MO ABUDU: Digital Switchover is a Turning Point in Nigeria’s Entertainment and Media
After more than a decade of digital disruption, Nigeria’s entertainment and media industry has begun to flourish. In April 2012, the United States’ hedge fund, Tiger Global Management, reportedly invested $8 million on iROKOtv, the world’s largest online distributor of licensed Nollywood films.
Each year, on the average, the film industry produces 1,500 films, making it the largest film business in Africa and globally, second only to Bollywood. The potential of nation’s entertainment and film industry is underscored by the PwC’s Entertainment and Media outlook 2017-2021, projecting the industry’s growth to $6.4 billion by 2019.
One of the beneficiaries of digital TV and the Internet is the founder of EbonyLife Media, Mosunmola Abudu. In this interview with Bayo Akinloye, she talks about how Nigeria’s digital switchover has changed the face of entertainment and media enterprise in Nigeria and on the African continent
Congratulations on the three-year deal your company signed with Sony Pictures Television. What does this deal involve and how much is it worth?
We turn five years old on July 1 – I said it then and I say it now, ‘everything you think you know about Africa is about to change forever.’ We have a treasure trove full of stories and it’s our passion, vision and purpose to take these stories to a global audience in the highest quality possible with the most entertainment value. This is why I am so excited about our partnership with Sony Pictures Television. This is the first time that a Nigerian production company is partnering a Hollywood studio on the production of this nature. We are thrilled with this unique opportunity to co-develop three exciting new scripted TV projects and bring fascinating entertainment, such as the story of the Dahomey Warriors, to audiences around the world.
Apparently, that is one of your many feats as a media entrepreneur. You have also won several international awards. What’s the secret?
It has been hard work getting to where we are today. But that’s what we are known for at EbonyLife. Our commitment to bringing our stories to life is built on never taking no for an answer. As a team, we focus and work together on finding creative ways and solutions to producing the most incredible stories of our time. As I always say, ‘If you can think it, you can do it.’ For me the secret is all about what I call the G factor—the God factor. I give God all the glory.
How does it feel to be described by Forbes as ‘Africa’s Most Successful Woman’?
My vision has always been to change the narrative about Africa and to tell our stories from our perspective – so, I’m truly humbled and honoured to be recognized by Forbes for the success I’ve helped cultivate.
You’re said to be the first African woman to own a Pan-Africa TV channel, and you were listed as one of the ‘25 Most Powerful Women in Global TV’ by The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. Is there anything else you want to prove?
The Hollywood Reporter is one of the most respected platforms globally focused on the Hollywood film industry, television, and entertainment industries. I was listed as one of the ‘25 Most Powerful Women in Global TV’ by The Hollywood Reporter in 2013 and again in 2017. It’s truly an honour to continue to fly the flag for Nigeria and the continent. I continue to give God all the glory. Representation matters, now more than ever, and people of African descent want to see content of all genres featuring people who look like them, think like them, and behave like them—even with the boundaries of language and culture. I’m driven by what is possible. My goal is to portray the multidimensional realities of African women and the lives of Africans all over the world.
To your credit, you make running a media enterprise look easy. How challenging has the media industry been for you?
Most people see challenge, but I see opportunity. Every time someone tries to kill the dream – I see this as an opportunity for growth and finding a better way of working. I have a great life coach, Lanre Olusola, who helped and continues to help me put things into perspective – also an executive director at EbonyLife and Uzo Nwochekwa whom I met as I was about to set up EbonyLife TV – also an executive director, carries a great weight off my shoulders. I truly appreciate their support. And, of course, now we have the most incredible pool of talent behind and in front of the cameras making EbonyLife TV tick whom I say ‘thank you, thank you and thank you’ to.
I know I can be a ‘slave driver’ and be really difficult at times. So, I appreciate and love them all. We could not be where we are today without their support, hard work, and commitment. We’ll be celebrating five years at EbonyLife TV on July 1. During that time, we have created and broadcast 5,000 hours of original drama, talk, entertainment and factual content. At EbonyLife Films, we have created blockbuster films such as Fifty, The Wedding Party franchise, and The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. None of this would have been possible without the support of our staff, partners, sponsors, production teams, and viewers.
