In conversation with Fu’ad Lawal, who’s intent on digitising Nigerian history

The '' founder discusses his vision for cultural and historical preservation

On December 31st, 2016, a young bright creative pitched an idea to his boss about traveling round the 36 states of Nigeria. Today, he is envisioning a future where Nigerian newspapers can be digitized and history can be forever preserved. Fu’ad Lawal is the man behind these applaudable feats. The founder was once a young boy searching for jobs as a chemistry student. “I was barely finding anything and then I remembered my friends said I could write,” he tells The NATIVE as he recounts getting into journalism. After facing rejection from his first choice of employment, he got into Pulse NG and things skyrocketed from there on.

It was at Pulse that he took the decision to embark on the impressive journey round Nigeria across 80 days. “It was a thing where the business had never done it before so they had to learn,” Fu’ad recounts of the intense venture for him and his supporting team. Not too long after this journey, Fu’ad was on a new journey and this time, to travel round the whole of West Africa. At this time, he was the editor-in-chief at Zikoko and, alongside his travel team, opened Jollof Road, an online diary where supporters and spectators could keep track of his everyday movements and encounters, either through words by Fu’ad himself or a vlog – most times both. 

After working at Pulse, Zikoko and its parent company Big Cabal Media, Fu’ad found himself in the dilemma of ‘what next?’. “One of my problems is that I have many interests and so I didn’t know exactly what to do,” he says. Curiosity always brings out a new side of us and that was Fuad’s story as well. Despite all his many interests, tech was the one he “knew nothing about but had the most curiosity for.” This interest and curiosity for the tech industry landed him a spot at Eden Life, the food and home services company.

Around the same time, Fu’ad started his personal publication, Vistanium, a kaleidoscopic outlet for varying types of stories and pieces, including fiction, personal experiences, life updates and more. It’s via Vistanium that he’s announced and shared the scope of, an archival publication that will give easy access to old Nigerian newspapers from past decades. A creative nomad who understands the impact of the past on the present, and how history influences culture, is a critical undertaking with potentially sweeping value. “I don’t see the impact in a journalistic context. I see the impact of it in the context of everything and how it seeps across everything,” he tells The NATIVE.

With the steady progress of, Fu’ad Lawal discusses his career path so far and his vision for cultural and historical preservation.


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NATIVE: How did you get into writing?

Fu’ad Lawal: To give you a sense, I was studying chemistry. And I remember one Saturday night where I checked all the job sites for chemistry jobs and I remember putting “Chem” so that I don’t miss out on chemists, chemists, or chemical anything. I was barely finding anything and then I was like, “Oh, my friends said I can write.” So I put in writer and all sorts of jobs came up. And I was like wow. People actually get paid for this?

Somehow I got a job interview at Anakle and I got rejected, but someone on the interview panel liked me so he followed me. His name is Chydee. One day he tagged me on a tweet and was like “I think you should apply for this. I think you’re going to be a good fit.” So I applied for the job, sent the email that was requested of me and next thing you know I was being interviewed at Pulse. Next thing you know I was resuming work the next Wednesday and that was it.

I joined because I was terrified of unemployment. There was also this period where I was like, you know what? Over the next four months I’m going to try and cast two nets. If it catches HSC and that entire safety net, I’ll go for it. If it catches writing, I’ll go for it. It also did help that I had a lot of friends who were designers. I had two friends who were designers who always needed copy support and that gave me reassurance that there’s something out there for me.

What was the progression from there?

Pulse first, then Party Jollof. I spent 8 months at Party Jollof and then went back to Pulse. I joined Big Cabal, from there I was not sure what I wanted to do next. One of my big problems is that I have many interests and so I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go. I had spoken to a radio station to come lead content at the radio station, I had spoken to a very, very massive studio to come lead content at this massive studio. I had even spoken to a major music label even though I don’t really like music that much. But you just reach a point in life where everyone believes in your sauce. So I had many interesting choices.

It sounds ridiculous but the one I knew nothing about but had the most curiosity for naturally was the tech company which was Eden. The joke I used to make then was that I was the highest paid intern. It’s a very interesting thing where every time we’re doing a new thing, we’re basically rising to a new level of incompetence. It’s really wild because the only way to become competent is to just embrace the incompetence with humility but not accept it. So you continue to chase how to get better. I don’t think I’ve had a job that wasn’t extremely intense. Pulse was intense but Eden was a new level of intensity that I had never seen or experienced before and naturally what tends to happen is if you don’t break, you grow a lot and that happened.


NATIVE: Between Pulse and Zikoko, you pioneered a couple of important projects. Why did you decide it was important to capture Nigeria and West Africa for digital documentation?

