Having graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia in the hopes of becoming a medical doctor, Aina Fadina has become a successful model and innovator behind the digital series I of Africa – a platform she uses to highlight the successful and innovative individuals who draw inspiration from Africa. Ayiba’s Sanet spoke to Aina about her career as a model, her transition into entrepreneurship and how Africa inspires her.
You’re a successful fashion model and now, creative entrepreneur. How did you start modelling and what was the transition into entrepreneurship like?
One night at a club I was approached by this gentleman who walked up to me and said, “Hey, are you a model?” And I was like, “no?” Not that it was a bad thing to be a model but I was trying to get into grad school. He asked me if I wanted to do this show, which I ended up really liking, and that’s when I started modelling. It was meant to be a break in between applying for grad school, and grad school has not happened yet – this was over a decade ago.
In terms of transitioning into entrepreneurship, it was tricky because I grew up with mostly civil servants – so the whole notion of entrepreneurship just seemed like such a big idea but as a model you realise that you are a product, you are a brand, and you have to market yourself by doing your portfolio. There are things I have to do as a model which is what entrepreneurs technically do. You have to manage your finances, too, because as a model you’re not constantly getting paid. You may not get any bookings for the whole entire week or two weeks or three weeks and that’s part of entrepreneurship as well – knocking on doors, trying ideas, and getting rejected and one person can change your life and that’s kind of what I equated entrepreneurship to be and that’s what modelling was. You’re also working with your agents and your team of supportive staff to allow you to be the best brand and the best product to sell to your consumers and my consumers are these big fashion houses. You also have to pivot. When I started I thought I’d be doing runway shows because that’s what I thought I knew. I thought I’d be a commercial model, but eighty percent of my work was working in studio with designers. You have to adjust your product and your brand and your business based on what the market is offering you so, that’s what I ended up doing.
When and why did you decide to start I of Africa?
So in about 2008/2009 I had been living in New York for a number of years. At the time there was an increase in African fashion. People were wondering, “is it a fad?” I was around so many creative, talented entrepreneurs in business who were doing interesting things and I felt that mainstream media was not highlighting these amazing people and I had access to these people so I thought OK, why not create a show that’s highlighting these individuals and that’s how I started the show in 2012.
How would you describe I of Africa to our readers?
I always say I of Africa is a digital series that celebrates innovative individuals who are inspired by Africa from a global context. Its purpose is to document and solidify the history and the legacy of these amazing individuals. So it has a very global perspective about the continent.
You travel quite a bit with the show. Where is the most exciting place you’ve visited and why?
That’s an interesting question and it’s hard for me to answer that question because different places mean different things for me and to me. I’m going to narrow it down to three places for various reasons. Ghana was pretty amazing because I grew up in Nigeria. I left pretty early but going to Ghana was quite impactful as an African but also as a black person living in America. I think they’ve done an amazing job with showcasing the history of slaves. Ghana also makes it easy for people to come back.
One of my great, great, great grandfathers was sold to slavery to the West Indies and then to Brazil and he found his way back to Nigeria via Sierra Leone.
So I do have that history and it hit me because it’s something that I never quite tapped into and Ghana allowed me to explore that part of my family history.
South Africa was phenomenal. I grew up listening to Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. My parents educated us about the apartheid movement and I watched when Nelson Mandela came out of jail. So for me it was the opportunity to visit this amazing country. I lived in Cape Town for about three months and it was absolutely stunning. I was there modelling and I filmed a couple of I of Africa episodes while I was down there. I always kind of tie it back to the global black experience and I realised – and I don’t know if I should say this but I guess I will – I realised how the history of blacks in South Africa is so similar to the African-American history in the States even though South Africa is in Africa.
It was challenging to realise that even though apartheid ended a part of me felt like not a lot had moved forward for black people in South Africa.
