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Okosi… rise and rise of Nigeria’s entertainment export

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Bada Akintunde-Johnson, Country Manager for Nigeria at ViacomCBS Networks Africa (left), EVP and MD ViacomCBS Networks Africa, Alex Okosi,Co-GM, ViacomCBS Networks, Craig Paterson, and Co-GM ViacomCBS Networks Africa, Monde Twala at a special party in honour of Okosi in Lagos


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It was a star-studded evening on February 8, 2020, at The Wings Event Space, Ozumba Mbadiwe, Victoria Island, Lagos, as friends, colleagues, family members and stakeholders in the showbiz/media industry converged to honour Alex Okosi, the outgoing Executive Vice President and Managing Director of ViacomCBS Networks Africa and BET International.

Hosted by the duo of Tolu ‘Toolz’ Oniru-Demuren and ace comedian Bovi, the event was put together to celebrate Okosi for his significant contributions in reimagining Africa and transforming the media and entertainment industry since he took up the mantle of leadership on the continent 15 years ago.

For a man of Okosi’s stature, who has been instrumental to the growth and development of the industry in Africa, the impressive turn-out didn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it was expected; he has paid his dues.

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Notable among guests were captains of industries, who collaborated with Okosi and his team in the last 15 years, including the Founder of Silverbird Group, Ben Murray-Bruce to the CEO of Megalectrics Ltd, Chris Ubosi; CEO Livespot360, Deola Art-Alade. Others are celebrities such as Rita Dominic, Michelle Dede, Nse Ikpe-Etim, comedian Basketmouth, Flavour, D’banj, 2Baba, Ice Prince, Falz, Dr Sid… it was indeed a star-studded evening.

“I feel thankful! Very grateful! I’m truly humbled. It means a great deal to me that everyone in the room showed up for me, and that I’ve had their support these past 15 years. Everyone in that room has been instrumental in the work that my team and I have done in contributing to the development of the entertainment and media industry in Africa,” excited Okosi said.

While extending his gratitude to his fellow colleagues, industry friends and guests for joining in the celebration, he said, “I’m truly comforted by knowing that we have a team, who can take on the task ahead with vigor and experience to carve a unique space together with you in ViacomCBS and African history. You all have the opportunity and power to continue to drive change, to create opportunities for our youth, the industry and our continent.”

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Since launching MTV Base in 2005, Okosi has spearheaded the development of the business on the continent, which now delivers more channels to Africa than any other international network – reaching 100 million viewers in 48 territories across MTV, MTV base, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and BET. He bids ViacomCBS adieu after almost two decades at the helm of different roles including BET International at the global company.

Detailing his journey from an Intern in 1998 to Executive Vice President and Managing Director, the Anambra State native, who is moving to YouTube as Managing Director of Emerging Markets for YouTube in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), said, “What began as a vision and a passion 15 years ago has been realised even beyond my initial expectations when we first pressed play to African Queen in February 2005. It’s taken a number of committed and hardworking people over the years to bring this dream to life and I’m immensely grateful for the industry trust and support as we forged forward to achieve the impossible.”
 
A graduate of St Michael’s College, Vermont, where he studied Business Administration and Economics, Okosi is an award winner of the Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2013, an All Africa Business Leader Award Finalist in 2018, and an honorary Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Marketing of Nigeria in 2019.

He took over leadership of BET International in 2017 and has continued to advance the value of the brand internationally delivering double-digit distribution growth and improving profitability and margins.  

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Under his leadership, BET International elevated its presence at the BET Awards by incorporating the Best International Act award into live broadcast, which simulcasted live in Africa for the first time. In addition, BET expanded its presence during the BET Hip Hop Awards by launching a new category to honour artists from around the world.

“I’m proud to have had the opportunity to build our Africa business from the ground up,” Okosi noted, adding, “This has played a pivotal role in transforming the music and content space and changing the narrative on Africa. Leading our Africa and BET International businesses to success is a testament to the extraordinary teams, colleagues and partners that I have worked with throughout my tenure. ViacomCBS has been my home for more than 20 fantastic years, and I leave behind incredible creative and commercial talent that will continue to deliver growth.”

