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They say it’s lonely at the top. For women editors in the media business, it’s never quite lonely. Often, if not always, they find themselves married to their jobs. The world might be moving towards work:life balance, but it is still not a good enough reason for them to take a backseat. If anything, the urge to document evolution of societies takes precedence over everything else. In the ’90s, Methil Renuka was an aspiring journalist who interned at Khaleej Times. This passion for storytelling took her to various parts of India, brought her back to the Middle East before leading her to settle in South Africa. Today, as the Managing Editor of Forbes Africa, she is keenly documenting the changes in African society and politics while dividing her time between South Africa and Dubai. What does it take for an ‘outsider’ to look in? How do you become a champion of a region you may not be born in, but one that still resides within you? In a conversation with wknd., Renuka spells out why Africa affords journalists an exciting storytelling opportunity. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us about your formative years. What informed your passion for writing?
I grew up in Dubai. My birth was a year after the UAE had been carved out of the Trucial States. So, to me, even today, all roads lead to Dubai. This is my third innings in the city. When I was growing up, it was a small city. The World Trade Centre was the end of the world for a lot of us. I remember my dad would take us on long drives to the dunes on Fridays. That really was our world. It was small, but it was evolving. We were close to our textbooks, but I would always rely on our subscriptions of the weekly news magazines and papers from India. I would also read Khaleej Times and rely on what was locally available. My mother’s family had a lot of writers with an imprint in Malayalam literature, so we always heard a lot of stories on how all their work had been published. My mother is a published author too and has written for several weekly magazines. You can say, writing is in our blood.
You had been an intern at Khaleej Times. How did the newsroom look back then?
I was an intern at Khaleej Times in 1996 when I was doing my masters in journalism and mass communication from the University of Calicut in Kerala. I was lucky enough to come to Dubai due to my connections here and intern at the publication. The veteran journalist Mr S. Nihal Singh was the editor then. He had a great reputation of building brands. Also, I had grown up reading Khaleej Times, so when I actually found myself in this newsroom, it was wonderful. Those were the days of traditional media. I’d go out with the reporters to cover press conferences, and sit with people who would make pages. The city was still evolving, and here was a newspaper that was doing a great job of covering a forward-thinking country. Even today, I enjoy reading its website content.
You went on to work as a journalist in India. What prompted you to take up an assignment in Africa?
I finished my masters and had topped the university, which was great because back in the day, you had very few women in journalism. And then I got married. For most female professionals, marriage marks the end of their careers. For me, it was the beginning of an interesting journey. We moved to Bangalore, where I worked at The Asian Age. Then we moved to Chennai, where I worked at The New Indian Express. And then I moved to India Today in New Delhi. That really was a training ground. Working in Delhi was eye-opening. The Internet was still catching up in the ’90s. You’d get letters from readers about the stories you’d written. I have heard the magazine’s founder-publisher Aroon Purie say that India Today is like the Suez Canal, every journalist passes through it at some point or the other. And then I also worked in Dubai for about five years, covering aviation, business, arts and culture in the Arab world for Motivate Publishing.
My husband has been a banker, and you know bankers are always on the move. He got an opportunity with Barclays in Africa to be based in Johannesburg. I decided to move with him, hoping to travel across the continent and report on it, as I had visited Africa before on assignment. In my first year itself, I met Mr Rakesh Wahi, who is the co-founder and vice-chairman of the Africa Business News Group that includes both CNBC Africa and Forbes Africa. Thankfully, he believed in my abilities as a professional, and offered me the editor’s job at Forbes Woman Africa. Coming to a continent with 54 countries that are also developing economies was an interesting prospect. I knew it was a content-rich continent. I was at the right place at the right time.
What makes Africa an evolving market for the publishing industry?
It is an evolving market for any industry. It’s the continent with the world’s youngest population. It means that is where the future is. There are so many opportunities, be it in agriculture, aviation, tourism, financial services or intra- and extra-African trade. The world is waking up to the untold opportunities in Africa, which makes it an ideal place for storytelling. As a writer, you want to convey that on the pages of the magazine. The Africa Rising Story deserves to be told.
As an ‘outsider’ looking in, what have been the challenges of helming Forbes Africa?
One of the things I trained myself in was to think like an insider. I always say, you may not be born in Africa but you can have Africa born in you. I have been there for 12 years now. That continent is an addiction; you have to keep going back. For me, in order to edit a magazine in Africa, I had to understand the story that was getting everyone excited. And to be able to do that, I had to understand the communities. I believe in having multiple reference points. Those were the actual challenges — understanding the histories of many countries within the continent. There are many Africas in one. You have to read up on the politics, the state of women’s empowerment, agriculture, the economy. My challenge was to read up and forge these connections. It is still work-in-progress, I am still finding my feet. But if it’s sustained and the momentum is consistent, you are adding layers to your understanding of the continent. You cannot do Africa in a day, you cannot do it in 10 years. You have to evolve with the continent. The challenges have actually been the most exciting part of the job.
Shuttling between South Africa and UAE, how do you understand the two worlds?
I believe the Africa-Middle East nexus has grown in recent times. I spoke about having multiple reference points, and that’s very important in covering any region because you cannot isolate yourself in any one place. I have covered both the regions, in addition to India, so in a way, I understand emerging economies. Relating these contexts in different ways and sharing perspectives is enriching. The mental distance has been bridged.
How has the dialogue on women’s empowerment evolved in Africa?
A country like Rwanda has about 63 per cent representation of women in the parliament. You look at fintech, art, science or any business, the growth curve for women has been phenomenal. We do the Forbes Woman Africa Leading Women Summit every year; its ninth edition is on March 8 in Johannesburg. For eight years, we have been curating and organising this summit and it’s incredible to see the power in the room where women leaders from different walks of life congregate. A lot still needs to change, it is still a patriarchal society but having said that, women have made gigantic strides in Africa.
What perspectives do women bring into their roles as editors?
Women are natural multitaskers. That is what we bring to the table in any industry. As an editor, you have to multitask because you are required to deal with so many things at the same time — you could be writing, editing, interviewing and managing crises. There are so many tabs of your life that are open at the same time. I am sure these are traits you find in men as well, but I feel they are more pronounced in women. There is an ethical, straightforward leadership we bring to our roles. We also bring calmness to the job because we are used to dealing with a lot of responsibilities at home as well. It is a tightrope walk, but we make it happen.
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