It has been a stellar couple of years for Anthony Navo Junior. His TV station’s ‘Sierra Leone Decides’ series has become compulsory pre-election viewing for Sierra Leoneans home and abroad. He pulled off a stunning media coup with the Presidential Candidates’ Debate on the 15th February. BBC Media Action has Africa Young Voices (AYV) radio down as the most listened to radio station in the North and West of Sierra Leone, and his media empire has won awards from AWOL and the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce.
If anyone was to debate whether entrepreneurs are born or made – Anthony Navo would be almost conclusive proof of the former. He is an entrepreneur to the bone. The ability to identify and maximise business opportunities is in his blood.
Freetown-born Navo attended the Prince of Wales School. From there he went to the UK where he studied business and management at the University of Essex. He began his business activities early: “I have always been entrepreneurial and started taking an interest in business straight after school,” he explains. His family’s import/export business was where he cut his teeth – pharmaceuticals, electronic goods and milk powder - gradually taking on increasing responsibility.
He is a man who recognises the value of networks both formal and informal, and stresses that they have been important to him throughout his career. He says: “A fair proportion of my professional and social network are people I met during my school days.” He has been a member of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce (SLCC) since 2004. He was introduced by a man he describes as his patron – the late Alhaji Unisa 'Awoko' Alim Sesay, joining the Chamber of Commerce in the same year that he opened Navo's International Foreign Exchange Bureau Limited - which is still in operation on Siaka Stevens St.
In the intervening 14 years, he has remained a committed and active member of the Chamber of Commerce, crediting the organisation for having a “significant influence on his professional life,” both as a source of advice and of professional development, by sending him on short courses and encouraging other forms of continuing professional development. Last year, he was voted in as one of 10 council members of the SLCC and sees the role as an opportunity to give back.
The year 2007 was notable for Navo’s brief flirtation with politics. He was the Sierra Leone People’s Party’s candidate for Constituency 104 which is also known as Freetown East 1.
He lost to APC and took a couple of months out to reflect on his future. He decided that politics was not for him and in 2008 he returned to handle communications and public Relations for African Minerals (AML).
The company went on to give him a permanent contract and there he remained until 2014 when the company went into liquidation. It was a challenging role which combined his local knowledge with the international acumen of Aura – AML’s international PR agency. When Shandong took over AML, they kept Navo on as their Communications Director, subsequently promoting him to Chief Officer – the most senior national in the country.
Perhaps his strongest driving force is his concern for youth empowerment. “I have always been a member of youth empowerment groups. I’ve worked with students for over 15 years. I’m passionate about developing opportunities for young people,” he says. “In 2009 the young Leaders Sierra Leone Network voted me as their youth ambassador. The event was held at the British Council.”
It was this that impelled him to create a platform for young people. Africa Young Voices was the result. In May 2011, he launched the newspaper. The radio station followed hot on its heels in November 2011 and AYV TV was launched in April 2015. AYV also has its own printing press and prints most of the country’s daily newspapers.
He explains his motivation behind the AYV conglomerate as the desire to create a platform for youth voices and for youth skills’ development. “One of the reason that so many young people in Sierra Leone resorted to violence and guns during the civil war was the lack of education and opportunities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report recommended that an adequate voice be given to young people and women. The Government hadn’t been forthcoming in making that happen. I saw a gap and stepped in.”
AYV is a combination of social enterprise and profit making venture. To set it up Navo took a $1.2 million loan from GT Bank to be used for the purchase of necessary technical equipment and operating expenses. “GT Bank was the only bank who had faith in my business idea,” he remembers. He used his house as collateral. His 10-year business plan, saw the project as a long-term journey, with the first three years focusing on investment and the next three years beginning to break even. His planning was spot on and he has paid off almost 90% of his loan.
