There has never been a better time than now to be a reader of African literature with all its diverse content and richness. From exploring the everyday magic of African spirituality to addressing colonialism, corruption, oppression and tackling exile, homophobia, anti-gay hate crimes, persecution and isolation, African writers are breaking the barriers to getting published with the emergence of Afrocentric digital literary space like Agbowó.
Founded in 2017 by Habeeb Kolade, a graduate of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ibadan, who befriended everything arts at a young age, and his friend, Dolapo Amusat, Agbowó is a literary journal that focuses on new voices of African creativity and arts. It publishes a yearly magazine that has featured works of notable writers and artists such as the 2018 Brunel poetry prize winner, Gbenga Adeoba; multiple award-winning linguist and cultural activist, Kola Tubosun; prolific queer poet, Logan February; renowned artist, Penda Diakité and many others.
The arts community also has an event programme called ‘ArtsnChill’ that hosts workshops around writing and creative art.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Kolade bares his mind on issues relating to publishing and writing in Africa.
PT: In just three years, Agbowó has become a creative hub for African writers and artists. What was the vision behind the platform?
Habeeb Kolade: When we started Agbowo, we wanted to be the top platform that shared quality African writing and art to the world. The trend was that literary arts platforms on the continent often died after a while for one reason or another. And there existed a dearth of platforms to share African creativity. Only a few of those that existed were even up to standard. So African writers and artists often look towards foreign platforms to share their works. Asides from the financial gain some of these platforms offer, they provided a quality avenue for these writers and artists to publish their works. Our goal was to create a platform that could measure up in terms of standard to other foreign platforms across the world. We wanted to build a platform fellow Africans would be proud of and trust to share their works.
PT: A Nigerian may be accustomed to the name, ‘Agbowó’ but for outsiders, it drives curiosity. How did you come about the name and why did you choose it?
Habeeb Kolade: Agbowo is a Yoruba term for collector of money or something like that. Someone who goes around to collect money from others, especially to preserve for them. When you break it further down, money is a representation of value. So you could say the person is a collector of value. We believe African craft, artistry and creativity are very valuable things. We also believe that this value should return more value to their creators. And that is where we come in. We want to go round the continent collecting value works by Africans and sharing them with the world, so the creators can enjoy more gain for their work.
This is important to us because we are trying to break the narration of the starving African artist. We think creative works are valuable and those who create them should benefit from their works.
The literal meaning, however, is that the literary project that preceded Agbowo was focused on University of Ibadan students. There is an Agbowo area just outside the University of Ibadan. So it was also a way of reminding ourselves that we were moving out of UI to Agbowo and to the world.
PT: Does your publication come with a monetary prize for the contributors?
Habeeb Kolade: Not at the moment. We experimented with one earlier this year. We rewarded writers featured on our platform with book vouchers for several months, but we stopped at some point- mostly because of the pandemic. We are trying to take a different approach to rewarding writers. We want to be able to build a sustainable way of doing this, without depending on grants and personal donations. Even if we have those, we want them to complement a sustainable business model. The reason we were able to reward members earlier was because we were able to gain revenue from our offline events and channelled that into vouchers. It did not come from a donation or grant.
However, since the pandemic, we were unable to host any more art events, which effectively cut short our revenue and disabled us from rewarding writers. Our plan going forward is to look for more ways to generate income and make sustainably reward creatives on our platform.
PT: By training, you are an engineer who has added layers of other fields to your scholarly cap, including arts and entrepreneurship. What was your first encounter with arts?
Habeeb Kolade: Before I graduated as a mechanical engineer, I was a writer. I started writing at a very young age and completed a few manuscripts before I got into secondary school. I remember I spent weekends at the topmost floor of our boarding house trying to recreate stories and documenting them. On weekdays, classes held there, on weekends, it was usually deserted. So I spent a lot of my time there before sliding back to the hostels when needed. I continued to write when I got into the University of Ibadan. To write well, one must read well. So I read as much as I could, although I spent an equal amount of time writing. Writing was my first introduction to the arts, and we introduced ourselves to each other very early.
PT: What is your take on art for art’s sake and art for life’s sake?
Habeeb Kolade: I think it is up to the artist. You need to enjoy what you do. People enjoy different things. And how people perceive your work may be completely different from the intent that created it. An art is only worth what the observer is willing to give for it. I think if you have the chance to pass an important message through your art, it is good. And if you just want to make things that look good, I think that’s fine as well.
PT: With what Agbowó churns out in terms of quality and diverseness of writings, how would you describe African literature? What important changes have you noticed in African writing in the past years?
Habeeb Kolade: There is no description really. There is just art by Africans. There are no boundaries, they don’t sound a certain way, they can be anything. This was one of the important conversations we had when we were defining our submissions guidelines. Can a European write something and it be termed African writing? No. Else we would place boundaries through definition on what an African writing can be. Instead, works of literary art created by any African is African writing. What we need to then determine are the nuances such as how the story is told, structure of sentences and conversations among others. And when you have African writers do that very well, you have beautiful works to showcase. And we have had a lot of such awesome experiences.
