When 12-year-old Alex Okosi convinced his parents to allow him to stay in the United States with his older brothers following a family holiday, they reluctantly agreed, hoping that their last born would quickly become homesick and return home, with his tail between his legs.
“We had gone on holiday to visit my older brothers who were living and studying in the US. At that point in time, sending your kids to go study in the States was the ‘in-thing’ in Nigeria among parents who could afford this privilege,” says Okosi.
It took only two years after he arrived in the US for Okosi to awaken to the realization that his parents would not be financially able to support his US education for very long.
“Being the last of seven children, my parents had basically put six people before me through school. In as much as my father had been an excellent provider, it was obvious that by the time I would need to go to university, he would have long retired by then,” he says.
At the age of 14, Okosi started playing junior high basketball, in the hope that he would excel at both the sport and the books enough to earn a basketball scholarship.
“I pushed myself to work extremely hard at both my studies and basketball. Even though it was obvious that I was a better student than I was an athlete, I managed to get the scholarship that paid my university tuition,” says Okosi.
Having excelled at his studies and sports, Okosi also managed to pack in numerous after-school jobs and internships that made it easy for MTV Networks, now Viacom, to hire him on a practical training basis after he had completed his economics degree.
“As an international student, getting a company to hire you after you complete your studies was a major feat. I joined MTV in New York knowing that I would only be there for a year, after which I would have to go back home to Nigeria, or apply for a work visa, hopefully sponsored by MTV,” says Okosi.
From the moment he walked in at the iconic music television channel, Okosi says he immediately dreamt of taking it to his home continent. To achieve this, Okosi resolved to work harder than everyone else, like he had been doing throughout his entire schooling career in America.
“After serving my practical training year in the New York branch of MTV, I was then moved to Los Angeles where I was to learn about all the other functions of the cable television network business,” he says.
After some time in Los Angeles, Okosi began studying for his MBA, but the idea of taking MTV to Africa was still very much alive, and circumstances were about to conspire in his favor.
“On a typical day at the office, I was called from my office to come meet the group CEO of MTV Networks at the time, where I was introduced by my boss to the big boss, as the star of the Los Angeles operation. I honestly expected that the compliments by the bosses were only for the purpose of boosting my morale and nothing beyond that,” recalls Okosi.
To his surprise, Okosi received a call from the head office summoning him to a lunch meeting with the group’s CEO he had met days before.
“I realized that this was going to be my one and only chance to table my big idea. It was going to be now or never. Even though I had a comfortable life, knowing that MTV was present everywhere else but in Africa really bothered me. There was music in our continent; there was youth culture just like everywhere else in the world. It just felt like Africa was the last frontier at that point because the business was everywhere but [in Africa],” says Okosi.
After that promising lunch meeting, Okosi was then sent to London to experience the launch of a new branch. This move was designed to test him.
“The idea was that I should go to the United Kingdom and start the process from scratch to see if by the end of it, I would still be interested in going ahead with my plan to launch in Africa. Above all the other requirements, the most important objective was that I had to make sure that the London branch was financially viable, a business that actually made money,” says Okosi.
After a successful run in London, his bid to launch the channel in Africa was given the final stamp of approval. This was in 2004 when Okosi started the journey back and forth between Johannesburg and London, where he was putting together a team that was to launch “MTV Base” in February 2005.
“Besides the challenges that came with setting up smaller supporting branches in Nigeria and other lesser-developed countries in Africa, after we had a successful launch of our African headquarters in Johannesburg, my team’s number one major challenge was getting quality content from African artists. Here we were, as a youth music channel, hoping to cater to a global youth who wanted to see both international and local material, but the majority of the local material—especially the music videos—was just not up to par with our requirements,” he says.
This new challenge gave birth to another of Okosi’s winning ideas: the MTV Talent Reps, a non-profit program which would see Okosi’s MTV team members go to musicians to train them on the basics of creating and shooting music videos that would be worthy of being aired on the channel and on other sister channels across the global MTV network.
“Our talent reps acted as the middlemen between the record labels, artists and us as a content carrier. How we, as a station, saw it, is that we needed good quality content to carry on our channel, so that we could attract viewers, so that we could in turn, attract advertising that would make us a financially-sound business that would ultimately be a successful business,” says Okosi.
After the initial teething problems expected from a project of this scale, today MTV Base is one of the predominant music industry players across the continent, reporting a double-digit financial growth year-on-year. Besides playing an important role in taking African music to the rest of the world, Okosi says one of his most rewarding experiences is seeing the company launch the careers of some of the continent’s most loved video jockeys.
“Seeing people—like Sizwe Dhlomo—come to us as presenters and go on to become business people, is something that makes me very happy,” says Okosi. As senior vice-president and managing director of Viacom International Media Networks Africa, Okosi has also spear-headed the launch of other global channels in Africa: Comedy Central, VH1, BET and Nickelodeon. And to think that it all began with a childhood holiday.