Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Vera Kwakofi
Featured image: Vera Kwakofi, Jackson School of Global Affairs World Fellow, Photo by Tony Fiorini
By Fatou M’Baye
Vera Kwakofi is a journalist and media executive with more than 20 years of experience in the industry. As the Senior Commissioning News Editor at the BBC World Service, she oversees the BBC’s international TV broadcasting in Africa. Kwakofi leads a team of journalists across the African continent and in London that works to share African stories with a global audience. Kwakofi is also the creator of the BBC’s Women of Africa series. She holds a diploma in journalism and mass communications from the Ghana Institute of Journalism, a bachelor’s degree in politics from London Guildhall University, and a MSc in consultant management and organizational change from the University of London, Birkbeck College. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What drew you to the World Fellows Program?
The first thing was the prospect of networking with extremely accomplished individuals from around the world and learning from them, because to a large extent, I feel that my career has been around journalists and journalism in the newsroom. Sometimes you need to step out of that environment a little bit to get a better perspective of the world. And what better place to do it than with people who do things that are very different from you? I think I was right in the fact that that’s been the experience, the most sort of enduring experience for me here.
How has the program been going so far and how has the transition to Yale been?
It’s very interesting, not having been in an academic environment for a while. So just getting used to seeing tons and tons of students has been very, very interesting, but also quite stimulating. Because then you get a sense of the vastness of the experience of Yale, and just random encounters that you can have on campus. I’ve been enjoying being here around people who are really accomplished or working their way towards that with a really rigorous education that you get at Yale. It’s been a really invigorating experience.
That’s so interesting. Are you taking any classes here that you enjoy?
I’m taking one class, which is the catalyzing private investment for Africa class. And that’s been extremely enjoyable, if you can say that of any class. I don’t have to do the assignments, which makes it even more enjoyable. But it’s just been really great being in a class in a seminar style. Some of the questions that come through from my classmates make you think about what they’re focusing on, and different ideas come from different parts of the room. So it’s just been really nice to enjoy that.
Moving into your career, what led you to pursue journalism?
The basics of it was just being in a position to tell stories, and I suppose journalism provided the platform that allowed me to do that, to tell stories. I think the fascinating thing about journalism is that I didn’t necessarily have to specialize on one thing. You could be a jack of all trades in journalism, and that appealed to my character because I’ve got an interest in lots of things. The idea that every day in a newsroom is different is very, very appealing because you can never get bored in the newsroom. Particularly my work at the BBC, considering the scale of the audiences that consume our content. On average, in my area on my specific team, for instance, you get an average of 30 million people a week consuming your content. It is very humbling and makes the value of what you’re doing even more imperative, as well as the importance of doing it properly and doing it right.
Over your 20 years at the BBC, you’ve had many different positions in the network. Could you describe your path to your current position and how all of those different experiences that you’ve had and different kinds of work have prepared you for your current role?
I started off in the BBC as a sort of desk journalist, which basically meant bashing the phone to call up contributors, asking for interviews, and things like that. But after a while, I began to feel that I needed to do more. I needed to be the one to make the decisions about which stories came through and which ideas were pitching, how we work with journalists differently or work with journalists better, how we develop a journalist. I think that that, as well as my eclectic interests, drove me towards the management path. So in the interim between being a desk journalist and heading towards management, I did a couple of projects. That gave me visibility within the organization, because I was delivering projects on behalf of the organization. It gave me visibility to the senior managers. It’s really important that if you’re sort of at the lower totem of the pole in the workplace, how do you make sure that your work is noticed, particularly by the people who matter in senior management? Volunteering for tasks, but also—it took me a while to learn this–but I wasn’t shy about writing to the senior manager and saying, “Hi, I’ve just done this piece of work. I think you’ll find it fascinating.” So that they keep you in mind. That also allows them to put their trust in you and give you opportunities.
One of the opportunities I got, which gave me some of the skills I have now as a manager, was I got asked to be an editorial advisor for the Director of BBC World Service. For just under a year I worked with him, and that’s when you see what it’s like to manage from a very high level. You’ve got a viewpoint of how to interact at your level of senior leaders, but also how it’s important to engage with the wider organization. There was also interface with stakeholders as well. Then you’d learn to troubleshoot, you’d learn to time manage, you’d learn about communication. You’d learn about decision making. You’d learn about strategy, and you’d learn about your industry, and how to make sure that the decisions you make allow for your organization to be resilient and survive and grow in the industry. Lastly, you’d learn about your audiences, your market, your customers. So I learned a lot of that from the work I did with Peter Horrocks, and as a manager, that’s been what has helped me to support my team, to communicate our future, to ensure that as a business we’re responsive to what the market’s changing needs are, how audiences consume media differently, and how we should strategize to that. That’s what’s led me to where I am today.
