Shujaaz reinvents the radio star

By Rob Burnet on May 31st, 2012

Boyie is an outsider, because, like all good comic book heroes, he has a secret. He’s built a pirate FM radio station in his bedroom. Now, every day, Boyie (or DJB as he’s known on air) hacks into radio stations around Kenya with his daily show ShujaazFM, a call-out to Kenyan youth to step up and make their lives better.

Shujaaz’s other comic book characters are the kids around Kenya who listen to DJB’s daily show and call in to report their own adventures and the great ideas they’re uncovering to improve their own lives.

When we started on the idea of Shujaaz two years ago, everybody we spoke to told us their concerns about under-employed Kenyan youth: half of Kenya’s population is under 18; two-thirds are under 30.

But although everyone was worried, as we kept asking questions, we kept coming across interesting opportunities that young people were discovering individually. Brilliant new ideas for better agriculture, bigger harvests, new markets, small enterprises, job creation, ways to hold government to account and demand services peacefully and effectively.

It seemed to us that lots of solutions were available to common problems, but young people didn’t seem to know how to tell each other about them.

We looked for media who were talking intelligently to Kenyan youth, engaging them in productive, inspiring conversations. But apart from pop radio, there seemed to be gap when it came to positive, youth-focused media. And that’s when we realized there was really a need – and an opportunity – for us to step in.

Shujaaz’s multiple simultaneous media now reach and engage a monthly audience of more than five million young Kenyans, aged 10-30, in conversations about big ideas that can transform their lives. We create powerful exciting stories, set in the real world of modern Kenyan youth and told in the languages they speak, to build a stream of media that is quite literally pulled from our hands by eager young people.

We talk about struggles in the slums and the villages, to validate ordinary Kenyan life in the media which is otherwise often full of western imports. We don’t romanticise and we don’t patronise. Instead we have created a multimedia channel that looks and feels like the real world to young people who have never seen people like themselves in the media before.

And we’re doing it at scale. As of May 2012, 13,500,000 copies of the monthly comic book have been published and distributed free since 2010 – five million distributed inside the Nation newspapers and the rest picked up from M-pesa kiosks and youth clubs in villages, urban slums and urban areas.

Comics are very rare here, so they get passed around and read over and over. In fact research finds ours get read at least 10 times each. That’s one hundred and thirty five million reads in two years.

8,276 daily radio broadcasts have aired on 25 Kenyan radio stations. More than one million social media conversations have taken place among Shujaaz fans and the characters themselves on Facebook and Twitter and by SMS about Shujaaz stories. Animated Shujaaz videos are now uploaded weekly on YouTube.

Through free distribution, on multiple platforms, at huge scale, Shujaaz is becoming a reliable friend to a generation of young people for whom accessing information, education and shared value systems can be a challenge. The team of Kenyan creatives who work on Shujaaz have an average age of 24 – they keep the story real, and make sure it’s authentic.

By partnering with experts and researchers, scientists and innovators, we make sure Shujaaz delivers proven and practical ideas that can really make a difference to our audience. In this way, Shujaaz is working constantly to nudge a vast and vital community towards new ways of working, thinking and acting.

But do the Shujaaz stories deliver real change to the audience? In a recent independent Kenya-wide survey of secondary school students, 62 per cent said they follow Shujaaz every month. We have an audited regular audience of over more than five million.

More than 30 per cent of the audience report having taken action based on stories they found in Shujaaz. A similar number talked about Shujaaz ideas with friends – further widening and deepening the reach.

DJB is contacted thousands of times each month saying: “I’ve tried Shujaaz ideas – like planting kale in a sack”; “I’ve started a business and I’m supporting my family”; “I’m getting involved with the local government” or “I’m saving up my money”.

Suddenly, they see how to transform their lives and livelihoods, hold government to account, and put a stop to tribalism or hatred – and they’re doing it en masse. So as long as people are snatching Shujaaz comics from our hands, rushing to their radios and friending DJB on Facebook we’re going to find a way to print, broadcast, upload, and make sure we’re tapping the best wisdom and practical advice.

UK-AID from the Department of International Development (DFID) helped get this project started, along with a set of local partners here in Kenya. It was a brave decision to invest in an untried start-up communications project.

DFID invested because we said we could help get their proven agricultural research into use. And we have done so time and time again. The DFID minister Alan Duncan MP has become a friend of the project. He phoned into DJ Boyie’s radio station to congratulate us on our Emmy nomination and described us as “a force for good”.

The next step is: bigger and better. Demand for Shujaaz far outstrips supply, so clearly there’s more work to be done here to spread opportunities and development to the young Kenyans who desperately need them.

And then there’s the rest of East Africa. I’ve had a word with DJB and he says there’s no reason he can’t turn up his bedroom transmitter to hack FM stations in countries all over this region.

We see no reason why DJB’s magic and the ideas he shares shouldn’t be touching and transforming 30 million young people every month in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda. And then maybe there’s the world! Keep listening.

On 1 April 2012, our tiny Kenyan media project was on the red carpet in Cannes. The reason? We didn’t know it yet, but Shujaaz was about to be handed the Emmy Award in the Children and Young People’s category of the International Digital Emmy Awards.