Fifteen years ago, while Okosi was still working at the MTV Headtquaters in New York, his dream was to bring the brand back to motherland and help promote talents.

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“From the very first day I walked into the MTV headquarters in New York as a coordinator, my vision was to take the MTV brand to my home continent; to showcase the youth culture and talent that the continent is blessed with to the rest of the world. I think I can say that I realised that vision and even more. What started as pitch to launch a localised TV channel in Africa quickly turned into a network with many channels that cater to millions of people in different demographics. We’ve also been able to inspire and empower millions of African creatives and entertainers,” he enthused.

Though MTV is a successful brand in Africa today, convincing the organisation to look towards the black continent in its content creation, wasn’t neccessarily an easy task. Thank to Okosi for his doggedness and insistence that Africa needs a platform to showcase her culture globally.

“It was difficult, and understandably so; this wasn’t due to lack of interest. At the time, Viacom was in every region in the world, except for Africa and internally, there was a lot of interest to complete the global picture. But no one was exactly excited about plunging into a continent of 54 countries and thousands of different languages and cultures. It seemed like too much of a risk considering all that and the political instabilities and infrastructural challenges the continent was faced with. But thankfully, after over 20 revisions of the original business plan, I was finally able to convince management about the potential and possibilities that abound in Africa,” he revealed.

No doubt, the coming of MTV brand to Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, played a vital role in setting standards for the music industry, especially when it comes to music videos, as artistes began to improve on the quality of their works to get aired on a global platform.

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“When we finally got the go-ahead to launch in Africa, one of the biggest challenges we faced was that the quality of the available music videos wasn’t up to par with the brand’s requirements. We devised a formula to solve that problem by investing directly in training local talent and guiding them on how to make better videos. Today, our music videos are just as good as those from more developed parts of the world.”

He continued: “One of our major goals when we established MTV in Africa in 2005 was to show the world the beauty and talent that abound in the African continent through quality content and music videos. 15 years down the line, I think we can beat our chest and say we’ve achieved that. The world is finally paying attention, our talents are getting global recognition and selling out arenas all over the world. The industry may still have a long way to go, but it is nowhere near where we met it when we debuted in 2005.”

In 2008, Okosi and his team conceived the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) to celebrate the most popular contemporary music in the continent. The 2008 and 2010 events took place in Nigeria, first in Abuja and then in Lagos. By 2009, the glamourous show moved to Nairobi, Kenya. However, the award had a three-year hiatus, returning only in 2014 in Durban, South Africa, while the 2016 edition was hosted in Johannesburg.

Notwithstanding, what many didn’t know was that setting the award in motion was a tough task. In fact, the maiden edition held in Abuja actually caused Okosi to shed tears; things didn’t go exactly as planned.

“Not a lot of people know this, but the morning after the very first MAMAs in Abuja, I cried. Nothing in my plans quite prepared me for how bad some of the event experience was. Our saving grace was that it was not aired live and the TV production was actually good. Notwithstanding, We were still able to give the audience a great show. I say this to say that it wasn’t easy. None of it was easy, but we’ve been able to make it work in spite of all the hurdles,” he said.

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Just when it looked like the MTV Africa was all about entertainment and red carpet, the brand in 2009 launched a multi-channel campaign in Kenya, MTV Shuga, which focuses on positive sexual health messaging for young people within the age bracket of 16 to 25. The central feature of the campaign is an award-winning TV series that has been aired in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa; the show is viewable throughout Africa (and worldwide) via social media and other sources, and has, till date, reached an audience of over 720 million, with a social media reach of about 118 million.

Since 2013, MTV Shuga was adapted for Nigeria, the campaign has used a 360-degree mass-media behaviour change design, which directed young people to, and promoted the use of HIV-testing and treatment services that were specifically designed for this population. This 360-degree approach meant that MTV Shuga had presence in the places where young people were most active.

The campaign fuses sexual-health messaging with gripping storylines, exploring the issues of sexual relationships between young people against a backdrop of continuing HIV infections in the continent. 

