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Ishmael Bull is one of those new African professionals you’ve probably heard about --part of what George B.N. Ayittey calls the “cheetah generation” in his 2006 book “Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa's Future.”
Ishmael heads media and communication at Africell Sierra Leone. He’s been in this position for two years since he returned to his native Sierra Leone after completing a master’s degree in digital and computer arts in Britain. In this e-Interview with USBE&IT Online, Ishmael talks about the workplace, digital trends, and the promise of Sierra Leone’s Fiber Optic infrastructure to be put in place by 2013.
USBE Online: What does Africell do? Tell us a little about what you do for your company.
Ishmael Bull: Africell Sierra Leone is a global communications company that started operations in 2005. It has the biggest subscriber base in terms of a GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications] mobile network. It is currently the only company in Sierra Leone to operate under a recognized ISO [International Organization for Standardization] quality control system.
My job at Africell involves mainly supervision of communication plans in terms of our value added services; the coordination of promotional activities, supervising the link between us and media houses, creating concepts, building product descriptions and building reports on ongoing services. I’m also part of the creation team responsible for all our publications including TV commercials, radio jingles, visuals, articles, etc.
USBE Online: What can an intern or student look forward to in a job like yours?
Ishmael Bull: An intern that wishes to become part of the Africell family must eradicate all thoughts of fat pay checks and prepare to be thrown into a very dynamic environment whilst gaining a wealth of experience that would surely benefit him in the future. You must be diligent and maintain a humble disposition. I have known people with a master's degree start off as ground floor runners.
There is never an easy start with working in the media. We once had an office assistant helping with filing/copying documents, delivering letters, etc. He barely had GCSEs [General Certificate of Secondary Education] and had only used a computer few times before to create an e-mail account. When less busy around the office, he would sit at a computer and play around in Photoshop following basic tutorials and guides. He is now enrolled in a photography course with the money he saved up during his internship.
USBE Online: How tough is the job market for new grads in Sierra Leone?
Ishmael Bull: Very! The job market for new grads right now is very weak and it’s all based on a who-you-know basis. A popular term used to describe this is “Sababu.”
It is very important that colleges and institutions improve their career advisory centers and make links with parastatals [owned or controlled wholly or partly by the government], and the private sector, etc. Graduates are also faced with a severe catch-22 dilemma from employers wanting years of experience as part of being qualified.
A graduate might have a good diploma but performs poorly when put to the task being that the course and nature of programs during his study did not provide the basics for him to improve on professional skill sets. For instance it’s common for graduates not to know how to do basic functions on a spreadsheet; the use of Excel in any administrative institution is crucial.
USBE Online: Did you take part in any science, technology; engineering and math (STEM) extra-curricular activity in school that helped shape your career choice?
Ishmael Bull: I started my upper secondary school education in the Science stream but I got bored after my GCSEs. The most fun I had was during the chemistry lab sessions. I have always been a big fan of math though. I am also a big fan of New Age philosophy and my background in science has helped me understand the world better and also taught me to question the unknown and understand it from a first-person perspective. This has helped me greatly in the person I am today.
USBE Online: You went to graduate school in Britain. Which one? What helped you choose a grad school?
Ishmael Bull: I did my bachelor of arts (honors) degree at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Farnham. I never chose UCA for any academic qualities but purely for the town’s culture, scenery and history. After getting my HND [Higher National Diploma], London had suddenly become claustrophobic and too bustling for my comfort, so I researched into historical open-space countryside farmlands to help my focus and solitude during university. UCA became the best option. It was very close to the infamous Bourne Woods where scenes were filmed for Gladiator, Robin Hood and more recently Snow White and the Huntsmen amongst others.
I moved back to London after my bachelor's to complete my master’s at The University of West London, which was then called Thames Valley University. It was a flipside to Farnham’s culture but it was well worth it because of its diverse range of international students and a very metropolitan environment.
USBE Online: What are some of your secrets to success you'd like to pass on?
Ishmael Bull: The secret to success is just hard work! I had a warehouse job for six months in the U.K. but that never stopped me from waking up with a positive attitude every day. Even when I’d slip and fall in snow on my way to work, I would get up and laugh at myself.
Be flexible, focused and optimistic with every opportunity that comes your way. Maintaining a positive impact will always take you to higher places and starting from the bottom gives you an understanding of how the business works at all levels. And last but the most, I believe in God and pray every day.
USBE Online: What are your plans for your start up business Inkee and InkeeMedia? What’s the next level?
Ishmael Bull: Inkee and Inkeemedia are one. Inkeemedia serves as a graphic design entity where Inkee serves as a brand and a culture. I get a tad emotional every time I think hard about how big the Inkee brand could really get. We aim to showcase excellence in anything related to visual and audio. The slogan: “Your Ideas. Our Imagination” brings us and the client to the drawing board with the world as our blank canvas. We will do everything from comics to animated TV shows. Our immediate plan is to have a massive billboard erected in a very prominent location in Freetown that illuminates the nighttime.
USBE Online: Do the digital arts have a bright future in Sierra Leone?
Ishmael Bull: Digital arts in Sierra Leone is currently in a slow stage. It's unfortunate that only a handful of people like me who have studied the arts overseas, and exposed to different cultures, are willing to come back home and help the industry. Sierra Leone’s major universities and institutions are considerably short of tutors and more so resources in this faculty and I am yet to find a Multimedia course in any one of the big universities. It’s a sad issue. I have met people in this country with amazing talents and ideas but there isn’t a platform to help them jump start their careers.
We remain optimistic that it will change soon. Because with the new Fiber Optic Infrastructure to be put in place by 2013, Sierra Leoneans are destined to become more connected, literally bringing the world to our fingertips and exposing us to ideas and concepts that will help make us a better people and country as a whole.
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