Abiola Alabi: We want to tell young people that you can pick yourself up and rebuild
Biola Alabi is an entrepreneur, filmmaker, investor, public speaker and television host. Head of Biola Alabi Media, a consultancy and production company with expertise in strategic consulting for pay entertainment, digital television, interactive television and emerging entertainment distribution platforms; they service governments, content creators, telecommunication industry, and investors in the converging media technology space.
The Executive Producer of the 2018 highly anticipated movie, Lara and the Beat, 2017 Nollywood blockbuster and highly acclaimed movie, Banana Island Ghost (B.I.G), Bukas and Joints, which currently airs across Africa and in the USA, she is also the founder of “Grooming for Greatness” a leadership development and mentorship program for a new generation of African leaders.
Named one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes Magazine (2012), a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader (2012) and CNBC Africa’s AABLA West African Business Woman of the Year (2013), for over five years, Alabi was the director for M-Net Africa. An alumni of the University of Cincinnati where she graduated with a Degree in Public and Community Health, she has spent recent years polishing her knowledge with Programs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs. Alabi has also spoken globally on the status of the African creative arts industry, the opportunities available on the continent, the success of Nollywood and the need for ongoing investment into infrastructure and skills sharing initiatives.
In this interview, she speaks of her new project, Lara and the Beat, her move from Mnet and getting and keeping a seat at the table.
Tell us about Biola Alabi Media?
Biola Alabi media is a production and consulting company, set up almost three years ago. We do television shows like Bukas and Joints (we have done five seasons already); we did a movie last year and now, we have another movie coming out. We have done many consultations with many clients, worked with countless clients on media strategies and broadcasting strategy around the continent. We create content and consult basically.
What informed your move from Mnet/Dstv and starting BAM?
I was there for several years and I thought it was time. I have worked with many companies in the past and there were things I wanted to do that I felt would be easier to do if I had my own company. There were stories I wanted to tell that I felt that I could create a better platform for myself to tell those stories if I was working for myself and therefore define the parameters in a different way. I loved my job and what I was doing but I felt it was time for a change to try something different and grow because at the end of the day, no matter how old one gets, you want to grow and keep challenging yourself.
How has the transition been like, leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar?
In everything, I think there is always going to be highs and lows. But of course, with entrepreneurship, this becomes much more intensified. The intensity of the great times is extremely rewarding and the bad times have very fast and immediate effects, because it is one thing if a business doesn’t do well in a corporate environment as it takes about 12 months for you to feel the impact of a bad business cycle when you’re working in a corporate environment, but when you are on your own, a bad business cycle is just that- a bad business cycle and you feel it right away. Those to me are the highs and lows of being on your own.
Tell us more about your first major production, Bukas and Joints?
Yes it was our first major production as before this, we were doing mostly consulting work when we first started. Bukas and Joints is really important to me because I always wanted to do programming in food, promoting food and culture as they are both closely linked. As someone that has lived across the world, one of the things you never lose is the food. You might lose the language, parts of the culture but the food is always the last to go and I felt we weren’t really documenting and creating strong ties to our food. So, I wanted to do this, which is why we settled on this name, a very local way of celebrating our food. So, we traveled around Nigeria to document how people make our food, how people eat our food, how people are modernising our food and how people are changing our food. We went to London and discovered there were many restaurants there, cooking and serving Nigerian food. There we discovered some young people doing some very interesting things with food, we met a young brother and sister using Tapas to make Nigerian food (Tapas are small plates which originate from Spain) and they localised it and are using this method to serve Nigerian food. So, in one meal, you can eat four or five different dishes and they were getting a lot of pickup on this in the U.K. People have really been grateful that we have been able to showcase some of the different things people are doing. We did an episode where we highlighted a restaurant that does seafood okra and after, I got so many calls from people asking where the place is. These are part of the things we set out to do, show people that are cooking and preserving our culture and our food.
Some people have said that Bukas and Joints is a poor imitation of other shows that celebrate Nigerian food. What is your take on this?
