Covid-19: Story of journalists who found strength in entrepreneurship after a sweep of job losses and pay cuts

Monday MAY 11, 2021

Odutayo Odusanya

When an unidentified Italian citizen who works in Nigeria returned from Milan and was confirmed by virologists at Lagos State Teaching Hospital as incident case of covid-19 on February 25, 2020 little did Nigerians know that it was going to be a life changing experience .

According to a survey conducted by the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics and the World bank, more Nigerians in the lowest consumption quantiles lost their jobs between April and May 2020 and last quarter of the year. Equally, there has been an income loss, especially for non-farm businesses. 

On May 29, 2020 some members of staff of the Punch Newspaper closed work with the sad news of termination of employment. For those who could read between the lines, this has come as no surprise because before then, the newspaper outlet had reduced the pages of its newspaper from 48 to 32 pages, the reason hinged on a rapid drop in readership due to the lockdown. According to a leaked memo meant for the staff of Punch in 2020, the Managing Director, Ademola Osinubi had hinted the staff of the new development in the memo. 


This reality is also shared by other notable media houses in the country. According to a report by Nairametrics, the Nation newspaper has sacked more than 100 out of its about 500 workers across the nation. Other media outlets affected include New Telegraph, Businessday, Daily Independent newspaper, AIM group (owners of Nigeria Info., Cool FM, Wazobia, and Arewa) and even entertainment outlets such as Iroko TV. Beyond the loss of jobs and slash in pay; furlough and closure of media outlets are also dangers recently permeating the media industry.

The narrative is not different in the global space, on May 27, BBC News, reported the UK Financial times print sales falling by 39% in April, though advert unaffected.

In a no hold barred interviews with some of the journalists cum entrepreneurs, shared post covid-19 realities and its bitter sweet experiences .

JOSEPH OKWUOFU, a correspondent for The NATION Newspaper for 15 years in Ibadan Oyo State until March 2020 when his appointment was terminated. Okwuofu resides in Omi Adio, a suburb in Oyo State and engages in crop farming, poultry, dog breeding and rabbitry.

Okwuofu assessing the weight of a rabbit on his farm

“The termination  came as a rude shock but we had to adapt throughout and to date. It has made us a better person. We need not wait for monthly salary alert. My poultry,pen that were abandoned are what i take seriously now. In the past, assignments held me back. My plot of land is now constantly farmed with crops like maize, yam, cassava and vegetables.This has toughened me and the entrepreneurship has been ignited.

Joseph proudly flaunts its Vitamin A Cassava specie

” I do rabbitry, an exclusive preserve for a class of people which i service. One live rabbit costs 15,000 Naira and i have a customer that requests for three each time. I raise puppies too and there are techniques to have about  10 puppies in a delivery and the gestation period is two months. So when they grow to about 6-8 weeks old its half a million Naira or above . If boar bull births 10 puppies just take off your shirt and start work. you are talking about one million. By and large you take care of your family, pay school fees and also help you relax your body and mind too. Those are the things I do and also i have German Shepherd and Rottweiler breeds.

I truly miss the monthly income from the company

“I belong to a cooperative society at Orita Challenge where i drop a part of the salary every month which i started about 30 years . Every year i apply for a loan and you get it instantly. and pay 15kobo on a thousand naira as interest. so when the salary stopped i felt that aspect

Disposition of the company

“Before i joined Nation Newspaper i had worked with Tribune, Comet, Frontrunner, edited Peoples Journal  and others. With The Nation the moment you are employed you are asked to join a pension fund company. They won’t force you but must  get the registered number from the pension office to the admin manager. So every month, deduction is made and i spent about 15 years . Even though the money is not much but at the end of the month they would always pay. When the letter of termination came, i communicated to the admin manager that i wanted to access the funds and he sent me necessary letter and i got the 25% lump sum and the remaining they are paying me annuity which comes in every 20th of the month. Even though some colleagues complained of not being paid all their severance allowance but i guess it was the second and third batches when the company had financial issues.”

Okwuofu says he runs an online news platform, naijaexaminer.com and attends events when necessary.

MEDINAT KANABE, a young mother of two also worked for The Nation for 6 years as a reporter in Lagos State. Her story is not same with Okwuofu as she relives how her ambition of saving for a project was cut short. She presently lives in Badagry end of Lagos and sells footwears and children stuffs at Ilogbo Market, Badagry, Lagos State

Medina Kanabe

“…If not my husband, i would be in penury by now” – Kanabe

“In May 2020, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, a memo sent to me that i was among those that would go on leave (compulsory) for 3 months. That we would resume after, which was the content of the letter, no sack but on furlough. So i came home and informed my husband about business i could do. I had two things in mind, i was an active member of NUJ Chapter and not in good books of the management .So i prepared my mind that they may not call us back.