He credits his success to P + P - a lesson he took to heart from a Chinese lecturer. “Preparation and planning,” he explains. “I started planning two years prior to 2011. I was not in a rush. I did my research, employed technical consultants, brought in the necessary expertise to get started.” He describes setting up AYV as “a herculean task”, but adds that “planning and preparation are the key to getting where you want to be”.
His approach has paid off. He regularly pushes the boundaries. As well as the newspaper, radio and TV station, there is an AYV app for TV and radio. He has the technology to be able to do live broadcasts. This was put to particularly good use during the Presidential Candidates’ Debate. He says he has captured audience figures of 35% of the country’s TV watching public.
“Communications are the most important component of nation building,” he believes. “We are a youth focused organisation. We have pioneered an entertainment focused approach to encourage young people to use their voices and learn new skills.”
He has a particular skill for picking the right people. Ex pats - Angela Angwenyi, Tony and Habib Munzir have been a positive addition to the AYV team. Navo gives them a free hand and emphasises that skills transfer is included in their terms of reference and that they all have Sierra Leonean deputies that they are training.
His development agenda is also evident in his association with the organisation - All Works of Life (AWOL), which was founded after the war. He tells the story with a smile. “A few business people decided to establish an organisation called First Class People to give back and offer scholarships and human rights’ interventions. I was at the lands registry to complete a land purchase and bumped into the late Moseray Fadika. I told him all about the First Class People concept, but he was completely opposed to the name. I managed to persuade him to come to the first meeting. He came along and insisted that we change the name. We ended up with AWOL and in 2001 President Kabbah launched the organisation at the British Council. Fadika was elected as the Founding Chair. I was the Financial Secretary and Chericoko was Secretary General.
One of the first things AWOL did was to buy an X-Ray Machine for Connaught Hospital and refurbish the X-Ray department.
“AWOL shows that home-grown institutions can substitute the aid dependency culture,” he says. “That we can come together to achieve development projects. The organisation is composed of people who want to give back and we have paid the school and university tuition fees of many members.”
The organisation is subscription based with around 62 members in Sierra Leone and probably 200 around the world. In 2004 AWOL launched the National Achievement Awards. The organisation is also building a school in Gondama, Bo District. “We visited the area in 2011 to give out scholarships and discovered that it had no primary school,” Navo recalls. “The children were using a mosque for their lessons and whenever there were prayers, they were sent out.” There are plans to build a recreational centre when the school is completed.
His relationship with the late Moseray Fadika was very important to him. He describes Fadika as “an inspiration, a brother and a friend,” and he was hit hard by his death. As a fervent Muslim, he accepts Fadika’s death as God’s will, but admits that it was difficult. “Fadika’s death was untimely and a shock. I had the same feeling when I lost my father. I almost gave up,” he recalls.
He didn’t and continues to build his portfolio. There are seven new studios, including London, Bo, Makeni and Freetown, with two more due in Kono and Kenema. He is aiming for true national and international reach. He has recently launched the country’s first Sunday newspaper, and to ensure uninterrupted coverage he has invested $200,000 into ensuring the station is fully solar powered. “It will save us money in the long-term,” he says, and he is on the verge of adding an entertainment channel to the AYV stable.
Asked what business advice he would offer to future entrepreneurs, he returns to his tried and tested formula. “I would say always invoke P and P – it substantially increases your chances of success.” Focus is another of piece of advice that he offers up and coming business people. “People will approach you for all kinds of personal reasons and personal gain. They will attempt to undermine your success. They will gossip about you. It is important that you learn to close your ears to these kinds of distractions and continue to hold onto your convictions.”
He is a family man. His wife is a lawyer with a speciality in commercial law and the couple have two children – boys of 12 and three. His circle of friends is small and trusted. “When I was in my twenties I became caught up in social groups and having lots of friends,” he recalls. “I realised it wasn’t helpful and I changed. Now I keep to a small group of associates and focus on my business.”
He is a man who takes his own advice, and watching his quiet hands-on team-led approach at the Presidential Candidate’s Debate, it is clear that it has stood him in very good stead indeed.