BY ESE DIBEBI
Ebony Life TV, Mo Abudu‘s baby African entertainment network clocks 2 years old today. The channel which began operations on June 30, 2013 has gone on to become one of the most watched and enjoyed channels on satellite TV.
Forbes named Abudu in its list of Africa’s most successful women and here is a “throwback” at an interview she granted the organization.
You are the host of ‘Moments with Mo’, one of the most successful syndicated talk shows on African regional television. And now you run an African television network. Walk me through your journey as a media entrepreneur
My passion to help change the narrative about Africa began to grow as far back as when I was a teenager living in the UK, schooling in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, a town that had just a few blacks at the time. As I have said many times in the past, here, I had to learn to stand up for myself, to defend my identity and my race in an environment where you continually got asked the most ridiculous and mind-boggling questions like “Do you guys live in trees and holes in Africa?” “Do you guys dance around fires?” “What do you eat for breakfast?” Very ignorant questions. Those sort of questions could either make or break your spirit but I was very determined that I was going to stay strong. This kind of afro-pessimism simply fuelled a burning, deep-seated desire in my subconscious to one day help to rewrite the African story; to get people to talk about the issues that affect our society and to tell the African narrative in a contemporary and interesting way; to change the perception the world had of us; to let the world know that in spite of our challenges as a developing continent, Africans are not a bunch of savages but mostly a breed of gifted and remarkable people.
So, after my education and a flourishing modelling career in the UK, I returned to Nigeria in my late twenties. My children had reached their teens; I had begun enjoying a successful career as Head of Human Resources and Administration for oil giant, Esso Exploration and Production Nigeria Limited (ExxonMobil). I always say that this experience at ExxonMobil was the best thing that happened to me at that time because the job gave me an invaluable understanding of corporate structure and business discipline, which would eventually prove very useful in my future business endeavours, to include the Protea Hotel Oakwood Park, of which I remain a shareholder and director; Vic Lawrence & Associates, now one of Nigeria’s leading outsourcing firms, where I also remain founder, and so on.
However, as successful as all these business ventures have thankfully been, nothing perhaps has given me the most fulfilment as the prospect of exploiting the media as a tool to affect global perceptions about Africa. So, with no TV experience whatsoever, I had approached DStv back then with the Moments with Mo proposal which I had hoped would persuade them to see that it was time Africans had a talk show that projected all that was positive, progressive and celebratory about the continent. I had seen a gap in the market for talk shows that were quintessentially African on the DStv bouquet. I had observed that there were talk shows on NTA, and other Nigerian channels but there wasn’t a single Pan-African talk show at the time. I did not get a positive response from DStv as I was told they were not looking for a Pan-African talk show on the platform at the time.
But interestingly, in response to the need for local content on the platform, the window of opportunity soonopened for us and that was how, in 2006, Moments with Mo was born out of the vision to build and project a new, stronger, more independent and more confident Africa; an Africa that speaks for itself; that celebrates its people and achievements and solves its own problems.Ihad taken about 5 pilots of my talk show to them back then but they were all rejected and eventually, one was accepted. And even at that point, I was told they were not going to commission, that they were only going to license, which means they would buy the content from you at an agreed price. So I was told to go and look for sponsors, which I did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why did you choose to then start EbonyLife TV, Africa’s first global black entertainment network, and describe the transition from talk show host to head of a television company, navigating a teething media business sector with no prior experience?
The irony was that as far back as 2006 when I first approached DStv with the proposition that Africa was ripe for its own Oprah Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres show, I was at the same time already requesting for a global TV channel opportunity. At the same time I was exploring channel possibilities with SKY in the UK. I have always reckoned that the vision to project Africa in a different, more positive light, needed a big platform and this was what spurred me to start thinking of establishing EbonyLifeTV.
Looking back now and considering how ambitious the dream was and all we had to surmount to arrive at where we are now, one has to admit that God’s appointed time is always the best. I think, for the media however, the sector may have been run by people who are very passionate about the sector rather than people who are business managers, suffice to say it is crucially important to understand the business of the media. You have to be very passionate about what you do and at the same time, be a business manager, which includes having a solid business plan.I don’t think the financial sector in Nigeria understands our sector, I can tell you this because we spent a long time at strategy sessions with expatriate financial consultants who really understood media business to help identify what the revenue streams in TV are because in every business, there has to be a way to make money. It’s not just about the passion to sell Africa’s story, if you want it to generate money, there’s got to be something bankable in it.
Sometimes, you may not have all the expertise required to make what you dream of in terms of profitability, you then have to find someone that is business savvy enough to show you how this business works. He will also tell you how long it is going to take for you to break even, especially if the business is media. Media is one of those businesses that take off very slowly, so you know that borrowing money at a high interest rate to run the media business is not the way to go. Gaining this understanding was key in getting EbonyLife TV off the ground and running till today.
How would you describe EbonyLife TV and the kind of programming it provides?
EbonyLife TV creates content that speaks to the continent’s most important demographic, the custodians of the present and of the future, the youth aged 18 to 34. We believe no one is speaking to this key demographic of the continent the way we do. This is a demographic that is extremely passionate and confident; tremendously creative and global-minded. It is one that craves a platform for self-definition and self-expression; one that sees a different Africa, an Africa that tells its own story through the showcasing of the continent’s best talents, from lifestyle and entertainment to fashion and music, education, information, love and relationships. So, with the mantra “Live the EbonyLife”, our channel is proud to be broadcasting premium, original and exclusively African programming which is both inspirational and aspirational, celebrating style and success while motivating the audience to dream and dream big. Our programming is one that leaves the viewer with a cool, glossy, polished and sophisticated experience, from reality to talk; drama to entertainment and comedy. Through our programming, we also avail companies amazing brand integration and placement opportunities like never before. We believe it is very vital to give African brands, big and small, the opportunity to be seen on a global scale, showing the world that African brands can compete with the world’s best.
What lessons have you learned in business?
I have learned that information is power. The media business in Nigeria and indeed, Africa is grossly underestimated and the windows of opportunity need to be further explored. A lot of people do not understand the power of the information. One needs to be armed with information in order to successfully navigate any venture. Information is your compass. If you know better, you will do better. Before deciding to enter into any venture, one must, to the best of their ability have explored possibilities for growth, foreseen challenges, made projections, thought exhaustively through every inch and breadth of the venture and researched what other people have done to succeed and where they failed.
What advice do you have for those who desire to follow your entrepreneurial footsteps?
Anyone who wishes to be an entrepreneur must know that bright ideas are great, however, they are not even half of the work; execution is everything. Yes, as the saying goes, ‘there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’, but when that time comes, you must be prepared to bleed sweat, tears and blood to bring your ideas to life. For women, never ever see your gender as a handicap. Never think yourself inferior. Be ready to do twice the work for half the usual reward. When the door isn’t opened, kick down the door. Take the regular harassment and other obstacles women face in stride. In fact, be prepared for them. Be prepared to be told off, to be told you are not good enough, to go unrewarded for even doing the same work your male counterpart has done. Work with your passion, let it consume and drive you. Do not be distracted. On down days, it will keep you going. Also, surround yourself with like minds. In fact, you should exhaustively curate those who will go along with you on your journey. I can’t say that enough.
This interview appeared on forbes.com on January 1, 2015.