He said “Building a content and creative business is daunting. Doing it in Africa is maddening. Yes, I said it. Africa is no joke.”
Former CNN reporter, Zain Verjee, and Nigerian-born tech enthusiast, Chidi Afulezi, co-founded aKoma in January 2015 with the intention of developing a creative and media business in and for Africa.
However, after facing a host of problems while trying to get aKoma to really take off, the startup was shut down, adding to the body count of dead content and creative businesses on the continent.
The Mission of aKoma
With many years of media , entertainment, technology and innovative business experience between them, Verjee and Afulezi embarked on launching a platform they believed would empower and unleash the talent of Africa on the world. The platform, aKoma, allowed its users to view, upload and share African stories.
Spurred by the motto: “The storyteller is the most important person in Africa,” aKoma sought to solve the problem of the narrative of the black continent, as well as remove the severe limitations faced by creative African in creating stories and building platforms to counter and rewrite the misguided narrative.
About the founders
Both Verjee and Afulezi had cut their teeth in the corporate world prior to aKoma. Verjee was born and raised in Kenya,. She joined CNN in 2000 and has put in groundbreaking, award-winning work for 14 years. She was a newsreader on Kenya Television Network, Nairobi, and a DJ for Capital FM before CNN.
Afulezi had served in a variety of product executive roles with tech and media companies including Turner Broadcasting, Time Warner, Sony Music, and AT&T Wireless, among others.
They seemed to be a winning combination creating a platform that would build much interest in financing and showcasing African visual, written, and spoken storytelling. However, things did not go quite as expected.
Why aKoma fell
Struggle with Funding
Initial funding didn’t come easy, despite some very powerful funding networks being involved.
“It quickly became clear that having the words Africa, creative, and business in your pitch were death chimes,” Afulezi revealed.
“We got no love from African movers and shakers. Forget the Americans and Europeans (“did you say Africa and creative economy? How does that even work? How would they consume the content?”). Even with a business and financial model that I constructed that would scatter Elon Musk’s brain…eyes glazed over,” he wrote.
Eventually both co-founders reached into their own pockets to finance the creation of the aKoma site. One of the remarkable wins came in 2016 when they won USD 500 K from the Mastercard Foundation to build and run Amplify, a talent hub for creatives from Africa.
But it was always going to be a huge challenge to create a content and innovative company in Africa and the handwriting had been on the wall for a while.
“Chidi, we need to end aKoma. It’s time,” Afulezi recalled those very words from Varjee sometime in 2019.
The final blow came when aKoma secured a USD 350 K content production gig with one of Africa’s most important financial institutions. It was a 5 month deal to improve the company but it turned out to be such a letdown.
“Long story short, it dragged on for almost 15 months, the scope and scale of the work changed, and as a small startup with very limited working capital, we had to take loans from family and friends and Kabbage to fulfill the contract,” Afulezi wrote.
“It was the darkest and most stressful time of our aKoma lives, and we knew that aKoma was pretty much over as we haggled and struggled to get our invoices paid.”
He added, “We were distraught that the creatives we hired to work with us were suffering as the organization delayed payment, and we decided that we were no longer going to be in the content production business in Africa. This project broke and bankrupted aKoma.”
Lack of support / failed promises
According to the co-founder, the company bit the dust due to lack of funding, the continued broken promises from people who claimed undying funding, the financial hits and personal stress.
The aKoma demise is an unfortunate circumstance but not an unusual one. Kenyan media firm, Hivisasa, closed off shop after six years in January this year. The content startup reported on Kenyan counties and national politics and provided several other types of hyperlocal content through its network of more than 1500 freelance writers.
Unclear Business Model
According to co-founder and CEO of Hivisasa, Chloe Spoerry, the media firm called it quits because it was unable to find a viable route to meaningful sales and profitability through its advertising-driven business model.
Hivisasa was initially piloted by the 88 mph seed fund in 2012 and formally launched in January 2014. Luminate and Novastar Ventures had invested in Hivisasa in June 2015.
On a similar note, after failing to cut it, Zumi, a popular Kenyan digital media firm, was forced to quit the business in November 2019.
Launched in 2016, Zumi had raised over USD 250 K from Majlis Investment based in the UAE and a couple of other investors. Founded by former internet employees of Rocket, William McCarren and Sabrina Dorman, Zumi intended to turn into an eCommerce site as advertisement revenue wasn’t received.