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Pandemic took away my paycheck, but brightened my career prospects

Janet Otieno was editing the final page of a magazine for the Citizen, a Tanzanian newspaper, when she received a call from human resources. It was 5pm in April 2020, about a month after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Tanzania. Janet, the acting managing editor and features editor at Mwananchi Communications in Tanzania, stopped mid-sentence to pick the call.

“It wasn’t a pleasant call. I was informed that I was among the people the company was laying off for economic reasons,” Janet told AWiM News. 

In shock, she asked what criteria the company was using to retrench staff, and HR explained that the company was going through a financial crisis and could not afford to pay her salary and work permits.  

Janet, a Kenyan, moved to work in Tanzania after she got married to a local, and despite being in the East African Community where free movement and access to unhindered work opportunities for citizens of member states is guaranteed on paper, Janet still needed a work permit.  

“A decade of hard work and dedicated service were cut short by a two-page letter,” said Janet, who observed that most of the staff who were let go were women. 

Terrible timing

The lay-off could not have come at a worse time. Janet’s mother was sick and on life support in hospital, after collapsing from high blood pressure. 

“That night, I took some time to reflect and resolved that there was life beyond the newsroom. I decided I was not going into a pity party. I had to be strong for my mother and I was not going to let my two children down,” she said, adding that a counselling session organised by Women in News also helped.  

Dr Joyce Bazira, the WAN-IFRA coach for Tanzania who guided her during the Women in News Leadership Programme, also gave her the push she needed.  

“Dr Bazira told me that I was too brilliant to be tied down to a newsroom, and urged me to use the freedom I had now gained to do whatever I have always wanted to do. Her words pierced my heart; I had to act,” she said. 

Janet weighed some ideas she had at the back of her mind. Now one of them had to work. She had to make it, if only for the sake of her family. 

Next steps

Growing up, Janet had wanted to be either a lawyer or a writer. Now, she had the opportunity to do the latter independently. 

“My dad had always wanted me to pursue law, but I developed so much interest in writing, I would read stories in the newspapers and get inspired. My parents introduced me to newspapers when I was a young girl and I would read for my dad every morning. My mum, who taught English in school, also helped sharpen my writing skills. My parents would make me read the Moses series by Uganda’s Barbara Kimenye and write reviews. I would also listen to the English Service on BBC with my dad,” said Janet of how the seeds of a career in journalism were sowed in her. 

Janet Otieno during a training for women journalists organised by Women Writers Forum in Dar-es-Salaam.

At university, she studied English and Literature and later pursued a Master of Arts in Communication Studies. She worked for the defunct Kenya Times as a senior writer and sub-editor, moved to African Executive, an online magazine, as editor, then joined the Nation Media Group in Nairobi as editor in-charge of the southern African region, under the Africa and Digital Division. Following marriage, she was deployed to the company’s subsidiary in Tanzania (Mwananchi Communications Ltd), where she served as features editor and acting managing editor, before she was retrenched. 

Now that she was out of work, she had an opportunity to think of her next steps. 

“I revisited all the ideas I had never had time to actualise because of my busy newsroom schedule. Then I evaluated my skills, including those gained during the 14 years I worked actively as a journalist. I mooted a plan to launch a newsletter that would put stories on women, children and health on the front page. I would call it African Ringer,” she said. 

 Gender agenda

It was a no-brainer given the number of times she had proposed stories on women and girls for the front pages, and been shot down. 

“When I was in the newsroom, there were times I dreaded attending editorial meetings because when I pitched a story about women or children for the front page, some of my male colleagues would object. Despite the important contribution women are making in society, gender stories were rarely given priority. So, when I left the newsroom, my priorities were already set straight,” she said. 

“The following day I called Anne Kidmose, a former colleague and friend, who had mutual interests. I told her about my idea and asked if she would partner with me. She was game. So, we started the journey of creating African Ringer, a newsletter on SubstackWomen and health should go on the front-page and African Ringer is making sure of that.” 

Janet also developed a breastfeeding application. She called it Nyonyesha, the Swahili word for breastfeeding. The idea had been on her mind for nearly five years, and it was inspired by the struggles she had faced as a first-time mother. She wanted to create an information hub for parents (mothers and fathers) to engage, share experiences, seek and offer moral support and get professional assistance on breastfeeding, maternal and child health from medical practitioners. 

Nyonyesha, a breastfeeding app Janet Otieno developed after being retrenched.

A 12-month Early Childhood Health and Development fellowship from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), also helped to lay the groundwork. 

“During the fellowship, I sought to learn more about breastfeeding through research and talking to mothers and lactation experts. I documented everything I learnt, and decided that breastfeeding struggles needed to go beyond newspaper pages. Attending the 71st World Health Assembly in Geneva, where breastfeeding was a topical issue, strengthened my resolve.  I don’t want struggling mothers to be ordinary characters in my stories; Nyonyesha is my small way of making a difference,” said the maker of the app, which supports English, Kiswahili and Sign Language. 

The journey

Even though her dreams have begun to materialise, creating Nyonyesha was not a walk in the park.  

“Creating an app is costly because you have to pay a developer. You might have an idea, but transforming it into reality is a long, complex process. It also needs funding. I am yet to find an angel investor or funding for both the newsletter and the app which I still run out-of-pocket. My belief is this: So long as I provide value, money can follow later. 

Both the app and the newsletter are still on freemium model as she works on building audiences and a membership base. 

A few weeks to the anniversary of the call that changed the trajectory of her career, Janet, who has won numerous journalism awards and fellowships, says that it was a shocking event with a silver lining. 

“The pandemic took away my paycheck, but brightened my career outlook by bringing this necessity to re-invent myself and to be in control of my destiny. I am no longer at the mercy of a newsroom budget.  

“It also gave me an opportunity to bring together other women journalists in Tanzania who had lost their jobs to discuss how they could reinvent themselves. I have used my time to mentor and train women journalists on various aspects of journalism, and I hope more opportunities come my way,” she said. 

 Honing skills

Janet is currently taking part in the Entrepreneurial Journalism Creators Program at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism that is part of the City University of New York. The programme helps independent journalists develop newsletters, podcasts, local sites, and other niche news products. She is the only representative from Africa in her cohort. 

“My mantra in life is to do the best and make this world a better place by doing something meaningful in my community. To a journalist who lost their livelihood, get up, dust yourself, because it is time for journalists to reinvent themselves and fly solo as ‘journoprenuers’. There are more opportunities beyond the newsroom.” 


5 Responses

  1. Hi
    This is very interesting. Congrats my dear Janeth. May your dream reach to the World so we can improve on this pandemic issue

  2. That’s the way forward baby girl, God’s eyes are upon you to lead and to guide! You’re the daughter of the most high God, the head and not the tail. Financial help will always come in due season, nothing to worry about if God is by your side. You have us your mamas and sisters to back you with prayers. Match forward, the future is bright for you! ????????????????????????????????

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C.E.O & Co-founder, AWiM

Dr Yemisi Akinbobola is an award-winning journalist, academic, consultant and co-founder of African Women in Media (AWiM). AWiM’s vision is that one-day African women will have equal access to representation in media. Joint winner of the CNN African Journalist Award 2016 (Sports Reporting), Yemisi ran her news website IQ4News between 2010-14.
Yemisi holds a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies from Birmingham City University, where she is a Senior Lecturer. She has published scholarly research on women’s rights, African feminism, and journalism and digital public spheres. She was Editorial Consultant for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 commemorative book titled “She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys”, and currently hosts the book’s podcast.
She speaks regularly on issues relating to gender and media. In 2021 she was recognized as one of 100 Most Influential African Women.