I think the best people to answer questions about changes are either the editors at Agbowo – Olu Afolabi, Kunle Adebajo, Dunni Adenuga, Uthman Adejumo, Darafunmi Olanrewaju, Sheyi Owolabi, or the Editor in Chief. Moyo Orimoloye. They interact every week with submissions from a diverse range of creative Africans, although only a percentage get published. For me, I think we are being exposed to more diverse ranges of writings as public conversations develop. Therefore, you might find more works about human rights, technology and so on, because such are dominating public discourse and writers are forming creative ideas around them.
PT: Documenting life or mirrors of life through texts and visuals is a business creatives have concerned themselves with and often, requires time and tenacity. Running a platform where creatives show their talents is equally not an easy task, especially in the management of content quality. How would you describe the challenges so far?
Habeeb Kolade: You are correct about the fact that we have faced lots of challenges. One of the things that have made us capable of moving this far is that we have made great decisions around hiring. Our team is composed of people who are very keen about the work that they do and are also quite competent. I listed some of our team members who are editors above- they are really awesome people.
Then, we have brand guidelines which we shared with every member of the team to help them understand what we do, why we do it, what we will do in future and why we must maintain a culture of excellence. Therefore, when new works reach our desk, we treat it with the utmost care. We also try to show our audience and people who have come in contact with us, how much we value their trust in us. This attention to our audience and writers who interact with us, has made us one of their memorable places of sharing new quality works. Therefore, rather than having to manage problems around content quality, we are trying to surmount challenges around sustainability. How do we ensure we continue to do what we do excellently well?
How do we reward people who share their works with us? Because we know that beyond being an excellent platform, people want to be paid. And this will attract much more quality works – as again, we are competing for their awesome work with foreign platforms.
PT: What mechanism of a rewarding system are you looking into?
Habeeb Kolade: There are possibilities of productising their works based on their shared agreements and helping contributors generate some continuous form of income wherever possible. But we are still just exploring these ideas as a team. However, our first step is simply to funnel money from our other commercial services to the literary journal, as we believe they provide the base through which our other services function. For example, channelling some of our profits from offline art events to our fund for contributors on the online platform. We have only one of these commercial services at the moment, but more will be launched in the near future, to solidify our vision of being one of Africa’s foremost art companies.
PT: Going more entrepreneurial in the future is a good idea but presently, how profitable is Agbowó?
Habeeb Kolade: Not profitable. Still largely supported by personal funds from the team’s leaders.
PT: What was the most rewarding aspect of founding the literary hub?
Habeeb Kolade: We have not reached that point yet. This will be rewarding when consistency help creative Africans on our platform gain more value from their works. For now, we are just glad to have the opportunity to provide an African platform individuals and organizations use to channel their voices.
PT: Like you said earlier, literary platforms often come and go; what does the future look like for Agbowó?
Habeeb Kolade: I want to believe that our future is promising. That is the only reason we can continue to do what we are doing. We want to deepen our presence in more African countries and be the first name that comes to mind when anyone mentions African art. That’s a testament that we are resilient in our pursuit of sustainability and growth for the platform. We want our magazine to represent a good balance and spread of new and established creative Africans, while we are able to provide more African art experiences beyond our digital platforms.
PT: What do you wish you would see submitted but rarely comes in?
Habeeb Kolade: At the moment, drama. Although we just created that section this year. Submissions have been slow in this genre, perhaps because few people have heard about it. We are hoping more playwrights send in their works. We felt dramatists had even lesser platforms to share their works and we hope they can see that we have expanded for them and send exciting plays our way. We can’t wait.
PT: With the third issue of the magazine recently released and themed ‘memory,’ what would you say are the most exciting things currently happening in African writing, especially Nigerian writing?
Habeeb Kolade: First, we are glad to have been able to publish “The Memory” Issue. It reinforced what we already knew about African writing, which is how diverse the creativity and genius are. The good thing is that more platforms are appearing to showcase this. I think that is a good thing. Before the pandemic, it felt like we had more events that filled all their seats with people reading or enjoying African literature. We can bear testament to that at ArtsnChill, our events platform where we always entertained a full house. More writers are fearless, which I mentioned above is a reflection of how daring the people, especially young people are becoming. So the conversations in Nigerian circles are becoming more stimulating and these voices are contributing to published discussions. When writers and artists are fearless in how they communicate their ideas, it is a climax of joy. So I feel the increase in the platforms and the fearlessness are exciting to see.
PT: Which other literary platforms do you think are doing exciting things in the same space with Agbowó in Nigeria?
Habeeb Kolade: There are Brittle Paper, Kalahari, Arts and Africa. There is some intersection between what we do at Agbowó and these platforms. There’s also SprinNG providing mentoring for young writers.
PT: Lastly, what advice might you have for Nigerian community of young writers, artists and publishers, especially during this current pandemic?
Habeeb Kolade: First of all, they should read Agbowo magazine’s The Memory Issue. Secondly, be kind to yourselves. And third, We should raise our voices against the ills in our communities, whether or not they directly affect us. One way or another, the ills come around to haunt us. Therefore, we should use our voices and our platforms to enable the progress of our communities. And we should be fearless and relentless in that pursuit.