And now at your current position, you oversee journalists stationed all across Africa and also in London. So are you often traveling to different locations to meet with journalists? Have your travels impacted your perspective on world issues?
Absolutely. It’s really important for me that I’m able to know my teams across the continent and know them individually, not just as people who are making progress but as individuals with ambitions, with ideas and stories to tell. Building that relationship with my team is essential for me to help support them and their growth as a leader. Because the bulk of my team is in East Africa, I travel extensively to Kenya particularly, and it makes you aware of how fast those audiences are changing and how they consume media. Because if you’re in Kampalaa, Uganda, the local media, what interests them, is different to what would happen in Nigeria. So traveling and having that experience of immersing yourself in those countries and cultures gives you a better understanding of your audiences and how to serve them better. It’s absolutely essential to my work.
The BBC is obviously one of the biggest broadcasting companies, and covering Africa is a huge task. How do you balance that constant influx of stories coming from the continent and choose which ones to highlight, like you were saying, in different countries and regions?
I think the main thing for us is…so there are two things. What’s the news agenda of the day, because sometimes you have no choice in what story to do because an incident has happened, and you’ve got to cover it to the best of your ability for the audiences. We know that in the BBC the audiences don’t come to us as a first source of news, because their local media will always be their first source of news. They come to us to either confirm the information they’ve heard in the local media, or to get further insight and analysis. That’s how we build the content that we do, as a way of offering people further insight and analysis on a story that they may have either heard locally, read online, or seen on social media.
Then the second thing is in terms of this story, such as current affairs not on the Daily News agenda. We always look at what stories and what issues do we think matter to audiences, and how do we make sure that the stories that we do allow the audiences to see themselves reflected and their experiences reflected.
An example that I’ll give you is one of the latest documentaries that I commissioned is a story called Africa’s Titanic, and it’s 20 years on looking at a ferry that sank off the coast of Senegal where nearly 1900 people died. It’s probably the second largest non-war maritime disaster in the world after the Titanic, and not many people know about it. That story stuck with me because it was a story I remember from my early days in journalism. So to mark the 20th anniversary, I commissioned a documentary which went back to look for the survivors and to find out what’s happened to the story since then. It was the first time ever, I think, that a global platform was being given to survivors’ stories from that incident. The overwhelming comment and feedback that we got from audiences on our social media and broadcast when that went out a couple of weeks ago, was “I’ve never heard of this story.” And for me, that means I’ve done my work, because a story of this magnitude should be spoken about in conjunction with, say, the Titanic, but not many people knew about it. If I’m able to create an opportunity for audiences around the world to find out about this really important story, then I feel that it’s work that we’ve done well. It’s that kind of thing that feeds into our choice of stories. Are we offering new information to the audiences? Are we giving them information that allows them to learn something new, and are we offering the people on the continent and people in the diaspora as well as global audiences an insight into Africa that they didn’t know before? If we tick yes on all three, then for me, that’s satisfying.
What do you think is missing from coverage of Africa? Not necessarily at the BBC, or BBC Africa, but just in general, in news coverage?
I think there needs to be more African voices in the context of global issues. I don’t think that there are enough media organizations both on the continent as well as internationally who always think, “what does that mean for Africa?” when there’s a big international issue. Take, say, the conflict in Ukraine, for example, and the complaints about racism experienced by African students over there. We covered that extensively because we’ve got a huge network in Africa. We’ve got huge audiences on the continent. But I doubt very much that outside of the BBC coverage there would have been mass coverage of what it means for Africans, the Ukraine War, by other media. The impact of the Ukraine war—the cost of living crisis, food shortages, and terror—it’s a huge concern. The cost of the Ukraine war is not just the nuclear threat that concerns American citizens or the energy crisis that concerns Europe. There is a cost to Africa. There is a cost to Asia. And I wish more and more when it comes to global stories, that the rest of the world also thinks of Africa as being part of the casualties of some of the impacts of these events.
Speaking of highlighting stories, you’re the creator and executive editor of Women of Africa. Could you talk a little bit about the series and what led you to come up with the idea for that program?
I was worried that we weren’t doing enough to reach women audiences and to do stories, especially in the newsroom. When the overwhelming coverage is geopolitics, it’s very easy to forget that women make up more than half of the audiences of the continent, and another half of those women are probably breadwinners, but are not necessarily literate. But the issues that we cover, whether it’s politics, business, sports, etc, the impact affects them. So I was wondering whether we had done enough to create that platform for women-told stories to come through, and I created Women of Africa, which we were very lucky to get funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support, to allow us to bring some of these stories live.
