How Rob Burnet forges social change through comic book character DJ Boyie

Gabrielle Lipton
7 December 2017
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BONN, Germany (Landscapes News) — Meet DJ Boyie, or DJ B for short. He is a young hip Kenyan with a keen fashion sense who broadcasts a pirate radio show out of his house called Shujaaz, which means “heroes” in the English-Swahili mash-up known as Sheng. On his show, he chats about topics typical for a 20-something – sex, sports, money – but he takes them deep. He gets into details of current politics, climate change and how they affect certain types of Kenyan agriculture, contraception and the potential to make a realistic budget.

“Everyone remembers a good story,”said Rob Burnet, chief executive of Well Told Story. “Good storytellers cause everyone to lean in and pay attention.”

Well Told Story is an award-winning Kenyan communications company that uses the narrative of the fictional DJ B and his crew of friends to educate young people across East Africa with the aim of reshaping their future. Through YouTube, social media, a radio show broadcast on more than 20 stations, and a free comic book called Shujaaz distributed via the country’s Daily Nation newspaper and a staff of volunteers, Well Told Story disseminates DJ B’s programs across Kenya and Tanzania in an effort to educate East Africa’s youth on issues most relevant to their lives.

“When great stories are shared through the media at scale, this effect can reach and touch millions who come voluntarily. This is the unique power of storytelling to build huge positive engagement and make massive change happen,” said Burnet, whose engagement work illustrates ways to inspire.

This idea of using fictional characters to engage young Kenyans initially came from Burnet’s realization that 65 percent of the country’s population is under age 25 and often silent – there was no national dialogue directed toward them or created about them, largely because their lack of economic empowerment made them unattractive to advertisers funding the media. Their stories weren’t being shared and their problems weren’t being addressed.

Seeking to fix this, Burnet founded Well Told Story in 2009, hired a crew of young Kenyans near the upper end of his target audience — age 15 to 24 — and together they began crafting DJ B into a mouthpiece that would not only use every platform available to reach as many people as possible, but would also speak directly to them and tell stories directly related to their lives that were helpful both practically and emotionally.

It was an immediate hit: 13.5 million copies of the Shujaaz comic book reached readers in the first two years, and now 700,000 copies are printed each month. Studies estimate that each copy has an average of four readers, and that 70 percent of the readership lives in rural communities. It has since won two Emmy Awards and become the largest print publication in the country.

PLOT TWIST

“[Shujaaz] is a call out to young people to step it up,” said Burnet. “Don’t wait, it’s not coming, you’ve got to make your own future.”

If anyone is qualified to say such things, it’s Burnet. Although he has now been living in Kenya for more than two decades, he arrived in the country in 1993 with just a backpack after graduating from college in his home country of Scotland. He never planned to stay, let alone found a major regional company.

He was hired by the Ford Foundation and began producing a TV program on media arts and culture in eastern Africa, produced by and for young audiences. It was this that excited him about the value of storytelling in addressing social issues.

His first major entrepreneurial endeavor was in 1995, when he founded Kuona Trust, a non-profit organization created in partnership with the National Museum of Kenya to offer workshops, mentoring, and creative environments to Kenyan artists, as well as raise awareness about Kenyan contemporary art as a whole. Since then, the trust has grown to include a standalone space in the Nairobi suburbs that holds exhibitions, outreach programs, and artist exchanges in addition to giving residency to 20 Kenyan artists each year.

When the Kenyan elections of 2007 turned violent, he realized it was time to do something more. The violent clash led to the death of more than 1,000 people, leading him to recognize that the rising generation, especially the unemployed, lacked solid leadership and could potentially be led astray into violence. They needed a source of empowerment, so he set to work.

STRETCHING OUT

Perhaps the biggest reason for Well Told Story’s success is that it doesn’t play by the rules, and expands the horizons of what a modern communications company looks like. This began with little things, like choosing to publish Shujaaz in the Sheng language. While most young Kenyans speak in Sheng, its informality and heavy use of slang have rendered it largely invisible in literature. Shujaaz is considered to be the first publication in this vernacular.

Furthermore, Well Told Story’s unique use of comic books and radio shows not only reach more readers and listeners, but they also make DJ B genuinely cool. He’s more than a fictional character; to many young Kenyans, he’s a mentor and friend. He has more than half a million followers on Facebook, fans interact with him on social media, and the Well Told Story office often receives mail thanking him for his advice. He aims for 20 million followers by the end of 2020 – half the region’s youth.

Burnet has pinned down these reasons for success into a strategy he calls GroundTruth, which seeks to achieve a maximum effect on an audience through the use of in-depth fieldwork, qualitative research, and nifty design. This tripod of tactics renders stories compelling, accurate, and true, no matter if the subject is about a football team, how to procure  government identification, or the condition of an HIV/AIDS clinic in a Nairobi slum. This strategy has led to Well Made Story’s partnerships with Google, Coca Cola, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and a host of other global companies and organizations.

Another key to Burnet’s success is realism. In every generation of young people, there are only a handful of people like DJ B, who have the disposition and desire to invoke major change. To this end, Burnet’s main goal is to raise the level of awareness of the masses while inciting action in the select few.

“How do we make people pro-change without changing?” he asks. “And how do we make the few pioneers go straight to the end and demonstrate success?”

Learn more at the

Global Landscapes Forum: Bonn 2017

19-20 December 2017

See event details here

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