“Since i started work about 6 years ago, i had a plan that i was not going to spend my salary so i blocked it and thank God for a supportive husband who never bothered me about finance as he usually gave me money at intervals. So i checked my account to know the money saved so far as i have seen a shop i could rent. So i eventually bought a shop being sold in a market by a local government council and ensured i stocked it.

“When it was time to resume, i got a call from the company that i had a letter. When i got to the office it was a termination letter. I was shocked though expecting it. I thought i was prepared but alas i was not.

“Journalism is a passion and have won awards hoping that i win  many more in the future. I have spent 6 years with The Nation. I told the Administrative Manager that the company does not worth sacking me so i won’t accept the letter and she told me that i should write a resignation letter on the condition that i would lose my basic salary. It was there i realised that my basic salary was 24,000 Naira per month and i screamed!

“So i jettisoned it and  thought if I could block my salary account for that long and still survived, it didn’t worth it. The Nation does not give loan nor 13th month. The company would not give December package like others and yet not paying well.

Kanabe in her shop

“Financially, i was affected as all i got leaving The Nation was 161,000 Naira and set up my shop with 2 million Naira. If i didn’t block my salary account which i was able to do as a result of a supportive husband. He knows my salary was small yet that i pursued my dream was more important to him.

.

“For 6 years all i got was 161,000. When i got into media industry, i realised it wasn’t what i bargained for but when life throws you a lemon, you make a lemonade. The passion i have for journalism was my drive. My plan was to leave at age 35 after i must have done my masters and PHD and would have saved enough money. But i knew journalism cannot give me all the above and that was why i decided to do a buy and sell business at work to augment my take home then.

“Covid-19 is not a blessing for me because i emptied my salary  account which was meant to be the money for the dream foundation of a school building .The opportunity to win awards on the newspaper platform shattered. I didn’t want to leave journalism so soon. So i’m sad because i just won Nigerian Media Merit Award Female Reporter of the  Year 2019. If not my husband, i would be in penury now.

Kanabe(2nd right), front row) in a group photograph after facilitating a journalism training

“The business is not moving as it should  yet i need a restock. The shop is scanty and i need money as it gives me sleepless night. I’m not okay, the location of the shop is another. You can stay one week with no sales except i do online. The good news is that the shop is mine and the hope that my husband will still be there to help me. I’m not just okay at all.

FEMI ATOYEBI , a former employee of PUNCH and presently owner of Eagle Food and Drinks Lounge at Iyaganku, GRA Ibadan located on the premises of Nigerian Union of Journalists(NUJ) Secretariat.

Femo Atoyebi(2nd right) with sport writers at one of the National Sports Festivals

“I have been a journalist all my life. I started journalism right from my school days at the University of Ibadan.  After graduation, i joined Comet Newspaper  and later to Thisday Newspaper and after some years I moved to Punch in 2010 where i covered sport events within and outside Nigeria .I moved to the main news in 2013 when i was transferred from Lagos to Ibadan to head the Ibadan Bureau for 5 years. In 2018, i was redeployed to Abuja from Ibadan shortly before the 2019 elections began and spent 2 years there. Covid- 19 pandemic came in 2020 and shattered the industries especially the media.

Femi Atoyebi(left) in a group photograph with Olubadan of Ibadan, Oba Saliu Adetuni and his colleague, Goke Adelopo

“It was very obvious that the publishers were going through hell of time. No advert from almost 80 pages of the newspaper and i remember Punch came down to 36 pages. Sometimes 32 pages with one or two adverts inside and it’s not the print run that the owners use to run the business but the adverts. So it was difficult. I also remember a letter the Managing Director sent to all members of staff at that time warning us on the impact of covid-19 and also hinting us on what to be the company’s position just to save the face of the company.

“So May 2020, i went on leave in Ibadan where my family is and towards the end of it, a friend called to hint me that the management was collating names of staff that may likely leave the company for reasons known to the managers.

Femi Atoyebi(left) in Angola 2010

“On May 29, a day after my birthday, i got a letter that i was not going to resume my job in Abuja. I took this in good faith and got in touch with people that i would like to continue my job as a journalist. Apart from that, it also opened my eyes that it’s no longer part of world reality that one depends solely on one job. That one has to discover something else for himself especially other potentials yet untapped in one.

“I explored the opportunities and the little money i had. I looked around me when i didn’t work for four months and thought of what i would do. Within that short months, i was already discussing with somebody, an executive of NUJ, Oyo State chapter that there is a space on the premises that i would like to rent and he responded that it was a dilapidated and abandoned building. I told him i have checked the structure and feel it can be renovated to a certain level and serve a purpose i have in mind. So we examined the structure with experts in building .

“By August, i had gotten appointment to join Cable News, (an online news company) which will require concentration as a new job but the hospitality business has been secured to some extent because i have made payment.

“While renovation was on, people passing never knew what sort of business that was coming forth. After stabilising with The Cable a bit, in December 2020, i decided to open the place during the Christmas precisely December 22,2020 was the official opening. The ingenuity was commended by some government officials and friends that attended the opening.

