For Nicole Amarteifio trade is one of the keys to sustainable economic development in Africa. She has dedicated her communications career to raising awareness about global trade policies that benefit entrepreneurs on the continent. A graduate of Georgetown University’s Masters in Corporate Communications/Public Relations, Nicole recently embarked on a new venture that takes on Bollywood, Hollywood and Nollywood, with her web series An African City. The show is already a viral hit with audiences in Africa and around the world, reaching over one million views on YouTube. The media coverage has also been very impressive for a newcomer, with features on the BBC, CNN and NPR; and in Black Enterprise, Ebony and French Elle magazines, to name a few.
The show is a perfect mélange of Nicole’s work in development communications, her love of creative writing and digital communications, and her life as a millennial whose lifestyle and stories are often absent from mainstream media. Concerned about the outdated image of African women as the face of suffering and poverty, Nicole recognized an opportunity to re-write that narrative using social media. The series tells the story of being a Ghanaian returnee intrigued by the male-female dynamics and nuances of dating in Accra, Ghana’s capital, through the daily lives and lively conversations of five dynamic women, whose lives she can recognize as that of young women like her.
Of Ghanaian parentage, Nicole has lived her life on three continents. Her childhood was spent in the United Kingdom and the United States. Now, as the creator of An African City, she is living on a whirlwind of screenings, promotions, interviews, and panel discussions in Accra, D.C., Johannesburg, London, and New York. Nicole is currently writing a much anticipated second season of the show, which reviewers and fans are comparing favorably to Girlfriends and the iconic Sex and the City.
To watch Season 1 of An African City, go the show’s YouTube channel.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Rather, I can point to a person. I met Rosa Whitaker after my junior year of college and I was really taken by everything she represented. She was the first-ever U.S. trade representative to Africa under President Bill Clinton, she was considered the mother of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)…the list goes on forever in terms of her accomplishments. I was definitely of the view that my birth country, Ghana, could only really develop economically if trade was a key priority. Rosa was an early champion of that approach to development. After graduating from Brandeis University, I moved to DC to work for her at the Whitaker Group. I credit Rosa for setting me up on this trajectory.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
When you are a Ghanaian in the Diaspora, you can’t help but think about home. And, you tend to want to play a role in its development—ensuring that entrepreneurs have access to global markets (under AGOA), was very meaningful to me. The thing is, though, most entrepreneurs throughout the African continent are not aware of global policies that benefit them. I was part of a communications team that tried to make sure that the information was, indeed, out there and that there was greater awareness among African entrepreneurs. Again, that had meaning to me. Even when I branched off into producing the online TV show ‘An African City’, I kept my “development communications hat” on. For instance, in episode six, the five female leads might be talking about their latest dating escapades…but we still found a way to mention AGOA in the conversation! I am passionate about awareness of such things—in my world, development and being a modern woman in Accra or any other African city are not mutually exclusive ideas. It’s my life and the lives of the show’s lead characters.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I had been in development communications for about five years when I decided to look into programs that could help me hone that skill. I googled “development communication programs” or something with similar keywords and Georgetown’s Masters of Professional Studies in Public Relations/Corporate Communications was on the first page of results—great SEO! I applied, was accepted and began classes a few months later. It was at Georgetown that I met Professor Mike Long and discovered we both had a passion for the creative world, for theatre and for television. When I told him that I wanted to create a show where Africa meets ‘Sex and the City’ but I had no idea how to go about it, he said to me: “step one: just write.” He introduced me to the software Final Draft and that’s what I did…I just wrote. When it comes to the TV industry, I teach myself by googling everything I don’t know. Maybe one day I’ll take a more formal course in TV production, but Google’s search engine has given me all the tools I have needed so far.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
Oh, yes! From Professor Mike Long telling me to “just write” to my parents saying “you have a dream, go for it…but be strategic about it”, people have been very supportive. Then, when Issa Rae came out with the web series “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” I reached out to her on Facebook and she, too, was encouraging. I was living in DC at the time, but it became evident that what Issa Rae did in LA, I could do if I moved back home to Accra.
From the start, there were some who were not supportive of me wanting to go the online route with the show…highlighting low internet penetration rates on the continent. I can now confirm what I knew going in, they were wrong; that has never been an issue. We use YouTube to host the content, and Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. Low internet penetration rates and all, the show is making its mark and reaching audiences in Africa, as well as the Diaspora.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a change back to your old career?
Absolutely, yes! I am full time with ‘An African City’ now and even though I want to make sure there is some aspect of development communications in each episode, I do miss international development as a whole. In the future, I would want to continue working on communications at least part time for various organizations. I do miss it. Just not sure anyone in the development community would hire me knowing that I own a TV show where USAID has been encouraged to step up their women’s empowerment programs by donating [grown up, battery-operated]toys!
When did your career reach a tipping point?
The tipping point for me in development communications was 2010, when I became the first ever social media strategist for the World Bank’s Africa region. Think about it—Africa has the youngest population in the world—about 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, who collectively hold the continent’s development in their hands. How else can an organization of that size really engage in ongoing and meaningful exchanges about development issues with young people on the ground, where development work happens? Social media is best opportunity for those conversations to happen.
The show is a good example. That a web series produced in Accra by a television industry novice—unless being an avid viewer counts as experience—has over one million views on YouTube is only possible because of the power of social media. If you have content that compels online users to press that share button (and it is all about that share button), that will always be the tipping point.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Balancing my day job with producing an online show – that was quite tough! But, it was worth it. Evenings and weekends were all about planning and writing ‘An African City.’ I kept the day job to ensure that I had some cash flow. No point chasing your dream if you can’t eat. 🙂
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Understanding the power of online tools and knowing how to take advantage of them.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The moment the YouTube channel of ‘An African City’ hit one million views.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Create something that the world (or at least a critical mass of people) needs. With ‘An African City’, there were women like me who were sick and tired of the overused and over told recycled imagery of the African woman. Others could relate to that goal and wanted to be part of a movement that did something about it. That is what set this project apart from the chorus of people that complain about the lack of diverse content about Africa and people from Africa on mainstream media but do nothing to change the narrative. That is also what will make you attractive to potential employers, investors, partners…and even YouTube fans.