I haven’t heard it is a poor imitation, however, I have heard it is inspired by other shows. I think we all take our inspiration from different places. That said, if you sit in a place and rely on criticisms, you would never do anything. So I always tell people, instead of criticising, pick up a camera and tell your own story. I love when people tell our stories. This is our own effort and our way of telling our story. You might not like how I tell mine but I believe you shouldn’t be afraid of what people will say and therefore not do something. I have never been afraid of what people would say, of what they would compare me with; I’m simply inspired to take action and I might fail but also, I might succeed. This is how I have always modeled my life; don’t worry about what people will say because if you do, you would never get anything done.
In 2010, you anchored the launch of AfMag Hausa and Yoruba, what inspired this?
One of the things that has been common in everything I have done from when I worked on Sesame Street to African Magic, is really about telling stories and creating platform that empower people, which is what we are doing at Biola Alabi Media. We are creating programmes, different from what we have seen, things that empower people and things that tell a different story. When we did Bukas and Joints, nobody was telling that story from our perspective or traveling round Nigeria. Same thing when we launched Africa Magic Yoruba, no one was really doing a full Yoruba channel and the same way I felt it is important to document our food in Bukas and Joints, it is important to showcase and celebrate our language. Before anyone saw anything on screen, we had been talking to producers, content creators in the North and South West. Everywhere you go in the world, people showcase and celebrate what they have, we shouldn’t be different. We cant wait for others to do things for us, we have to be part of architecting the future that our children will see and we knew language is an important part of what we need to preserve. Today, more people have created channels for languages like Yoruba and so on, appealing to different people and I am happy we were able to inspire this movement. In Lara and The Beat, we are celebrating African culture and values, things like working hard, proverbs you heard from your parents, things I believe are important and worthy of celebration, things that we have done and will continue to do in every platform we create.
Tell us more about your new project, Lara and The Beat?
This movie was created from experiences that myself and different families have had really. It looks at some of the challenges we have had in the past but still hopefully looking at the future. It is about two sisters, who start out very rich, they have a huge inheritance but due to mismanagement, they lose their fortune. The value of hard work really comes to play here because to go forward, they have to pick themselves up, work hard to build a new future and redefine what they thought their lives would be. We want to tell young people that it is not always what you think is going to happen that happens, but the beauty is that you can pick yourself up and rebuild. We also celebrate hard work, which is something we are losing these days. There are so many get rich quick overnight schemes now; everyone wants to get rich quickly without doing much. We modeled on the behaviour we want to see in the society and we also celebrated Nigerian music. Our movies and music are our tickets now, our calling card. If you travel outside the country, a lot of people know Nollywood movies and music, nobody says: “Oh, you’re an oil producing country.” I wanted to bring this two big calling cards together and let the world know see us better, so, expect a lot of music and the spirit of the true Nollywood in this movie.
Tell us more about Grooming For Greatness, which you founded?
Grooming for Greatness comes from a need I saw in our society. I work with a lot of young people and discovered that as people were getting older and getting promoted into managerial roles, they were not really prepared for leadership and so they could effectively manage but not lead. Managing is the efficiency; leadership is the uplifting, seeing the future and bringing people along with you. It is much more strategic and I discovered that when I promoted people, I found them to be efficient managers but not strategically leading. I wanted to work with people between 25 and 35 years to see how we can help them accelerate, create a network for them, a safe place where they could talk about their dreams, hopes and connect them with our network. I brought in different mentors to help me do this, Tayo Oviosu, Nimi Akinkugbe and others. We selected people through an application process and worked with them for a year, doing different trainings, workshops and ensure we are making a positive impact on them as they go through this journey. We are excited about this project and currently working with our second class and looking at redesigning the program for the next class.
What has been your greatest success story so far?