It made me aware of my privilege as a Nigerian. I also had the most interesting conversations about the notion of Africanism. An Afrikaans person will say “I’m Afrikaans, I’m not African” and I thought that’s really powerful. Or a white person telling you that they don’t like Johannesburg because people don’t know their place in Johannesburg and that in Cape Town everyone knows their place. I realised that that’s sort of the systematic placement of Cape Town. I think it was great that they embraced the LGTBQ community in Cape Town but at the same time there was just massive oppression of black and coloured people. But you have to seek those experiences out.
To what extent has your Nigerian background influenced your career and outlook on life?
My parents were phenomenal in that they raised us to have a global perspective. You also have to have a sense of tolerance. There are over 250 tribes in Nigeria. I was raised Christian but I have cousins who are Muslim and you have people who practice traditional Yoruba practices so you’re taught to be tolerant and to accept people’s differences from a very, very young age. I think having that foundation was important because if you were raised from the other way and taught about being in a box it would be harder to be accepting of people and other ideas and differences.
Recently a friend of mine, an African-American, went to Nigeria and he said to me, “You did not understand the privilege you had when you get to an airport everyone looks like you.” You have doctors who look like you who are successful, you have lawyers. If you go to a store you know that store is owned by a Nigerian. I didn’t realise that I actually came from a place of privilege and I think that allowed me to work in a more impactful way with I of Africa and with modelling. Obviously, I was always a black model, but even though that’s the label they placed on me, that’s not what I walked into that job with. I just walked into that job with “I am another model.” If that’s a label that’s going to suppress myself as a human being I would not wear it.
And the notion of storytelling – that’s what Africans do, that’s how we curate our history, that’s how our grandmothers talk to us about their lives.
We didn’t have a formalised educational system until much later so growing up and having my grandfather tell me stories, that kind of morphed into I of Africa in a way as well. I think it’s both my sense of self, my sense of identity, and I guess my sense of purpose.
You place a big focus on inspiration in your content. How does Africa inspire you?
That’s an interesting question and I should have a direct answer but I don’t. It inspires me in so many ways. I think in everything that we do – whether it’s waking up in the morning to go and get a cheque, whether it’s feeding your family, we look for inspiration for us to continue otherwise our life would be a monotonous process. I look at someone like my grandmother. She’s eighty-seven years old and she’s been an entrepreneur her whole life. She had ten kids and was a trail blazer. She’s just a bad ass woman. At eighty-seven she still has a little business that she’s running. For me that’s an inspiration. When I see kids in Lagos who are hawking in traffic. Sometimes you’re not sure that you want this thing but they will chase your car in traffic to make maybe less than fifty cents for that item. For me that’s inspiration. And inspiration comes from within. It comes from the core, the essence, your heart, it comes from the gut and that inspires the work that I do. I’m not trying to save Africa. However, if the work that I’m doing and I’m passionate about can change one person’s perspective – for me that’s an inspiration.
What’s next for you? How do you plan to keep pursuing your purpose?
It’s tricky. I of Africa has been a labour of love; it has been a self-funded project. That’s why to some capacity the production value is not a hundred percent what it should or what it can be but I was lucky enough to have people who have been phenomenally amazing in terms of investing in me. I just wrapped up production for the third season which, hopefully, should be coming out in the first quarter of 2017. It’s fourteen episodes and I have everything in there. I touched on politics, migration, tech, music, fashion, arts, and even retail. I’m hoping for distribution that actually wants to pay for content versus wanting content for free. It’s not just me that’s not receiving a salary. This season I had a production team, too, and I can do something out of passion but I have to compensate the team that’s involved. I think digital consumers need to get away from the idea of consuming content for free. Trust me, there’s so much stuff out there and there are people who want to create but if there’s no business infrastructure to support these people they can’t do what they want to do and there’s no longevity. We need individuals, brands, corporate companies, and even the government to push. I know it sucks to have to pay for content but people like myself who are pulling shoestrings to make things happen, we just can’t do it. I think it’s very easy to stop anything that we’re doing in life but I think the inspiration for me is knowing that I have committed to this and I always say if you haven’t tried and you haven’t exhausted every possibility then you just have to continue going and as long as I’m alive to some capacity the work will continue.