A fresh wave of creativity, optimism and technological innovation is driving Africa’s music and TV industries to new heights. Wings speaks to Alex Okosi, MD of one the continent’s biggest media presences, VIMN Africa, to find out more about socially conscious programming and how the continent’s output is exciting audiences at home and abroad.
Words Belinda Otas
From innovative programming to showcasing Africa’s musical talents, MTV Base Africa, one of Viacom International Media Network Africa’s flagship brands is credited as the channel that gave the world a window into contemporary African music, and redefined the way local artists presented their sound and image to a global music market. Since it began, the iconic global music channel has positioned itself as the “definitive destination for music and lifestyle programming that entertains and empowers young adults,” says Alex Okosi, the brand’s Managing Director. Okosi has been lauded as the man who brought MTV Base to Africa in 2005. Today, the 39-year-old is responsible for managing the development and growth of VIMN Africa’s multichannel entertainment portfolio, which includes MTV Base, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon and spans 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The network has reached over 90 million viewers under his leadership.
The roster includes music programmes like MTV Base Official, Naija Top 10 Chart and flagship shows such as MTV Base Meets, which gave the network one of its most exciting and memorable moments last year when it hosted Michelle Obama. She got up close and personal with a group of inspirational young people to talk about dreams, education and achieving their goals during the Obama’s state visit to South Africa. The channel also launched its first local flagship magazine show, MTV Choice, in 2013, which is produced in South Africa.
Together, these various programmes demonstrate a consistent interest by VIMN Africa in content development, with innovation and technology playing a crucial role. “Our mission is to deliver the best content and experiences across multiple platforms that matter to young people. Long gone are the days where we just delivered a linear TV proposition. Our target audience is not just consumers. They are also creators of content,” says Okosi. “As an organisation, we’ve always been at the forefront of adopting new technologies that enable and champion this reality. Another great aspect of our position today is that we can leverage our impressive numbers on TV, digital and social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Keek and more) to maximise the impact on campaigns like Shuga.”
A spoonful of Shuga
In an increasingly competitive media landscape, content producers have to find ingenious ways of reaching their target audience. In Africa, this is no different. For VIMN Africa (formerly MTV Network Africa), it’s Shuga, the network’s cutting-edge, pro-social drama series, that represents one of its best strategies for achieving the ultimate goal of gaining and keeping the interest of its core market — Africa’s youth.
The groundbreaking television series, one of the brand’s most successful locally produced programmes, put a glaring spotlight on the sexual behaviour and lives of African youths with a central focus on the Nigerian demographic in the eight-part series, with the objective of giving a human face to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The hard-hitting series, produced by MTV Base Africa and the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), explored the issue of HIV prevention and teen pregnancy. It debuted in Kenya in 2009, with a follow-up in 2012. The initial run was seen by audiences in more than 48 sub-Saharan African countries, while the second was seen in over 70 nations worldwide. It was a phenomenal success, and brought Oscar-nominated stars like Lupita Nyong’o to the attention of millions of viewers.
So what new stories about the Nigerian youth and attitude to the ever-changing sexual behaviour in today’s modern world did the programme want to tell? Okosi explains: “Shuga (Nigeria) actually has a much broader public-health focus than the pure ‘safe-sex’ focus of the last two series. It focuses on a wider range of issues from mother-to-child transmission, gender-based violence and teen pregnancy, among others.”
The programme’s approach may be a familiar one, but Okosi argues that Shuga as a series is innovative. “Many broadcasters and organisations have tried to use the TV/entertainment medium to get specific messages across, but what makes Shuga stand out is that we integrate the messaging seamlessly into a quality drama series with world-class scripting, directing and acting that authentically reflects issues facing young people.” Okosi adds: “Another compelling aspect of Shuga is that independent research has shown it has a powerful impact on youth attitudes and behaviour — other traditional marketing and educational tactics struggle in this area.”
The independent research Okosi is referring to is a survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins University, which revealed that the series reached 60 per cent of its intended target audience, and over 90 per cent of those who saw it said that it changed their attitudes about multiple concurrent partners, HIV testing and the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Okosi contends that for VIMN Africa to continue making impact and stay relevant, technology is vital. “We see the explosion of new technology as a great development, as it grows the industry—especially in Africa. At the end of the day, content is still king, no matter what platform it lives on. Our strategy of developing and delivering more world-class localised content to complement our strong international offering, will remain one of the keys to our continued success.”