I’ve had amazing success throughout my career; being able to give back has been of the biggest projects that I’m so proud of. Having a family of my own, being there for my parents and siblings are to me, real things to be proud of. Also, being part of a global narrative that people see, the fact that I’m invited to different places and I have a seat at the table and I’m not misusing my seat at the table is something to be proud of. I seat on the board of Unilever, people don’t get invited to seat on such boards if you don’t have a certain integrity and contribution you can make. These are all things I continue to be proud of. I’m excited about our new movie coming out; I’m excited at the number of people we have brought together in this movie. We brought together two musicians that people wouldn’t have thought about to be a lead in a movie and they did an amazing job. We also brought in veterans like Chioma Akpotha, Uche Jombo, Chinedu Ikedezie, these are people I’ve always wanted to work with. It’s not an easy feat and is one of my proudest achievements this year.
You are lucky to have gotten a seat at the table. What would you advise women who want a seat at the table but don’t know how to go about it?
I think luck is a combination of hard work and opportunity; I have worked hard and had some amazing opportunity. I don’t think luck happens overnight and I don’t think you can pray your way into luck. You have to go out there and work hard, put yourself in uncomfortable positions, challenge yourself, go out of your way to make people understand what you bring to the table. Most people don’t know this, but I worked for free for many years. I volunteered to show people what I could do and that I could grow. I didn’t always wait for paid employment. There is a lot of hard work and sacrifices that go into having a seat at the table. Nobody invites you to a table except they see you have put the work in, that you have served not yourself, but others. I have taken a couple of steps back in my career to get to where I wanted and these are some of the conversations we have with our fellows at Grooming for Greatness. Sometimes, it might feel like a step back but it could be a step in the right direction for your career. Don’t be afraid to take chances, to take a pay cut as these may lead to better things. Starting your business, you need to make lots of sacrifices. You might not make money for a year or even two, so you need to have saved.
How do you create a comfortable work life balance?
The same way our mothers and grandmothers did, there is nothing we’re doing today that has not been done. My grandma was a trader and had seven kids and managed it all. Her mother was a farmer and she managed it all. I think we make time for what is important and we manage it all. Women are natural multi-taskers and the model is there for everyone; it can be done.
Who and what inspire you?
I find inspiration in everything; in films, in life, from the women that sell at Balogun market daily, the people we profile on Bukas and Joints inspire me with their story and journey. Everyone around me inspires me in different ways.
Do you go out of your way to inspire women?
Grooming for Greatness sets out to tackle this by trying to formalise mentorship. In all I do, I try to ensure I am inspiring others like at speaking engagements. I am focused on mentoring women, providing jobs for women and trying to ensure that women are involved, are aware of available jobs in this field especially. We have more women than men at Grooming for Greatness and I always try to ensure that women are a priority for me, from mentoring to creating opportunities.
Where do you see yourself and BAM in five years from now?
One of the things we’re trying to do, such as what we did in Banana Island Ghost, is change the narrative in the way people see films. In B.I.G, we created the role of a female protagonist that has never been seen before. She was funny, heavier, feisty, fighting, doing action moves and so on. For me, these are interesting and unique things we can do in film by creating unique roles for women. Looking at Lara and the Beat, the two sisters rebuild their lives on their own. It wasn’t about someone coming to save them, they used what they had to rebuild. We have two other films we are working on showing the power women have. Usually, our films are about two women fighting over a guy or running after a guy; these are not stories we want our daughters to be watching, we want to empower them to go after their dreams, to grow and their lights can shine. We want to be a part of creating a new narrative for Africa and supporting people making positive narratives. We want to continue to be a thriving, independent home for new thinkers and storytellers.
Speaking of Nollywood, what can be done to improve the quality of movies being produced these days?
Journalists need to be engaged more, let us celebrate the people telling a different kind of story more; let us work with them. There are so many stories people want to tell and we have to encourage young filmmakers to tell these stories. We have to create avenues to have this conversation, ask the filmmakers what they need to improve quality. We all know they need bigger budgets and we need to create avenues they can reap rewards of their work without being ripped off. The government has to get involved in developing community cinemas to enrich the lives of people. There are many places in Nigeria that has no entertainment, let us see how we can engage and get this going. Let us reward people making films on the social issues in our lives, in the country. We need more documentaries and we need to be willing and brave to challenge each other as well. There has to be alternative narratives and this is what we are trying to do with our movies, we are trying to be an alternative voice in this industry.