Sierra Leone is more than just blood diamonds and a civil war. It once glowed as the intellectual epicenter of Africa. It is teeming with world-renowned writers, playwrights, musicians and scientists.

These are the stories Evoque – a lifestyle magazine I founded in 2013 – strives to tell. After working for several years in finance in the United States, I moved back to my home country of Sierra Leone in 2011. As I re-immersed myself in the culture, the difference between the reality of living there and the outside perception of it was immediately apparent. There wasn’t much that celebrated Sierra Leone’s vibrant culture or the remarkable accomplishments of its people. A number of publications had failed before. My plan, sketched on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, was a simple one: find a few interesting and successful Sierra Leoneans and tell their story through both words and pictures.

The challenges were myriad: I had no substantial business plan, no fundraising, no real experience in media. And to make it a reality, it was all on me, so I had to get up the learning curve fast. I needed a publisher, a printer, writers, photographers – and ad clients to finance it all.
I was brimming with questions, from content minutiae to a big-picture vision, but I knew one thing: Evoque – a play on “evoke” needed to be more than just a magazine. It had to be a brand.

I used two key principles as a framework. Quality had to be the highest priority, and in order to resonate, the publication should not be a mere “picture book” – it should have an equal balance of pictures and text. People should actually read it!

The hardest challenge was finding the “on the ground” writing and photography talent. I leveraged my professional and personal network to assemble a team of free-lance writers and was able to land an accomplished photographer and an incredible design team. Given the small target audience, I decided on an inclusive approach to content, commissioning pieces covering a range of topics – culture, business, style, lifestyle, places and events. Finally, to make a splash and encourage pickup, a local celebrity was a must for the cover. I chose Emmerson, an internationally recognized musical artist with a fan base that spans across demographic lines.

Once I had reigned in the vision, I needed to turn to the business side. The economics of the media business depends on the ability to generate advertising revenues. I spent the better part of six months pitching large corporations on the concept. Most were skeptical, telling me they’d like to “wait and see it first.” They found it difficult to buy into the idea, especially given the recent spate of failed publications in Sierra Leone. At last, however, I was able to sign four leading companies. It was just the starting point we needed to get off the ground, and the infusion of capital was desperately needed.

The lack of local infrastructure necessitated printing overseas and freighting the magazines in, at considerable cost. In April, more than two years after the seed of the idea began to germinate, the first edition hit the shelves.To my delight, what started off as a personal project soon became a hit. There was an instant following among Sierra Leoneans who, like me, were immensely proud of the nation’s culture and achievements. Soon, readers were clamoring for the second edition.

The second volume debuted recently, and leveraged lessons learned from our debut effort. The second edition focuses on Sierra Leone culture. But now, rather than the “just do it” approach that had initially guided me, Evoque now has a structure – themes, guidelines, legal and financial frameworks, official marketing materials. Most importantly, Evoque now has a loyal following, with the support of numerous key public and private stakeholders in Sierra Leone.

Thanks to the profile Evoque has garnered, I learn about new stories to tell everyday. By far the most rewarding part about Evoque is the chance to meet a colorful array of people, hear about their lives and see the world through their points of view.

In the coming weeks, Evoque will move into the digital sphere with a website, blog and an app, the first in a series of steps to create a more interactive dialogue with readers near and far. Eventually, it is our hope that Evoque will expand beyond the Sierra Leone borders and become a regional brand that spans across numerous forms of media; a brand that continues to correct misconceptions and drive discussion that will help effect positive change in Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa.