The story might sound familiar to anyone who has been near a TV in the past 15 years. A group of five urban young women trying to make a living in the big city, discussing over lunch and cocktails the intimate details of their relationships, jobs and shoes.
But this is no tale of New York sybarites; this very Ghanaian story of university-educated ladies in Accra is the brainchild of entrepreneur and creative genius of writer and producer Nicole Amarteifio.
Like the women in her YouTube web series, the former World Bank communications specialist is a member of the “reaspora” who have returned to their homeland following university and a career abroad.
Named by the FT as one of the top 25 Africans to watch, Amarteifio left a career in the West and returned to Ghana to live her dream and tell her story of an African City.
So what exactly inspired her and motivated her to start her web series? It turns out that a threat to her life was the catalyst.
One day, while working at the World Bank as a social media strategist, the earth moved for Amarteifio – literally.
“We were on the 7th floor of the building when the whole structure began to shake,” she recalls.
“I remember myself and all my colleagues were walking down the stairs to the ground floor – and we didn’t know what the cause of the shaking was know what it is. The building just shook, and everyone’s kinda thinking back to 9/11 and you don’t know what’s going on.
“But I remember thinking the whole way down the stairs – I didn’t get to create my show: an African City!”
Fortunately, the writer and producer survived the earth tremor and went on to achieve her goal.
The reason she began to put pen to paper, she says, was that she had become dissatisfied with the narrow, one-sided stories told about Africa and its women – who were always cast as weak, needy and abused.
Having lived and schooled a few years in Ghana, she had seen first-hand a different side of Africa and its women.
And she wanted her story to counter this perception; Sex and the City was a good model for strength and confidence in womankind. But Nicole appreciates the nuanced nature of many of the issues her episodes broach and refuses to accept simplistic labels such as ‘feminist’ and other labels.
So she quit her job in Washington D.C. and flew back to Ghana to start her web series. Nicole funded the first season of the show out of pocket, sinking her life savings into her amateur effort at directing and TV production.
“I will never stick my own money into a project like that again,” she says, perhaps in acknowledgment that one only takes huge risks when one is younger and more reckless. But she admits her total belief in the project and ‘crazy energy’ for it led to it paying off.
The first season was an instant internet hit – receiving about a million views in its first few weeks alone.
Her decision to publish on YouTube also turned out to be a good business move. She retained creative ownership of her work – whose sexually charged, head-on treatment of taboo issues would likely have led otherwise to some censoring.
And she also market tested her ‘product’, by garnering such a large following in such a short space of time. Unsurprisingly, she ended up having the pick of offers from TV networks and product partnerships for Season 2.
Nicole conducted auditions for her cast in New York and Ghana. But, eager to point out that there is a wealth of talent in her home country, she used a solely Ghana-trained production team. “It is very important to me that the crew was trained right here in Accra. It is an important message for me to send that an African City is an entirely Ghanaian production” she says.
Particularly fulfilling to Nicole are the testimonies she has received from many mothers who recommended the show to their daughters and many Africans. Encouraged by these affirmations, she is focusing on growing the show and tackling even more taboo issues in the future.
The straight-talking Nicole hates excuses and believes in hard work. “No one can care for your business like you do”, she insists and expects her team to take ownership of mistakes.
Frugal Nicole refers to her laptop as her most treasured possession. She doesn’t spend much and saves much of what she’s made from her projects – having learned from sensible frugality from her father.
Nicole has found commercial and critical success in self-sustaining business that doesn’t necessarily need her. She has touched sensitive taboo issues that have resonated with a universal audience and in the process presented a different story of Africa and her women. In many ways her personal story captures the energy and resourcefulness of the new Africa – the Africa she worked hard in the west to educate westerners about.
Nicole Amarteifio is telling new stories about Africa to the world – and she isn’t about to stop.
……….. Thank you for reading …………
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The writer is author of Kuenyehia On Entrepreneurship, Chairman of ENSAfrica│Ghana and Corporate Executive in Residence at the University of Ghana Business School. Follow him on twitter @elikemkuenyehia.