Okosi’s assertion about the impact of Shuga cannot be underestimated, given the rave reviews it has garnered from critics and audiences. The series, which could also be viewed online, caught the attention of Nigerians at home and in the diaspora, and a diverse stream of audiences contributed to a discourse that ranged from the social-media sphere (Facebook and Twitter) to blogs. Many young Nigerians have expressed their views about the series, stating what they liked or disliked, the characters they connected with and the storylines that were most reflective of their reality. Viewer Afolabi Opanubi, who tweeted his view of the show in January before the series concluded, summed up the general reaction:
“It’s sometimes preachy (for obvious reasons), but Shuga really comes closest to depicting Nigeria’s youth the way we are.”
Producing visceral television drama series like Shuga is not the only area where MTV Base Africa has played a significant role. In recent times, African music has soared to new heights, and you can be assured of hearing Afrobeats in a London or New York club, and on European airwaves from radio stations like BBC 1 Xtra. Music from the continent has become a treasured export — contemporary music has done for Nigeria’s creative industry what oil did for the economy — and MTV Base as a promotional platform has played a crucial role in this process. While not the first music channel on the continent (South Africa’s Channel O was already on the scene in the 1990s), MTV Base made an impact with its commitment to talent development of world-class audio and glossy video production values that have contributed to the appealing aesthetics of what viewers see on YouTube or the traditional medium of television. Accusations of American cultural hegemony against the network would be a difficult case to make given that African artists now fuse their cultural identity, local sounds and languages with western influences in the music they produce. This brings a ‘localised authenticity’, which transcends boundaries and travels beyond the shores of the continent.
As part of its goal to showcase African content to the world, VIMN has created exciting African music franchises like the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA), due to take place in South Africa at the Durban International Convention Centre this June, and MTV Africa All Stars. While the former celebrates and rewards the continent’s finest music artists, the latter takes some of the biggest names in African music, such as Nigeria’s D’Banj, Fally Ipupa from DR Congo, P-Unit of Kenya and South Africa’s Zahara, on the road, from Lagos to Nairobi to KwaZulu-Natal. Both add credibility to the network’s commitment to produce content that originates on the continent but is also exported to its sister channels. VIMN International, the parent company of VIMN Africa, has incorporated African artists as part of its big international franchises like the BET Awards (Nigeria’s Ice Prince won the award for Best International Act — Africa in 2013), the BET Hip Hop Awards and MTV Europe Music Awards (MTV EMAs).
2Face Idibia, one of Nigeria’s biggest artists, cites the MTV EMAs as a critical turning point in his career. In 2012, he told Wings: “My first trip to the MTV Europe Awards changed my life. It was the most important journey in my musical career.” Okosi admits he would definitely like to see more of this trend, and adds: “It would be great to see some of our great local Comedy Central content airing on VIMN channels around the world.”
Have tunes, will travel
A change in Africa’s economic fortunes in recent years has meant a renewed interest in different industries, including the creative sector. While Africa’s share of the global creative economy is less than one per cent, the impact contemporary African music has had outside the continent is immense.
Does Osoki therefore see localising the creative industries of film, theatre or visual arts as the key to global success? “It’s very important that you have content that’s local enough to reflect the taste of the people you are serving, first locally in Africa, and that the content is accessible to people outside the continent,” says Okosi. MTV Base is an important player in the process, which, of course, makes Okosi an authoritative voice on the changes taking place within the creative industry, and how it can be accelerated for success in the future. It makes sense when he says the quality of content and accessibility is vital.
In his view, mobile technology and the internet are the key factors influencing the way creative content from the continent has evolved and how it’s distributed. “Those are the two things that have really changed the space, and the internet has had a global effect. For Africa, it has been far more impactful, because the imagination is not only seeing what works — you can access the world’s content and see what the benchmark for success is.”
Okosi’s outlook is optimistic. He believes the success of authentic music can spread and influence other aspects of Africa’s creative industries “Contemporary African music is making waves around the world, with artists such as D’Banj getting international recording deals, winning awards and charting around the world. The world is waking up to the fact that African artists are creative and exciting, and hopefully, that can help open doors for African creatives in other spheres.” He concludes: “I think the creative sector is going to be a lot more competitive and deliver even better products. When we understand what true success is, its definition and benchmark, we meet and exceed it. When it comes to success and sustainability, I think the future really does have that — there’s a whole lot more content, more channels and talent out there, and only the cream of the crop will rise to the top.”
The MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMA) KwaZulu-Natal 2014 takes place in Durban in June