Atoyebi at the F&D Lounge

“In this hospitality business, we sell drinks, food and we make the place comfortable for colleagues and every other person with charging points for laptops and phones. So its been a success story from the few that started with us and the numbers we have now we have the regulars and those that come once in a while. With  lodging facility owned by NUJ,we do have their customers  relax here.

“We started on the bare muddy ground, no canopy and with few people. Now we have concrete floor, carport and so we are working on a roof over the entire lounge. We have got offers of provision for credits but we have to be careful in our dealings. The burden should not be unbearable for a start up like this. We are also looking at the idea of a mini club here but not in a rush. we have two staff and two adhoc staff plus myself making five.

“Even though i work as a journalist, i create time for the business due to the flexibility of time in the profession. While i’m here i’m not redundant, i’m also looking at the other side of my profession.

“So it’s not been easy but we know with time we will get it right. At least, we have known our strength where we can concentrate on . Loans are easy to access but repayment not easy.

“For me, i hope not to regret this choice of business as i have put my physical, mental and spiritual strength into it. God sees my heart, those we employed are enjoying it and if i was told i would employ people in May 2020 i would have discountenanced it.” He concluded

SEGUN RAPHAEL is a photojournalist who has worked for many years with soft sell magazine, City People before joining The Nation in 2011. He was not affected in the downsizing but has learnt not to put his eggs in one basket . He shares his thoughts on his resilience and survival instincts with discovery of fish farming.

Segun Raphael

“I wasn’t surprised about the laying off of staff because we have been anticipating it but who would affect was what we never knew. When the announcement was made, it was made discreet as the affected members were invited and given letters. The excuse given was that the company could not meet with the huge financial overheads due to low revenue. Along the line , salaries were also cut by 50%.

“My shock was stemmed from the fact that some of the members sacked were those i never envisaged because of their sterling performances.

“Covid-19 has taught me a lot of lessons. I have focused on one job which is this media work. On my desk alone about five were sacked.When Covid-19 came on, a lot of colleagues lost their jobs with nothing to fall back on. I have learnt now not to put all eggs in one basket. At first, we thought the incidence of Covid-19 would be short lived until companies started laying off staff and salaries slashed. In our own case, pay cut by 50% for about 9 months. During this time, there was restriction of movements, no events but home alone with children and family. This has taught me a great lesson to think outside the box.

“I have devised other means of survival though i had thought such actions would have been after my retirement. Covid-19 made me know i can do it right now and is supporting my family.

“My company did not help any staff in whatever capacity. There was no palliative or assistance that’s why one has to be creative enough. As a journalist, we over stretch ourselves due to the passion for the job. No support at all but the little take home.

My Dream became a reality

Raphael on documentary assignment at Ipokia, Ogun State

“The fish farming project has been my dream and not just fishery alone but poultry, crop farming. The nature of my job does not give such personal time as you daily respond to calls from editors for one assignment or intervention. I had planned farming for retirement but the pandemic awoken me to reality which was the pay cut. Knowing that the whole salary has never been enough much less pay cut.

“There was a man in my house where i lived until 2020 who happened to be my landlord and was doing the fish farming. He abandoned the business and the equipment were left fallow for about two years. One day while surfing the internet, a member of a Facebook group i belonged had advertised fish for sale and that opened my eyes when she gave insight to how she came about the yield. So i equally went on research on what i could do within that my premises. I approached my landlord, though he is the son of the landlord but i referred him as one because the father was not living with us.

Setback

“He agreed to join in the partnership. We started with hatching and along the line, there was an error and we lost about 10,000 fries who were 3 weeks old at the time. This created a setback for me as i put my meagre resources into it. After a while, i thought it was my first time and needed to try again. So we began another round which was successful and we sold all with profit.

Raphael at his farm

“This has now made me self reliant and passionate, waking up to feed them just after my morning devotion. I must confess that catfish farming is fantastic.

The catfish business is sustainable and one can make his millions if done with diligence. Everywhere you went, catfish would always be in high demand. For instance, if i hatch today, within 6-8weeks, i would get the fingerlings to Ijebu size. If i sell say 10,000 fingerlings alone, it’s more than my salary at work. That means if i could hatch 2-3 times in a month though dependent on the type of fish and size of the farm.

Sustainability

Raphael feeding the stock

“The business can support me and the family even if i quit journalism today. I don’t think i can do any other thing than go fully into catfish farming. With a loan of 2-3 Million Naira, I would get bigger space and resign.

“Right now, the money hasn’t come but i can feed my family and do not need be begging or borrowing to feed .” He submitted

At the time of filing this report, Raphael informed me that pollution affected one of the locations he manages for the fish farming at Agege and they all died . But he said he hopes to forestall such occurrence in the near future.

The story was facilitated through a grant by Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting.

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