Fu’ad Lawal: I just wanted something for myself. It started as a selfish decision first. Now that I say this, I sound like a selfish person but I guess it doesn’t really hurt to be selfish. When I travelled around Nigeria, I did it with Pulse. Anakle’s team had travelled to Bauchi and they were like the coolest. That was like one of the popping places from a creative standpoint. I texted the WhatsApp group which has my brother and some of my friends and I said, “You guys start saving now, we’re going to Bauchi in December.” I wasn’t at Pulse then, and when I returned to Pulse, I knew that it was not going to happen because Pulse is very intense in December and so I just started nursing this weird obsession that I was going to travel around the entire country. I first posted it on my Instagram. When I was asked why you would want to travel, I validated it with my pitch to Osagie by saying travel for the stories but I really just wanted to enter the street and see everything.

It was a thing where the business had never done something like that before so they had to learn how to do something like that, how to sell it and how to approach the situation. it was just generally intense. I left in July even though I was supposed to leave in March. Things just take time you know. So, I came back in September and the week I came back I downloaded the map of West Africa and drew a line from Lagos to Dakar. Then drew a line back through the Sahel by Sokoto. The line was ridiculous because it cost us days of wandering around in the wilderness when we did travel around West Africa in 2019. So, I just drew a line first and the reason came second. The thing that’s interesting about this line is Jollof rice. The origin is Senegal. So how did it travel along this line down to Lagos, Nigeria. Why is it so popular even though it is from so far away? And so, I started to craft a myth around that.

I met a friend after I travelled around Nigeria. I was telling her how it’s so crazy how I wanted to do this thing and now I’ve done it. She was like “Dude you’ve been making noise about travelling Nigeria since 2015.” I was like, “I have? I have no memory of it.” We did West Africa. It’s funny because I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing that happened at Zikoko. The most interesting thing that happened at Zikoko was that it transformed how, in a sense, a new generation of publications wrote about Nigeria and Nigerians. You can literally see the trace of things Zikoko was doing then in almost everything. It was and still is an incredible team, but the 2019/2020 team was the dream team.

What informed the decision to start Archiving?

Like I said, it started as a selfish interest. I used to work in a newsroom and naturally you want to write about stuff but you just don’t have context. You can’t find anything before the internet became mainstream. What was Maiduguri like in 1995? You don’t know. So, if you want to write about it today, the only material you have is all the Boko Haram coverage and nothing else. So, it’s like, why is Nigerian history inaccessible? The actual original ground zero was, what would it look like to collect all the university projects ever written by students and store this academic body of knowledge. I remember talking about it casually on Twitter. Someone responded saying that it’s a needle in a haystack kind of thing because most projects are bad. I don’t entirely agree but I get it, perception is probably just as important as facts. And then I started thinking about another body of knowledge that we have a consensus on and it became newspapers. So, the new question became, “Oh, Nigerians we don’t keep anything, how are we going to find newspapers?”

When I was traveling around West Africa, Jollof Road, when we got to Sokoto we went to the National Archives and I saw old newspapers from 1983 and I was like, “You people keep old newspapers.” They told me that every national library keeps old newspapers, and that was interesting. The next thing for me became to conduct an experiment. I picked a pilot period of 1960 to 2010. The experiment was, if we go looking for one newspaper per day from that timeline, are we going to find it? It’s 18,647 days. And we found newspapers across the days that we were travelling for, it suddenly became possible. These papers exist. The next thing became, how can we make it accessible? Accessible meaning, figuring out how we’re going to digitise it. And I didn’t know anything about these things. So, I started reading up about digitization and scanning. It was obvious that regular scanners weren’t going to scan the newspapers because they’re large formats. So, I did more research on scanners and I was seeing ridiculous prices.

Second issue was we can’t scan without permission and no one would take us seriously because we’re not a legal entity. And that’s how the process started, registering and raising money for a scanner. When the wave of curiosity started to build, I saw the importance and then we started the work.

NATIVE: How do you envision Archiving contributing to modern Nigerian journalism?

Fu’ad Lawal: It cuts across many things. Journalists have the duty to build, but inevitably what they’re doing is to build the narrative of any nation. The collective narrative of a people and a place at a certain time. And so the problems I had as a journalist where I didn’t have that context suddenly surfaced. But when I think about the ways that it would actually deeply affect us, I think about it currently in five buckets. The first bucket is how we understand democracy and human rights generally, and the effects of having access to how we have engaged with this topic over let’s say over the past 100 years and how they’ve affected us. The second one is policy and governance. What kind of choices did they make fifty years ago that are affecting us today? How did we arrive at those choices?

A third thing is the economy and entrepreneurships. How do you understand the economy? Think about the prices of fuel and Indomie and using them to calculate inflation. There’s also culture and identity. This sounds philosophical. A thing is only as sentient as the awareness of itself and awareness is rooted in knowledge. So, if we don’t know anything about who we are, and we know next to nothing, how aware are we really of why we are here? So it feels like building the identity of the country. The last thing is AI, which is the buzzing thing right now. And so, the thing is how represented is Nigeria in these language models? Because we have nothing to offer. You go to Wikipedia about some historical Nigerian stuff and you’re met with only 15 lines and you can’t blame them because they have nothing to work with.