The media industry is constantly changing in terms of how we create, consume, and deliver content. For EbonyLife Media – as a group – the next five years will be even more exciting for us. Starting on July 1, we will launch our online video-on-demand (VoD) service, EbonyLife ON (including EbonyLife ON Mobile) in Africa, with selected movies and other shows available on MTN Shortz, Cloud 9 CINEMA, and Nuvu. Our broadcast reach will include an additional 11 million homes across Africa on the StarTimes satellite network. We’re launching Africa’s first legal drama, Castle & Castle, and The Dating Game–Nigeria, a format that has been a hit for 53 years around the world—not to mention our Christmas blockbuster, Chief Daddy, with a host of Nollywood’s brightest stars.
Was there a time you questioned your decision to venture into TV and film business?
I have been labelled a serial entrepreneur – so the first thing I do is to question the next project – of course, I questioned my decision many times. It’s been a 10-year journey even getting to this point. Approximately four years on conceptualizing and consolidating the idea, approaching MultiChoice, our partnership with Cross River State Government under the leadership of His Excellency Liyel Imoke, whom I will forever remain grateful to – our move to Calabar – so yes, I question, but then that still gets me back to knowing that despite it all it is still one of the most rewarding journeys that I have ever taken.
For successive years you’ve remained persistent and consistent. Were you driven by the fear of failure or by the desire to prove some people wrong? What drives your imagination and creativity and business decisions?
No matter what I do, consistency and persistency drive me. Anyone who wants to achieve any level of success better be ready and armed with these two key traits. I have learnt over the years not to become distracted or driven by the wrong things. I am driven by a passion to succeed; a passion to do the right thing and most important my dedication to whatever projects I am engaged in at that point in time. I believe being a creative is a special gift – you either have it or you don’t. I’m blessed to have it and I have it in abundance – for that I really do give God all the glory. If not for a lack of budget and funding – I could be creating shows in all genres nonstop. I do not lack imagination. On making business decisions, I keep it real. That is why it’s called show business. It’s a business. Sentiment plays no role in that regard. It’s all about the bottom line. Over the last five years, we ran and will continue to run our business with all the necessary structures in place and team to ensure we meet our objectives and vision.
Some people consider you as the Oprah Winfrey of Africa. What do you think?
I admire and respect Oprah Winfrey. The phrase ‘The Oprah of Africa’ was coined by CNN – I guess the western world always needs to make comparisons to help them know where to place you. But I would rather be the Mosunmola of Africa any day.
You didn’t start out as a journalist and you were not a TV presenter. Your field of endeavour was completely different initially. Did you just wake one day to branch into the media industry with your soar-away TV show Moments with Mo?
No, I did not just wake up one day. It was a struggle for a few years. I started my journey with Moments with Mo as I turned 40. Back then, I was very concerned with what people would think: some people thought I was crazy. No doubt some probably think I still am. But there comes a time in our lives when we decide to just bite the bullet and do it anyway. I did that when I resigned from ExxonMobil and I had to do it again when I decided to take this walk into the world of media. The first thing I did was a ton of research – of course, training. I attended several short courses and I did quite a bit of training that I designed with a couple of facilitators in Lagos. I spent a lot of time practising my interview technique. We would video my interviews and play back – my goodness that was a lot of fun.
Soon thereafter, there came the need for a platform where the show would sit – I wanted a pan-African platform – so I paid a cold call visit to the Mnet office in Lagos. I met Joe Hundah, MD of Mnet at that time. After many meetings, he offered me the platform. But I had to find a sponsor. The search for a sponsor began. I thank my friend Mac Ataise who took me to see Mr Akinfemiwa. I would like to thank Mr Sola Akinfemiwa, MD of Skye Bank at the time for believing in me. Skye Bank came on board as an equity partner in Inspire Africa. I have to say a big thank you to Mr Bola Akingbade the former CMO of MTN. In those days, MTN was my first major sponsor and remained a sponsor for many years. Then we needed to hunt for a studio which was nonexistent in those days. So, we created our own studio in City Mall.
Do you think you have succeeded beyond your own expectations? Tell us some of those difficult moments that have shaped EbonyLife and affected you personally.
