Aug 27, 2019

By Tara Weiss
Alex Okosi on what it took to bring the music video culture to his home continent.

Our In the Office With ... series, gives Viacom executives the opportunity to reveal a little bit about who they are, how they lead, and what drives them in the day-to-day.

 

MTV Africa started as the personal passion project of Alex Okosi.

It was 2003. He was in his 20s, working as a manager for the international strategy and business development team in Viacom’s London office and spending nights drafting a business plan to bring MTV to the world’s second largest continent.

Pay TV was a luxury for many Africans, so Okosi, who was born in Nigeria, suggested that MTV sponsor two-hour branded blocks of free-to-air TV. He pitched several versions of his plan to Viacom leadership and ultimately, MTV Base launched in Africa in February 2005. Okosi spent the ensuing years scouring the continent for new artists, going to clubs and homes to hear up-and-coming musicians and teaching them how to make high-quality music videos.

Okosi projected MTV Base Africa would break even in 36 months; it took 28.

“African music is everywhere,” says Okosi, executive vice president and managing director of VIMN Africa and BET International. “Our MTV Africa story is powerful in that it demonstrates the impact we can have as a brand in shaping and elevating culture, as well as providing global exposure to talent.”

 

"More than ever, local content is very, very important. Africans want to see themselves and shows created for them. "

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies that than the hero’s welcome South African popstar Sho Madjozi received upon landing in her home country after winning the Best New International Act in June at the BET Awards in L.A. The singer, who was recently featured in a New York Times article, was praised for the win by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a session of Parliament.

As for Okosi, he left Nigeria at age 12 to join his brothers in the U.S., where they were in college. He attended four high schools before being awarded a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy. From there, he won a basketball scholarship to Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and a first job as trade marketing coordinator for Viacom in New York.

Okosi and I spoke recently in New York on one of his many trips from his home base in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Tara Weiss: What were some of the challenges in starting MTV Base in Africa?

Alex Okosi: Videos were the last thing artists wanted to do, because they are expensive and they didn't think they needed them. They didn't understand their power as a marketing tool.

We did focus groups in eight countries to understand what appealed to audiences, and found that quality was the most important thing. If a video looked good visually, young people were actually paying attention to it and listening to the music. But if it was awful looking, they laughed at it and didn’t appreciate the music. The big challenge was figuring out how we could raise the standard of music videos to have a strong channel and enable the talent and their music to travel across the continent. Our hope was that the content would travel beyond Africa, which proved to be the case.

TW: What was your solution?

AO: We partnered with Shell to launch Making the Video workshops. An oil company is not a natural client for the MTV brand, but they had the resources to sponsor the initiative and we pitched them on the opportunity to contribute to the development of young people's lives in Africa through music.

The workshops really changed the game and served as a catalyst for what we see today – a thriving African music industry that is creating buzz around the world. We invited the best music video directors to workshops in eight of our priority countries over two years. They trained their African counterparts on how to produce higher quality content. We shot free music videos for artists as part of the initiative and produced Making the Video, a behind-the-scenes show that we aired on the channel.

Alex Okosi, executive vice president and managing director of VIMN Africa and BET International

TW: Broadly speaking, what are African audiences interested in watching today?

AO: More than ever, local content is very, very important. Africans want to see themselves and shows created for them. For people doing business on the ground, there’s pressure to make sure we produce enough local content to be relevant and to drive eyeballs to our screens.

TW: What are some examples of popular local content?

AO: We just finished airing a local version of Yo! MTV Raps in South Africa that performed incredibly well on MTV Base. On BET, we just finished the second season of our popular reality show The Big Secret, which features people revealing their biggest secret to family and friends. On MTV, we just started airing our second season of @Lasizwe: Fake It Till You Make It, a reality show about a social media stars rise to fame. On Comedy Central, we are airing Most Ridiculous hosted by the YouTube star, Suzelle, from South Africa. And we will be doing a biopic later this year on one of South Africa's biggest artists, Lebo Mathosa, on BET.

TW: It’s interesting that people want more local content at a time when it’s easier than ever to get international content via streaming services. How do streaming platforms play into the viewing mix?

AO: Linear TV is still the dominant medium for content consumption and still growing in terms of audience size. Netflix and Showmax are the streaming platforms from an SVOD perspective. However, with the data costs still high in Africa, they are growing at a slower rate than in more developed markets.

TW: What is the production landscape like in Africa?

AO: The landscape is strong, with really good producers and production houses that deliver world-class content particularly in South Africa and Nigeria. A few months ago, Netflix picked up Lionheart, a movie that was produced by Nigeria's foremost actress, Genevieve Nnaji.

The cost of production in Africa is nowhere near where it is in Europe or the U.S., so we take advantage of that. We partner with production companies to do co-productions and tap into the Department of Trade and Industry, which is a government agency that subsidizes local productions.

TW: Was it always your goal to return to Africa?

AO: Yes, it was always to get a US education, gain work experience and skills, then come back and help make a difference for my family and the continent.

TW: Have you done that?

AO: With MTV Base Africa, our mission was to show the world a re-imagined Africa. Being African, that’s my passion. And we’ve done that.

Small Talk

Leadership style: My team will say that I'm very involved. There's nothing that I ask of them that I wouldn't be willing to do myself. I'm with them in the trenches, and we work hard together to achieve our goals.

The MTV Base connection to Lupita Nyong’o: We were introduced to Lupita through her cousin, Isis Nyong’o, who was one of our first hires. Lupita auditioned for our prosocial drama series, Shuga, which was her first real acting job.

On building a business in Africa: Being able to employ and empower so many young people is amazing. I feel that we've played a part in their growth. It's amazing to be able to see the impact that our work can have in a positive way.

The secret to a perfectly bald head: I go to the barber shop every three days.

Photography: Chris Shonting

Art direction: Liane Radel 

Related Articles