We did three series: one was young businesswomen, one was unsung heroes, and then the other one was on women CEOs. Through those series, we got to meet extraordinary women who are making amazing moves in their countries but didn’t have an international profile, and I was really keen on that because I didn’t want it to be a case of people that had already been featured globally. I wanted us to find new people and younger people who were making things happen in their communities. I think that was the success of the series, because we’re able to create a platform for these women, and many of them got recognition as a result of the publicity we gave them. It’s helped propel their careers and their ideas and initiatives forward. So for me that’s been really satisfying to see.
Sort of related, but what would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on at the BBC?
All of my projects are different, but I think the latest one that I did before leaving to come to Yale will probably be my favorite, and it’s still rolling out. I commissioned a series of non-investigative documentaries which highlight issues I felt were of importance to audiences across Africa as a way of better understanding African society. The jeweler documentary is one of them. The second one was Searching For My Father, which follows a journalist who’s about to get married but has no idea who her father is. So we follow her on a journey to discovery, because identity is really important for lots of Africans, and there are sometimes limitations to people because they don’t know their fathers or their mothers. We wanted to explore what that means in terms of the context of identity. There are a couple of other stories that are coming up, one on being an atheist in Nigeria, which is one of the largest, most religious countries on the continent. There’s a story that’s going to come through on Hiplife music. There’s another documentary on social media money, which sort of looks at being an influencer in Africa, and what’s the story behind being a social media influencer. Those are just a few of the stories that I’ve commissioned, and I’m really looking forward to it. Because I think they give us an insight in a way that you don’t get from news stories about what’s important and what’s happening to African people.
The Africa Eye series covers some difficult topics. So how do you go about investigative journalism that dives into dangerous territory like that?
We’ve got extremely experienced executive producers who’ve got a huge level of experience in getting access to stories, but the initial stories are always pitched to us by people who are on the ground, who have access to the principal characters who are involved in the investigation, who are interested in finding out how wrongdoing happens and who’s behind it. We work with a lot of African journalists, and what I’m proudest about is that through the work that we do, especially with our undercover investigators, or even with the journalists who go out, they’re not always well known. Some are not even journalists at all. I’m really proud that we’ve been able to bring people who had a story to tell but didn’t necessarily have the journalistic clout to be able to do that. And we’re bringing them to journalism.
What I think Africa Eye has done is change the face of accountability journalism on the continent, because it means that people in power are more aware that we might be watching them. And if that means better accountability to their citizens to taxpayers, it means our jobs, some of our job is done. I think our metrics for success have been creating a platform for journalists in Africa to be able to do investigations, because we do a lot of training through the work that we do. It’s about highlighting accountability journalism and just highlighting the place of journalism in any society.
I think the third thing is the impact that we’re able to make with some of the stories that we’ve done. Whether it’s from the codeine investigation, which was the first one, which led to the banning of some of the really bad codeine drugs that were being made available, or court cases brought against the people behind baby stealing in Nairobi from our baby stealers investigation, or reuniting disabled people with their families who had been trafficked from Tanzania to Kenya to back in the streets by syndicate. We’re all satisfied when there’s some sort of resolution. It’s not always the case, but if we’re able to, through the investigation, bring awareness either for the government or other authorities to wrongdoing, that people are held to account. It makes a difference.
For my last question…what advice would you give to undergraduate students? Specifically those interested in journalism and communications?
You can learn the craft of journalism on the job. But what you have to have is a passion for telling people’s stories, and an interest in people and an interest in ideas, an interest in the globe, maybe the environment, your community around you, because that’s where your story is going to come from. The real skill is being able to identify a story out of anything that happens, so have an interest in your surroundings, have an interest in people. I also think, because the biggest challenge facing journalism now is the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation, being aware of your responsibility to ensure that fact based content making is essential to your job as a journalist. And then have fun making videos and do your own stuff now, because in newsrooms, people will hire you if you show your creativity and storytelling. So whether it’s making your own podcast or whatever it is, just begin. Now it’s easier to even do that because you’ve got your phone and you can tell stories that way. Just practice being a journalist, because it is difficult to get into a newsroom if you don’t have just the very least bit of experience to go in with. And you don’t have to have studied journalism to become a journalist. It can be a career path for you at any time of your life. Not just for undergrads, but for anybody who’s looking. Your experience, whether you were a banker, or whether you were a doctor or whatever it is and you want to move into journalism, carry that experience with you. It gives you an edge because you’ve got a specialist knowledge and an insight that other people wouldn’t have.
Fatou M’Baye is a first-year in Saybrook College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.