“For MTV Shuga, the goal was to target young adults and educate them regarding HIV prevention, self-testing and reproductive health. MTV Shuga fuses hard-hitting storylines with sexual health messages to influence viewers’ attitudes and behaviour. With Shuga, we established ourselves as the media industry’s gold standard in behaviour-change campaigns,” Okosi hinted.

His tenure also facilitated the partnership between MTV Networks Africa and MTN for a groundbreaking pan-African multimedia campaign, MTV Base Meets… with MTN. The programme is an African localised version of the established MTV Meets… franchise that has previously interviewed influential individuals, including Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Morgan Tsvangarai and Wyclef Jean.

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Designed to inspire African youth by connecting them with some of the world’s most influential personalities, the programme is an 8-part youth empowerment initiative and TV series that creates a dialogue between young people and the political, business and cultural leaders, who shape the world today.

The intimate documentary series allowed Africa’s young minds to put probing questions to influential, inspirational and sometimes controversial individuals. Among the eminent people, who featured in the series are former Liberian President Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Mr Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda and South African politician Mr Julius Malema (President of the ANC Youth League) and many African leaders and influencers, who exercise a significant impact on the continent.

For the show, diverse panels of young people representing different youth interests were assembled from across the African continent, with participants coming from Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda and others. Young, but well-informed, the panelists were articulate, engaging, provocative and opinionated on a range of complex subjects – be it HIV/AIDS, global warming, education, poverty, corruption or entrepreneurship. Fearless with attitude, their no-holds-barred approach made for exciting television viewing, as they fired big questions to the influential people whose actions and opinions have a direct impact on their lives.

“The idea is to connect African youth with the thought leaders, opinion formers, decision makers and role models who shape their world. We strongly believe in entertainment and education and these are ever present in any project we embark on,” Okosi said.

Then, there was NickeFest, which has been hosted three times in Lagos. Though conceived as a platform for kids, the project has turned out to be a family show.

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“Nickelodeon is a firm favourite for family entertainment globally. When we did the first edition, all we wanted to do was to bring happiness and fun to kids and their parents in Nigeria. From 2017 to date, we have organised three editions successfully, each recording over 4,000 attendees. We’ve been able to pull this off because of the incredible show of support from parents, children, our partners and local artistes and creatives.”

Call Okosi ‘Nigerian Ambassodor,’ then you won’t be entirely wrong; he’s proudly Nigerian. All through his career, he remains a strong believer in Nigeria and has represented the country globally. “I strongly believe in representing the country to the best of my ability whenever I have the opportunity to. I’m a Nigerian through and through, and this further inspires me to be a good representative of the country everywhere I go.”

As for the usual negative stereotypes about Nigeria and Nigerians, Okosi believes the narrative is gradually changing.“You will agree with me that the perception about Nigeria is changing. Maybe when I was younger and still an undergraduate, there were lots of negative stereotypes about Africans, but this is gradually changing,” he noted.

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Asked for how he copes with his tasking job and being a family man, the Onitsha-born media expert said, “Family comes first in everything I do; every decision I make is always with them in mind. And I think that they know this, so, they are very understanding when I have to be away for a while, or when I’m up late working. Also, as an executive, having a loving family offers one the much needed therapy and strength to survive the tough world of business. I couldn’t have achieved any of what I did in my career without the love and support of my family.”

As for his most memorable moments with ViacomCBS Networks, he explained, “I have had lots of memorable experiences since I joined the company. I mean, we have been creating magic and challenging ourselves since day one. But if I am to pick my most memorable experience, that will have to be the day we launched MTV Base in Africa. It was a vision that I had had for a long time, and I was very happy when it came to fruition in February 2005,” he enthused.

No doubt, Okosi latest appointment with YouTube connects strongly with his outstanding performance as the face of MTV brand in Africa.“I believe my experience and the work that my team and I have done at ViacomCBS Networks Africa definitely would have been a factor,” he confirmed.

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In this article:
Alex OkosiOzumba Mbadiwe
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