Comics that provoke alternative thinking

Tuesday May 23 2017


By By Tasneem Hassanali @TheCitizenTz

The youth of today always wants to know more, explore and question more than any other generation. But in today’s democracy, have we really understood the young people of Tanzania? Often times, we have left them out from our conversations to address their needs and talk to them about their future or their role in the development of this country. Studies reveal that between 2015 and 2050, the number of African youth will increase from 230 million to 450 million.

Youth are the most important generation for the future of Tanzania, so believes the Shujaaz team, a platform born to give life-changing inspiration freely to the youth who need it the most. In a conversation with Success, the producer of Shujaaz, Lucky Komba, tells us how they use a combination of platforms such as comics to communicate the right things to the youth in Tanzania.

1. How was the idea of Shujaaz born?

Millions and millions of young people are facing uncertain future: they’re leaving school, wondering how to make their lives successful; they need good information and real inspiration if they are to reach their potential. But where are these resources? Most youth media stick to pop music and basic entertainment. Where can young people find the ideas, guidance, role-models and opportunities they need to flourish in life? Shujaaz was born to fill that gap – giving life-changing inspiration freely to the people who need it most.

2. What’s the advantage of using the medium of comics as a social innovation tool?

Currently, comics are Shujaaz’s most prolific platform – we print and distribute over 500,000 copies of Shujaaz comic magazine free each month here in Tanzania. Comics quite unlike other media – may be read over and over again, going through the hands of many people who share them with their friends. Unlike TV, comics can reach even to the furthest ends of the world as it’s simple to be carried physically and doesn’t require electricity! Also, comics give a reader a great visual presentation of a particular knowledge, and it’s easy to remember.

One of the biggest advantages of strong visuals is that they do not require a person to possess a high level of literacy to understand the story and the message. In fact, we don’t just use comics to reach our audience – it is a combination of platforms that tell stories including the syndicated Shujaaz radio show on 5 stations across Tanzania and social media.

3. Shujaaz raises serious issues through the use of comic. What kind of youth-oriented issues do you mostly focus on and why?

The main focus has been looking for interesting opportunities for youth outside of the formal job market so that they can make a bit of money and improve their lives and the lives of those around them. In Tanzania agriculture offers this opportunity to youth but many don’t even consider it as they associate it with poverty, failure and hard labour.

We have been trying to shift this perception using Shujaaz media by sharing the stories of successful agri-hustlers who are making money and have a good time doing it! However, Shujaaz content has also been touching governance, reproductive health and education.

4. I read somewhere that comics bring out a common man’s debate. How true is this in Tanzania?

It is very true! Shujaaz believes change begins to happen when lots of people join a big conversation and start to listen to other people’s thoughts and beliefs. All the Shujaaz media is designed to trigger a big conversation about issues that matter to the people themselves.

This conversation is curated through SMS and social media platforms – it is fascinating watching what people say and how trends in the conversation shift over time as they engage with Shujaaz media. We’ve seen a significant shift in how many people are now talking about agriculture in a positive light, when a year ago many of Shujaaz audience dismissed it out of hand.

The power of the comic is that it does not isolate those who are not academic or even those who can’t read as the powerful visuals bring them into the debate.

5. Shujaaz raises grave issues openly. Has your team faced any resistance?

The majority of people who interact with Shujaaz are delighted to see the issues it covers, discussed openly. We have never faced an extreme resistance though some fans on social media have occasionally been sensitive when talking about menstruation but this is a taboo that Shujaaz is happy to face – especially since more than 1 million young women follow Shujaaz each month. Some teachers don’t want their students reading the comics because of the sexual health content, which is a big shame. But I believe that they should be embraced and used as tools for youth to openly have discussions on as these are crucial subjects that can save lives.

6. One of your reports stated that half of young people aged 15-24 say they don’t have enough money to get them through the day. How do you address such issues through your mediums in order that they reach their full potential?

Money is the big thing for Tanzanian youth, so what Shujaaz does is show them opportunities and behaviours that would help them start and scale up small businesses, or hustles. In the Shujaaz platform, you will find case studies of youth who managed to overcome common daily struggles and managed to make a difference in their lives - to get youth inspired and motivated, and to give them more information on opportunities in the neighbourhood. We also help in shaping their thinking and behaviours in terms of how to realise their full potential and how to make their dreams possible through different media products such as the smart ideas (dili za akili) segment on comic and radio, which includes influencers and experts to give more knowledge on a particular area.

7. Mobile has become a huge part of the youth, whether it is facilitating a conversation or financial exchange. Can you brief us on what your findings revealed on this and is it a big problem here in Tanzania?

A mobile phone these days is not just a means of communication – it’s a life line. Young people use mobile money to launch and run their businesses, to get/send financial support during the time of crisis, and so on. Based on our research, young people in Tanzania spend 20-30 per cent of their average monthly earnings on airtime; if you add a cost of a phone here, the proportion would probably rise to 50 per cent on a monthly income for some.

This is a very clear testament to the importance of having a mobile phone and staying connected for youth. We do not see it as a problem – we believe it is an opportunity for us to reach out to young people in creative ways through digital and to create networks of youth, who can support and encourage each other, share ideas and create communities, so that the changes we are trying to create are more sustainable.

We’ve recently conducted an interesting action research project in partnership with the Gates Foundation, where we looked deeper at how mobile phones and digital financial services can augment informal financial networks of young people and help them (and their households) get out of chronic poverty cycle and seize opportunities. We believe that the digital space has a lot of promise, especially in helping us reach more young people, stimulate conversations among them and nudge them in a positive direction.

8. How do you measure the response you get from the youth?

The immediate fan feedback trickles in literally every minute through two digital channels - SMS and social media. So, as soon as the comic and radio shows are out, fans start texting in with their ideas, thoughts and comments.

Next, Shujaaz team expands stories and creates conversations on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram. To track changes in digital conversations overtime, we use big data analytics. For example, in Kenya in the period of 4 years (2013-2017) the platform managed to shift girls to having more open and positive conversations about using contraceptives to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies. In Tanzania, we see a huge mind shift towards accepting agriculture as a potentially lucrative source of income.

When Shujaaz started talking about agriculture in 2015, the bulk of fans did not even want to hear about agriculture – regardless of the promise of good money and financial freedom. In the past two years, many fans went from such complete denial of agriculture as a way for youth to make money to getting curious about innovative ways of being a smart. According to our most recent research, 56 per cent of Shujaaz fans think that agriculture is a very cool source of income. So, these are just two examples out of many; the massive researches that we undertake, help discover and celebrate shifts in mind-sets and norms among youth.