So, I don’t see the impact in just a journalistic context. I see the impact of it in the context of everything and how it seeps across everything. The vision for is to become the most dependable resource. One inevitable consequence of this is that it is going to extend all over the continent. We’re going to have to gather some momentum to be able to go past the borders of Nigeria. Because it’s not only a Nigerian problem, it’s a continental problem. It’s fundamentally the purpose is to make Nigerian history accessible, what are the other places that find information that makes Nigerian history accessible? 

Is there a category of newspapers you guys are including? is there a criteria for the selection of newspapers?

For the first phase, our priority is just to find one newspaper a day right. Just one a day, and we’re doing one a day because it helps us show everyone what’s possible. This is what happens when you have just 18,647 newspapers. Now, we’re archiving everything eventually. Over the next three to five years we want to have archived one major newspaper from every region. So, the work is a lot.

Apart from copyright issues and resources, what are the other challenges you’re facing with the digitalization of these newspapers?

Storage, that’s a resource problem too to be honest. Storage is expensive, especially when you’re considering the volume of the files that we’re trying to digitise. Few days ago I uploaded four or five months of 1994 PM News to the cloud and it was like 250 GB. So we’re going to be guzzling a lot of storage, I think that’s going to be our biggest expense for a very long time. Then, it’s really just publishers and money. Those are our only two problems. On the talent side, we have serious talents. Our talent pool is divided into volunteers and our full timers. Our full-timers are mostly associates. Our biggest problem is cooperation from publishers and money, we need a shit ton of money.

How have you been navigating copyrights with these publishers?

So it’s literally going to pitch them, right? Currently we’ve closed only two publishers. We’ve closed PM News and a newspaper that was running until the early 90’s I think; The Republic. That’s the hard part for publishers: It’s convincing them that what we’re doing is for them too. Like, our pitch to them has been, we will help you digitise at zero cost to you, just give us permission to redistribute. By redistributing, I mean make it accessible to everyone. It’s been one of the toughest parts to be honest because there’s a suspicion that, “Who’s giving you people money for all these things?” They can’t fathom that we’ve raised over $10,000 from the general public.

NATIVE: You’ve also announced ‘Sun and Country’, a storytelling project centred on the civil war. What informed that?

Fu’ad Lawal: I think ‘Sun and Country’ is one of the few things that is truly rooted in a very moral mission, because that’s the most pivotal event in Nigerian history since independence.

Given the ever-evolving media landscape, how do you plan to adapt? People are tilting more to videos and audio formats like podcasts. So, how do you stay relevant?

Yeah, so, video is not a new format to me. Personally, I think of writing as a critical first draft of format development. Do you understand? And so even when I say ‘Sun and Country’, like we literally have a roadmap that starts at text and ends with a feature release, whether as a limited series or as a movie.I don’t think in one format, I think that’s one of the things that Big Cabal did for me. Big Cabal are very content agnostic. You have an idea and you ask yourself, ‘What’s the best format to interpret this idea?’ For me, staying relevant is actually just challenging yourself to make stuff that you’re not gonna be bored by. I try not to bore myself so that’s a good pace to start. I also try to not approach it in a way I’ve done in the past, and so that helps it to stay interesting and exciting for me. I also consume a lot of really, really good stuff. I consume everything. I watch Korty, I watch Shank, I watch Tayo Aina, I watch Fisayo Fosudo. I watch Mr Beast. So I watch everything, and I read so much.

How can social media help the work is doing?

To be honest, it’s retweeting. I am a student of media and I understand the power of media, because the current media debate that is having, is because of a media story right? So just spreading the word is going to help a lot. One of the things we really need to get better at is actually just talking about it. I have a serious problem with sharing when I’m not asked, I need to fix that. I just feel like I’m extremely lazy and irresponsible and I have zero follow through. So I’m like, will talking about it provide some satisfaction on having done it if you don’t follow through?

But you’re actually doing very great work. It takes a lot of energy to say you want to digitise thousands of newspapers from 1960. At some point you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, what is the essence of this?’ and many Nigerians have short attention spans, that’s why scandals in this country last only 24 hours.

Here’s the thing, when i think of the newspaper i don’t believe that the newspapers are for people to go and read. I don’t expect most of the people to go and read, that’s not what i expect. I expect knowledge workers to be the ones to take the stories to people.

Like academics?

Not just academics. For example, there is no definitive story of Festac ‘77 on the internet. Like that’s NATIVE territory. People don’t need to go to the archives to read the weeks long coverage, they just need to go to NATIVE and read NATIVE’s story about it, and go to Wikipedia and read a richer article about Festac ‘77. Do you get? They don’t need to go to the newspapers and look for the price of a bag of rice in 1989. They just need to go to the calculator Stears has built to calculate these things and track these things, see how the price of a bag of rice has gone from maybe 2 naira to 60,000 naira, and the source is I think of as a public well with unlimited utility. For example, the world building of [the film] ‘76 was most likely done with like two weeks worth of newspapers. And that’s fourteen days; we’re trying to archive 18,627 days.