Fu'ad Lawal: leading with Curiosity and Courage

“What is the difference between grit and blind perseverance? How long will this experiment run?” 

These are the questions that Fu’ad Lawal asks himself as he contemplates his immediate future. For the first time in over a decade, he is without a day job and a stable source of income. His passion for cultural preservation and history compelled him to quit his job at a growing startup to focus fully on two ambitious projects that hope to bring Nigeria’s history to the present and inspire the future: Archivi.ng, where he is Executive Director, and Vistanium, where he serves as Project Lead.

Early Life 

Fu’ad’s early years were marked by visits to Ikoyi Prison, where his mother worked as a prison warden. These visits exposed him to a unique environment, allowing him to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds, mostly criminals. One memorable encounter was with Clifford Orji, the infamous man-eater.

What marked Fu’ad, though, was his curiosity and desire to discover how things and people worked. As a child in primary and secondary school, he read many books, fiction and nonfiction - broadening his knowledge and understanding of the world at an early age. This aptitude for knowledge often manifested physically, as he had a disposition towards dismantling objects to find out how they worked – a curious trait that prompted adults around him to suggest he pursue a career as an engineer or scientist.

This stemmed from the long-standing yet misguided notion that the sciences are the sole outlet for an inquisitive mind. With this mentality ingrained, Fu'ad studied Industrial Chemistry at Madonna University from 2008-2013.

Starting a Career in Media

For many millennial Nigerians, graduating from university in the 2010s was a disillusioning experience. Their time in university had failed to adequately prepare them for the realities of the workforce, and to compound their disappointment, there were few job opportunities available in their chosen fields of study.

After University, Fu’ad was unable to find a job in industrial chemistry and decided to find an alternative means of employment. Encouraged by the progress and readership he had garnered on his blog, he decided to pursue a career in writing, beginning with a couple of freelance jobs.

His first employment was at Pulse Nigeria, a media company known for news, entertainment and lifestyle. At Pulse, Fu’ad worked in the newsroom, writing on a variety of topics, and understanding how to create content. While working there, he came up with the idea to visit all 36 Nigerian states and document the trip.

At a time when the Boko Haram terrorist sect was spreading terror across Northern Nigeria, he embarked on an 80-day journey driven by a profound desire to gain deeper insights into his country and its people. The stories he told about the different cultures he encountered revealed to readers how much Nigeria had to offer in terms of culture and history. 

After Pulse, Fu'ad joined Big Cabal Media (BCM), a digital media firm, as a Content Strategist for Zikoko, their youth-focused vertical, and was soon promoted to Editor-in-Chief. At Zikoko, Fu'ad continued storytelling, notably starting "Naira Life" – a series exploring Nigerians' earnings, spending, and saving habits.

Fu'ad's adventurous spirit and curiosity resurfaced with Jollof Road, where he and colleagues at Zikoko embarked on a journey to visit every mainland country in West Africa. Mirroring his Nigerian trek at Pulse, Fu'ad published daily dispatches at noon, vividly recounting their experiences and encounters. This hugely popular online series provided an insightful exposé on the similarities and uniqueness of West African cultures, languages, and histories.

Transition to Technology

Upon leaving Big Cabal Media, Fu’ad moved on to lead Growth at Eden Life, a tech startup providing on-demand home services. This unconventional career shift showcased his curiosity to explore new frontiers without fear of failure. Fortunately, His gamble paid off, with the company multiplying profits tenfold within a year.

Simultaneously, Fu'ad took contract roles at two fintechs - Nestcoin and Rise. Venturing out of his comfort zone, he worked on product-market fit and content strategy respectively, embracing the learning opportunity despite uncertainties. His open-mindedness and willingness to take risks enabled him to contribute significantly to these companies' growth.

Building Archivi.ng and Vistanium

“When writing stories, past knowledge helps create context and without such context, you can only write incomplete stories.”

During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Fu'ad conceived two brilliant ideas. Frustrated by the lack of accessible historical records as a journalist, the first idea he had was to digitize every Nigerian newspaper published since independence on January 1, 1960. This led him to found Archivi.ng, a non-profit startup dedicated to this cause.

So far, Archivi.ng has digitized over 50,000 pages, establishing Nigeria's first interactive digital newspaper archive. The project aims to preserve historical newspapers at risk of deterioration, ensuring this invaluable information is available for future generations.

While Archivi.ng focuses on preserving existing stories, Fu’ad’s second idea was to write new ones. As someone fascinated by human experiences, he felt compelled to share stories overlooked by mainstream media through Vistanium, a Substack newsletter. Since its April 2020 launch, Vistanium has amassed a following by documenting everything from reformed robbers-turned-teachers to bizarre missing body part cases.

"Text is a first draft. It will always lead to something more" – Fu'ad Lawal

In 2023, three years after inception, he envisioned evolving Vistanium into a multimedia platform spanning text, audio and video. This ambition, coupled with archivi.ng's progress prompted Fu'ad to resign from his job at Eden Life to pursue Vistanium full-time, transitioning it from a one-man side hustle to a team endeavour.

Having experimented with this idea with contributors like Victor Daniel previously, onboarding more creators has become integral to Vistanium's operations. Aisha Salaudeen brought her podcasts 'I Too Sabi' and 'I Like Girls' under Vistanium's umbrella, while Aisha Bello is spearheading 'Bottom Line' – a series exploring money matters affecting Nigerians.

The evolution of Vistanium is epitomised by Sun and Country, an ambitious project aiming to provide a comprehensive, nuanced account of the Nigerian Civil War. Developed by a dedicated team backed by extensive research, Sun and Country takes shape as a multimedia body of work in text and audio formats. According to Fu'ad, it enables "someone who knew next to nothing to have an informed, empathetic, and nuanced understanding of the war in a consumable and shareable way."

While such ambitious projects breed challenges, especially financial ones, Fu'ad hopes Vistanium becomes self-sustaining through recurring subscriptions, fundraising, sponsorships, and grants. However, the core driving force remains using compelling storytelling across multiple formats to capture the nuances of Nigerian life and offer new perspectives on the human condition.

What the future holds

“The question I'm asking myself is, can we find the most extraordinary people who have something to say and give them a place to say it in the best format?” 

Looking ahead, Fu'ad remains driven by his commitment to his people, their stories, and their shared future. His efforts are already bearing fruit, with Vistanium garnering a growing readership and subscriber base, while archivi.ng's digitized newspaper pages spark daily discourse on Nigerian history, even helping uncover documented family histories.

If enough newspapers and magazines are preserved and made accessible, could it elevate global understanding of Nigeria and inevitably Africa, by providing crucial context? If Sun and Country succeeds, will Nigerians finally grasp their history to build a prosperous future?

The only way to find out is to forge ahead, which Fu'ad is committed to doing - leading with curiosity, unearthing captivating stories from the past and present, and producing impactful work that paves the way for a future brimming with possibility.

Brave by Reneé is a monthly storytelling series that spotlights exceptional people who embody bravery, either through their passions and professions or by sharing their stories.