“The African woman needs to be a major contributor to the economy of Africa. You cannot have fifty per cent of your population not actively engaged in conversations that will move your continent forward.”
African Leadership Magazine International Affairs Editor, Kenneth Nkemnacho interviewed Biola Alabi, Nigerian entrepreneur, African media expert and Chief Executive Officer of Biola Alabi Media, who was recently named in the Financial Times and HERoes 100 Female Executives list for 2018. In this exclusive interview, she reveals the hurdles experienced in the industry, her reactions to criticisms and her thoughts about the participation of women of all spheres of the economy. Excerpts.
To begin with, who is Biola Alabi?
I am someone that believes that everyone has a purpose, everyone has to find their purpose, and fulfilling your purpose practically impacts the people around you, and your community. And I think that has been how I’ve lived my journey and my life – I try to make sure everything I do has a positive impact on the world and even in my own world.
From your LinkedIn profile, your educational background in public health, but what you have accomplished in life is outside that hemisphere. How are you able to convince people, especially the young ones that basic education is basic, but what you end up becoming is determined by your drive and dream in life?
I don’t really spend a lot of time convincing people that what you studied doesn’t have anything to do with what you do in life. What I really try to do is spend my time encouraging people on the importance of education, and making people realise that they should invest in education. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you studied, in my opinion. The fact is that you’re getting education, and then, in getting basic education, you’re always going to learn certain skills, and that’s what I tell young people. And some of those skills are the skills that set you up for life. So, the skill around beginning something and ending something – the skill around striving for excellence – the skill around making sure that you understand the relevance of time management – these are the basic things you learn in going to the university. These skills set you up for success in life. There is the need to get an education that will equip you with the skills you need for life. That was what my education did – that was what public health did for me. You see, some of my early works were basically marketing, but these were core competencies I acquired from studying public health. Whatever project I embark on, the knowledge I acquired from public health forms the background of my decision-making process.
From my research on you, I discovered that you once worked with Sesame Workshop, probably the company that produces our own Sesame Street. To what extent has that opportunity helped you in reaching this height, and how much will it do for you in the future?
Working at Sesame Street was a defining moment for me from a career perspective. It gave me a lot of opportunities to learn about media, television commercials and content – to learn about intellectual properties and creating it for the long run. It’s really been a great opportunity to set me up for a career in media.
I watched a review of Lara and the Beat, one of your recent movies, by a popular Nigerian blogger. She started with an average commendation, but midway to the end, she completely brought to nothing all the efforts, skills and talents that were injected into that movie, and to be honest, I felt for you. How are you able, in the face of such disparaging criticisms to continue doing your thing, and still have the motivation to move on?
I really believe that there’s a way to give criticisms that could be useful rather than disparaging, and for the fact that you saw that the criticism was disparaging means that there seems to be a line that was crossed. I haven’t seen what you’re talking about, but for the fact you saw it as disparaging means there was a deliberate attempt not to give some credit to the job that was done. I believe anytime that a creative work is done, people are allowed to have an opinion, but that is also an opportunity to recognise that a lot of work was put into it. I don’t really get stuck on reviews especially when they get to a place of unproductivity. If I spend time thinking of what everyone says, I won’t be where I am today. For me, it’s all about staying focused and creating content that we’re proud of. We’re proud of our movies because they’re entertaining and different. And sometimes, if you’re doing something different, you should expect that not everyone is going to love it. We’re trying to push the boundaries of Nollywood by creating different types of Nollywood stories. Again in life, you have to take the good with the bad – I can’t always want the accolades without wanting the other feedbacks – my job is to take the good with the bad.
In your profile, resume and press releases, there is often this tint of perception on the emphasis of women taking front roles in your organisations, and this can be hugely misunderstood, especially in Nigeria, where your businesses are sited. Have you ever been accused of being a female chauvinist, or do you see yourself as one?
Nigeria is an extremely patriarchal society. I’m not even sure that they can ever call me a female chauvinist. I don’t even believe that there’s such a thing.
If you look at the number of women that are engaged in the workplace, the number of women that continue to rise to the top, the struggle and the obstacles that women face in business every day in Nigeria, and the fact that if you and I open the newspapers today – if we count the number of pictures to know how many of them are females, you and I are going to struggle to find equality, because it may not even be five per cent of women. The media needsto help by pushing these boundaries to strike a balance or a near balance. I am nowhere near being called a female chauvinist. We just have so much work to do for women to be seen, heard and listened to in our workplace and government.
The business climate in Africa, especially Nigeria, can be torrential, particularly when it spins around entertainment. When I watched YouTube clips of Bukas and Joints, what came first to my mind was, ‘How is she able to financially sustain it?’ Is it a question you would like to answer?
