Why you should care
U.S.-born Biola Alabi is challenging stereotypes and shaking up Africa’s media landscape.
As a child growing up in Ohio, Biola Alabi vividly remembers one visit to a friend’s house for dinner. Biola wasn’t hungry, so she didn’t eat much, and her friend’s mother piped up: “You didn’t finish your food; aren’t people in your country starving?” It wasn’t precisely the moment when the usual Nigerian-American career dream — doctor, lawyer, engineer — faded for the future media mogul, but it planted the seed. “That is why I was drawn to Nigeria, because I wanted to change that story,” she says.
Today, Alabi is transforming the broadcasting and film industry in Africa with a focus on locally produced content — not imported Western fare. She launched seven Africa Magic channels, including some in indigenous languages, which now are the “backbone of African content,” says Femi Odugbemi, a Nigerian documentary filmmaker, director and producer. She even came up with the “African Oscars,” as the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards are known.
The 45-year-old mogul’s “global perspective” was honed during a childhood split between Cincinnati and Lagos, Nigeria, with her parents leaving their homeland for good when the political situation deteriorated. (She’s also lived in Seoul, South Korea, for an internship.) As a freshman at the University of Cincinnati, Alabi planned to become a doctor. But during one of her classes, she realized media could be a transformative tool, and she started to consider another path.
We never have conversations around women issues and health issues like monthly periods, about consent, in Nigeria. Girls are supposed to learn on their own.
A few years after graduation, she was working on the classic children’s TV show Sesame Street, where one of her first projects was about how parents and children could talk about the 9/11 attacks. When she got involved in Sesame Street’s international projects and started traveling across Africa, Alabi felt the need to “be on the continent.” One time in Tanzania, “I saw how parents and children were engaging with our content, even though it wasn’t in Swahili. It was very powerful for me,” she says.
In 2008 she moved to Lagos for good and found that Africa didn’t have its own Sesame Street — most of its hits were imports. She aimed to tell unique local stories, rising to become managing director of M-Net Africa, one of the continent’s biggest broadcasting companies, where she helped launch the African Oscars. In 2015, she started Biola Alabi Media consultancy to connect storytellers with funding and distribution.
Nigeria’s film industry, aka Nollywood, is replete with stereotypes. Alabi has made a mark by telling stories no one else would. “Biola has been essential in challenging the narrative tropes established within Nollywood today by making films that appeal not only to Nigeria or Africa but also transcend borders,” says Tosin Coker, a Nigerian producer and the CEO of Skylar Pictures. Coker recalls Alabi’s best advice on storytelling: Visit a local church and study the sermons. “All I can say is in doing so, I discovered quintessentially the Nigerian ideology of the perfect story,” Coker says.
One example: Lara and the Beat, which Alabi and Coker co-produced. “It is about two sisters who get caught up in a financial scandal and have to rebuild their lives from scratch,” Alabi says. “The film had female protagonists, so it was a yes right from the bat.” Alabi now is planning to turn the movie — made in collaboration with Nigeria’s tax department, because it’s about finances and wealth — into a series, starting with when the sisters are 9 years old.
“We never have conversations around women issues and health issues like monthly periods, about consent, in Nigeria. Girls are supposed to learn on their own,” Alabi says. The series “will talk about everything that is not talked about in our society.” She plans to complement the series with published books to circulate among parents. It’s all part of Alabi’s push to create positive African female role models who are diverse and nuanced.
As the rare woman to climb to such heights in Nigeria — not to mention a U.S.-born outsider — Alabi does have her critics. Movie reviewers and some “traditional Nollywood players,” in her words, have accused her of bringing in “Western ideas,” and some have called her movies “not local enough.”
It’s true she’s drawn global attention. Alabi was named one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes in 2012, and this year the Financial Times named her to its 100 Female Executives list. She oversaw four editions of the popular reality series Big Brother Africa, and created the “Face of Africa” finale in Lagos in 2010. Alabi’s Bukas and Joints is now Africa’s No. 1 food and travel show, broadcast both on African and U.S. channels.
But her biggest passion goes back to her Sesame Street days: educational content for children. Nigeria has the world’s largest number of children who are out of school — 10.5 million, per government data, most in the war-torn north. Alabi is counting not on more classrooms, but more technology to meet the need. Today, younger Africans are getting free educational content via their mobile phones, TV shows and films. “We bring people together to use media to solve some of the biggest problems we are facing in the continent,” she says. “A lot of it is to do with education and information.” The first in her young adult educational book series, The Adventures of Lara and Dara: Lost and Found in Lagos, drops in December and will become a TV series.
Alabi has the confidence of a woman who hustles hard. When answering questions, she takes a pause and thinks for a moment before responding. She is the face of a media renaissance in Nigeria, but Alabi, a lover of travel and books, knows how to live a balanced life. Her friends envy her fashion sense, and wonder, as news producer Labo Daniel did: “How can she pack so many dresses in a single suitcase?”
Alabi is also shaping the next generation of the continent’s leaders through her Grooming for Greatness program, showing young women and men that a different kind of hunger pays off. “I am ambitious, strong and driven,” she says. “And I believe that if we all did our part, we can make a huge impact.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Biola Alabi
- What’s the last book you finished? Shogun by James Clavell.
- What do you worry about? The state of education in Nigeria.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My phone.
- Who’s your hero? My mom.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Living in Tokyo.
Read more: Meet the woman who dares to speak with Boko Haram.