I think I’m just getting started. To mark our first five years of success in July, we will be launching our new corporate identity, EBONYLIFE Media – our major sub-brands are EbonyLife TV, EbonyLife Films, EbonyLife ON (our Global VoD service) and EbonyLife Studios – this reflects the bold new future we look forward to. As I think about the moments that have shaped EbonyLife and affected me personally—from setting up the company in Calabar to moving the company to Lagos, to setting up EbonyLife Films to moving to the digital and mobile sectors—to our partnership with Sony. It truly makes me happy to see how far we’ve come. The company’s milestones and initiatives we’ve achieved are not easy in any environment. I’ve dedicated my life’s work over the last ten years to building the EbonyLife brand and putting the structures in place to ensure that we grow to even greater heights. It’s been tough and I have been hard on our team – at times pushing them to the extreme to achieve results. But that is sometimes the price you have to pay to get the vision realized.
Nigeria’s media industry has been very tough. What have you done differently to turn your enterprise around?
It lifts my heart to be able to rely on a wonderful team dedicated to EbonyLife’s success. We work incredibly hard to ensure that we meet our mission and objectives to grow and expand while staying true to who we are and what we represent. We’ve hunkered down to be creative in the stories we produce from both a content and financial perspective. The future looks bright for us, and we are looking forward to continuing our trajectory in the media industry.
Could you please tell us five things people don’t know about you and your rise to fame and fortune?
One, I’m a people person. I’ve worked in the human resources industry for 20 years. I enjoy working and collaborating with people from all walks of life. The relationships that I’ve built over the years have helped me tremendously throughout my life and in business. Two, I strive for perfection. This trait is particularly important when it comes to business and content creation. I set high standards for my organization and focus on producing premium series and movies. Three, I exercise. I feel my best after I’ve worked out—whether its cardio or lifting weights or training. It gives me great joy to burn off those unwanted calories or try a new exercise routine. Having a healthy lifestyle and keeping fit help me think clearly and focus on my objectives. Four, I work hard. I spend a great deal of time and effort making sure my projects and ideas come to life. Success is about doing the work required, planning, and executing. Five, I live by the G-Factor. I always keep God first in my life. My faith in God and my passion for my work have helped me grow professionally and spiritually.
As a media mogul, how would you describe Nigeria’s media business? Is it saturated?
It’s an exciting time to be in the media business in Nigeria. We’re experiencing rapid growth in how people consume entertainment. It’s no surprise PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the largest professional services firm in the world, reported that Nigeria would be the world’s fastest-growing entertainment and media market over the coming five years. Our business models have had to adapt to the changing consumer patterns.
Considering your travails and triumphs, did you aim to break the glass ceiling?
I aim to be the best I can be and encourage others along the way. I set out to create quality content made in Nigeria for the world. Keeping this singular focus has helped raise the standard in which we make our series and movies, and it also extends out to the way we produce our events and work in general.
You once had an interview with Hillary Clinton on your show Moments with Mo. What is your relationship with her?
The former US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was a special guest on my show, Moments with Mo. Interviewing her was one of the most important moments in my life. I recall her saying, ‘….So there’s a constant give-and-take that has to go on. And I think it’s important that more voices like yours be speaking on behalf of Africa ….’ Those words were a major motivating factor for me in the creation of what became EbonyLife TV and then EbonyLife Films.
In a recent Instagram post, you said: “We’ll continue to change the narrative and tell our stories,” regarding the acquisition of the rights to produce a feature-length film of Wole Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horsemen. How much did that cost you?
With the gradual shift in film toward more culturally diverse storytelling and greater inclusion, we think the time is right to tell such a story. Prof. Wole Soyinka has been incredibly supportive throughout the process. I’m so thankful for this opportunity to develop Death and the King’s Horsemen into a feature-length film. This incredible work will be made for global distribution.
Last December, the federal government launched the digital switchover. What’s its significance for the Nigerian media industry?
The digital switchover is quite significant for the Nigerian media industry, as it will mark a turning point for the economy while boosting the media industry. There will be a strong demand for quality content, and for the first time in history, millions of Nigerians will have access to a variety of channels and content options. The benefits of this include increased employment for media professionals like producers and content creators. Original content will be a key differentiator to attract new viewers, with local content being a key focus area in which we plan to invest to solidify our position as the nation’s preferred content provider.