Of course! We’ve done four seasons of Bukas and Joints, and it is sustaining itself because of its relevance in showcasing Nigerian and African foods, and people from all over the world want to be part of it. Right now, there’s a channel in the UK called Yanga, that’s airing the programme, as well as B.I.G. In the US, it’s on an African channel – we’ve had requests from other parts of the world, and mainly, we continue to show Bukas and Joints locally, and it’s resonating with people. What that does is that it brings advertisers and sponsors, and that has been the way we sustain it.
Recently, and just a couple of days ago, you were named Financial Times/Heroes 2018 Top 100 Female Executives in the world, and before that, in 2012, you were listed amongst the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes, and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Besides these, there are other major awards that you’ve won. My question is, ‘What makes Biola Alabi thick – what gets her going in spite of the obdurate challenges and why does she poke her nose where others turn their backs on?’
I think the biggest thing is that to whom much is given, much is expected. I am extremely fortunate – I am extremely blessed, and that, I don’t take for granted. A lot of it is time and place – anyone could have been born to my parents and have same opportunities I have, and that doesn’t mean that the ten million children that are out of school shouldn’t have a voice that should speak out for them – it doesn’t mean that the millions of Nigerians in poverty shouldn’t have opportunities. So, I think that the constant opportunities I am trying to create and interested in will help everyone for good. I am interested in everyone hearing our stories. A couple of years ago, there was a story on CNN that says Nairobi-Nigeria, and the fact that that mistake could be done in recent times stipulates how people see Africa or think about Africa, and those are the things that keep me going. If you go to anywhere outside Nigeria today, especially in the western world, the types of questions people ask you about Africa will shock you – even on Google, you’ll be shocked on certain misinformed narratives they have about Africa.
Do you ever cry? If yes, what makes you cry?
Of course, I cry – I am human. Just like everyone else, I go through my own ups and downs – I go through challenges and disappointments – disappointments make people cry. And also, I think being in touch with your emotions make you cry, which makes you acknowledge that you are human. When I lose someone or something special to me, I cry. But I am always grateful because I am alive and healthy, and I have tomorrow – there’s so much to do. So, even if I do cry and show emotions, I continue to be grateful to God – that’s what makes me pick myself up.
What do you do to get better?
I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly investing in myself – through classes, through workshops, through engagements with people – I continue to ask questions, and these are the things that make you grow, as long as you never assume that you know everything. I learn from criticisms and feedbacks, which I take into forthcoming projects.
As a writer, I have been a victim of intellectual property theft, and sometimes, it is done in such a clever way that you can’t litigate. As a content creator, how are you able to protect your intellectual properties from copycats, imitators and outright ravenous wolves?
You have to be very careful how you navigate the issue of intellectual properties. Of course, we do engage lawyers whenever we feel our intellectual properties have been infringed on, but we are also mindful that there’s a lot of inspiration in the air, therefore, there’s a need not to be territorial when another show takes a resemblance of what you’re developing, just like there isn’t a big difference between American Idol and The Voice except for the turning of chairs. There isn’t a need for one person to cry wolf that their idea has been stolen by another. The issue of intellectual properties should be carefully navigated. The answers are in creating something that can’t be easily stolen, and secondly, you need a good legal advice on how to protect your properties. There’s no substitute for very good legal advice.
Grooming for Greatness is one of your organisations majoring on leadership mentoring. As an African, and to be specific, a Nigerian, I know how heart-rending it is to mentor people at home because of perceptions and mindsets. Most young people just need money – money they don’t even know how to invest, but squander. How do you recruit your mentees, what attitudes do you have to deal with, and what are the results so far?
Grooming for Greatness is a leadership and mentorship programme. We work with mid-level leaders and also, entrepreneurs, to help them develop their leadership abilities, and help them understand their strengths and weaknesses, and ways to tap the unrealised powers that they have. We also help them understand how important it is for their aspirations to be validated. These were the gaps I saw in the market. So, we work with young people to plug these gaps. The programme is on-going, and to be a participant, you go through thorough screening. Normally, about twelve fellows are selected from over five hundred applications. One of our fellows was recently recognised by MIT. She’s creating a blog inclined to a logistic programme – her name is Temi Giwa. There’s also another fellow who is creating an education conversation forum. These are people that make us very proud.
Where do you see the African woman in the next ten years?
I think the African woman need to have a conversation with the African woman, and then, a conversation with the African man. It must begin with the freedom that the African woman needs to be a major contributor to the economy of Africa. The woman continues to be sidelined, and not participating in their future. You cannot have fifty per cent of your population not actively engaged in conversations that will move your continent forward. Women must be given the opportunity to be involved in the boardrooms and in governments. Today, Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places to have children. We have one of the highest maternal mortalities – more women are dying giving birth than most places in the world. We’re losing productive people at productive ages. We need more women representations politically and industrially – these landscapes need to be equitable and convenient for women. Our leaders need to take seriously these observations and make sure the women are more engaged. And in addition, the African woman needs to get up and advocate for herself – no one except us can advocate for us.