Managing Editor runs Zikoko.

Any advice for anyone starting out in journalism/ content creation?

I say this thing so much I should start giving TED Talks about it- curiosity and discontent. You need to be very dissatisfied with where you are and you need to ask the right questions: this place I want to be, who are the people that have gone there, who are the best people doing it and just imitate them as much as you can. Again, it’s different people and different things, but I was not the most strategic about, oh in five years I’ll get to this place. In fact, the only time I answered that five years question was when they asked it at an interview and I said nonsense. I generally think that people just need to be curious and discontent and sometimes what they want will align with the things they care about. The weird thing about this whole passion thing is that when you take a job, 70% of the things you do, you don’t even like it but you stay for the 30% that you like.

I believe in people taking opportunities. I was talking to someone some days ago and they said someone was offered a job of N65,000 and it is slavery money, and I was like, ‘Madam, she does not have another job. It is her first job after N.Y.S.C. Let her take it first and be looking for jobs while she is at that job, let her use their Internet to search for work. Because when you are applying with job experience, you are suddenly a better fit than someone who is just leaving N.Y.S.C. But that’s not blanket advice, I just think people should be curious, and discontent, and focus on the things they care about. Again, not always, don’t follow all the things you care about, care about money, just care about something!

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