EbonyLife Media, headed by Founder and CEO Mo Abudu, is Nigeria’s premium media conglomerate. Its focus is on creating original and inspiring content that showcases a pioneering and progressive Africa. This focus, and the resulting storytelling, have now gone global, with several international partnerships and projects in place. Abudu talks to World Screen about the importance of telling stories that are coming from Africa as well as stories that are about the Black experience around the world.
WS: The growth of EbonyLife over the last couple of years cannot be understated. What’s been driving gains for the company?
ABUDU: It’s about being committed to the vision. It’s about having the right vision, being tenacious and not giving up. It’s about not taking no for an answer, and it’s about staying laser-focused. I believe so much in the law of averages. You can keep knocking on doors, and maybe those doors don’t open, but at some point, if you knock on a hundred doors, you’re going to find the conversion ratio that a certain number of doors are going to open. So, I never take no for an answer. Each time you say no to me, I know that I’m getting closer to a yes. That’s my approach to getting things done. You just can’t give up; you’ve got to keep going. But you’ve got to have a clear vision about what you’re trying to achieve, make sure you have the right team that you’re trying to achieve it with and then continue to execute.
WS: What are the greatest opportunities for EbonyLife in the global content landscape?
ABUDU: I see opportunities in the fact that the world is changing, and no one really cares where [stories are] coming from anymore. What they’re after is a good story, a great story. We’ve seen so much evidence of that in the world. We’ve seen evidence up close and personal with Blood Sisters, a show from Nigeria going into the Netflix top ten with 11 million viewing hours in five days. That tells you something. It tells you that people around the world are watching. It got into the U.K. top ten, the U.S. top ten, the top ten in France, Germany and so many countries around the world. People around the world just want a good story.
WS: In what markets are you seeing particularly strong demand for content from the African continent?
ABUDU: When I look at the map of the countries that were watching Blood Sisters, the show did very well in Europe. It did very well in South America. It did well in North America and the Caribbean, and it did very well across the continent of Africa. When you have a platform like Netflix, week after week, content gets released and they have algorithms of how it throws out the types of stories you may want to watch. So, when it will [suggest] Blood Sisters or a similar story because you watched maybe something that was a crime thriller or a little bit dark the week before, you’re going to say, OK, what is that? You’re possibly going to click on it, and once you click and watch 10 minutes, 20 minutes, [it may be] addictive. It’s about making sure that you are able to tick those boxes so that your content can be relevant wherever you are. We’ve seen the incredible things that Stranger Things has done around the world. I mean, please give me $30 million an episode and I’d do the same thing [laughs], but it’s number one everywhere. A good story is a good story is a good story. But we must never forget that with some of these good stories, there’s also a factor of budgets and so many other things as well that go into it. A few years ago, no one knew about K-dramas, but all of a sudden, the whole world is watching K-dramas now.
African content will, at some point, begin to have that same impact. If you’ve watched Blood Sisters on Netflix, the next time we do something similar, the algorithm is going to suggest to you to watch it. That’s why tech is so important in this world that we’re living in. That’s going to give you an audience that knows your content and wants to see more content that is coming from you, so you already have an existing audience, and then people are also word-of-mouth suggesting to other people, Oh, have you seen this show or that show? Then, people are tweeting about it. There was Twitter conversation around Blood Sisters; it trended in Nigeria forever, even in South Africa. It was trending in the U.K. for a day or two. These are the things that make it top of mind for people to want to watch what you’ve created.
WS: Tell us about the pact with BBC Studios Drama Productions.
ABUDU: We want to tell global stories. There’s local for local, and there’s local for global. Sometimes we do stories that are very local, and they may be regional in that it’s really specifically for a local audience. But increasingly, we’re sitting in a space whereby we’re creating a local story coming out of Africa that is for a global audience, but also creating stories that are coming out of the U.K. or coming out of the U.S. about the Black experience. The Black experience exists everywhere in the world; there’s no corner of the world today where there aren’t Black people present there, where they aren’t living their lives there, where they aren’t running businesses there, where they aren’t going through the usual family dramas and things that everyone is going through there. They need to have a voice. They need to be represented in the media and on all platforms the same way every other nationality is. At EbonyLife, we want to be creating content that, yes, is telling stories that are coming from Africa, but also telling stories that are about the Black experience, wherever that Black experience may be happening.
Look at a project like Reclaim, which tells a story that is set in the world of today. But with regard to the genesis of the story, if I take you back to the 1800s, when the British came to Nigeria, they went to Benin City specifically. They looted Benin City and went away with a lot of artifacts, with a lot of our cultural heritage, which now sits in museums in the U.K. and other parts of the world. When I was running my talk show, I did an episode about the Queen Idia mask, which still sits in the British Museum and is one of the things that was looted from Africa and they refused to give back. Hundreds and hundreds of years later, they have refused to give these things back to Africa, for one reason or another. The drama series Reclaim makes reference to that. There’s a group of young millennials, Black millennials, who have now said, You know what, all this stuff that you guys have looted, we are taking it back because it belongs to us. It’s a limited series, but it’s an adventure, it’s a thriller, it’s got action. It’s about kickass young millennials claiming back what is rightfully theirs.
WS: Is there still a pact in place with Sony?
ABUDU: Yes, there is. We have been so fortunate in the number of partners that we have around the world. In 2018, we signed a three-series deal with Sony. The year after that, we signed a deal with AMC. We’ve gone on to sign a deal with the BBC. With Netflix, we have a slate of projects that we’re rolling out for the next two years. We signed another deal with Lionsgate and Starz last year. We’re working with Will Packer on the Hushpuppi story. We’re working with Westbrook Studios on three other projects. We’re busy! There’s a lot of development going on on all of these projects, and development does take time, especially for good global storytelling.
WS: What types of content alliances are you pursuing internationally?
ABUDU: We’re pursuing stories that are coming out of the [African] continent, but also stories about the Black experience—that really has to be what our storytelling is about. We’ve broken those into four key genres. We have what we’re calling “Afro history,” whereby we look back in time at incredible stories out of Africa that are historical, that have never been told. Then there’s “Afro impact,” which are impactful stories, current affairs stories, like when we did Òlòtūré, about human trafficking. Then there’s “Afropolitan,” which is dealing with stories very much of today, like Blood Sisters. Then there’s “Afrofuturism,” which deals in the world of tomorrow. The project we have with AMC is called Nigeria 2099, and it’s about a hunt for resources in the world come the year 2099 as we’ve imagined it to be. So, we have those four key genres, but the focus is always going to be on the Black experience wherever that may be in the world.
WS: What are your goals for your international business in the 12 to 18 months ahead?
ABUDU: My goals are that we continue to roll out our slate with Netflix, which are local stories but of global significance. We will also continue development with our international partners and get into production with these projects that are currently in development. And we will keep building new relationships and new partnerships around the world. I’m in London at the moment, and I’ve been introduced to at least two production companies in the last week alone that want to have conversations with us about expanding their footprints around the world.
Also, we want to ensure that international companies that talk about diversity and inclusion aren’t just paying lip service to those things, but to actually ensure that diversity and inclusion become part and parcel of the content that is delivered to their platforms. Over the years, a lot of production companies and broadcasters have said, Oh, yes, we have this inclusion policy, and here I am, sitting here 20 years later, and I’m like, where is that last program that had Black representation in it or is about a Black family? I’m not seeing as much as I should. We need to ensure that happens.