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From American Medicine To African Television

After swapping a stethoscope for a world of possibilities, Abiola Alabi is now changing the face of African television screens, frame by frame.

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She sits at the helm of a multinational cable and satellite company and is one of the most powerful women in African media, but for Abiola Alabi, this is a long way from the character in the initial script.

As a determined young college entrant, Alabi’s interests were elsewhere. From an academic Nigerian home, her future as a doctor had been scripted. She enrolled as a pre-med at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States. It wasn’t long before Alabi’s interest turned to pharmacy.

“After one summer as an intern pharmacist however, I realized that these careers, were not the best match for my personality,” she says.

An interest in Africa led to a new path. Alabi, who had become very active on campus, became affiliated with groups and organizations that nurtured her new interests. She became a member of international student groups and president of the African Student Organization on campus.

Identifying ways in which her new experiences could affect her interests in the continent, Alabi made the decision to major in public health with a marketing minor.

“I knew that if I majored in public health, I could still end up making a contribution to the continent, in one way or the other,” she says.

After college, an opportunity saw her move to South Korea to work for an international student organization that promotes international exchange programs.

“I was able to start seeing different parts of the world that I had never experienced before,” she says.

“I moved to Seoul for two years and was completely fascinated by the type of development happening there. I thought, ‘this place is on the precipice of something really big.’ There was a huge investment in education in Asia and I was mind-blown, by the unbelievable work ethic. It was also cultural and felt very intense but the development was just as intense,” says Alabi.

After two years in Seoul, the Asian affair was far from over, as Alabi secured a role with Korean car company Daewoo, where she worked to launch a new product in the United States.

After this, Alabi put her marketing knowledge to use in a new e-commerce venture with a focus on youth marketing and destination sites development for students where everything from course books to dormitory furniture was sold.

“The company didn’t survive long but this was an important phase for me as it really helped me develop as a professional by understanding the upside and downside of taking risks when it comes to businesses. It was also such an exciting time and a great learning curve to understand how technology was going to change people’s lives tremendously with e-commerce. It was clear that we were in the digital phase and everything would change with it,” she says.

After working in traditional marketing jobs in the automotive and e-commerce industries, Alabi decided to take a leap as she explored a new career path in broadcasting and production.

“This was an interesting experience. I started off doing sponsorships and marketing for Sesame Street in New York, which was a production viewed in over 120 countries.”

Alabi’s international portfolio created an avenue to visit Africa more often.

“I was exploring partnerships and opportunities in different African countries and through that, I started to have meetings with M-Net. On one occasion, I was on my way back to the United States when they called me up and proposed a partnership with me,” she says.

As this was in perfect synergy with her desire to be involved in the development of the continent, this was an opportunity Alabi had to embrace. In 2008, she joined M-Net Africa, a multinational satellite television company, as managing director. With this fresh start, much lay ahead for Alabi and her team. She had one question: how to expand, build and elevate the brand from where it was to a greater level.

“That was my challenge,” she says.

Expanding M-Net’s African content portfolio was her biggest task. With only one Africa Magic channel at the time, Alabi’s team needed to create a home for African programing. The plan was to create a diverse portfolio of content. Relevance became vital as they produced and bought content tailored for the continent. They were on a mission to build a strong African brand that viewers could identify with and call their own.

“It’s not just about telling externals how you’d like to be projected. It’s also about how you want to project yourself to yourself. Our images are like mirrors and we were very particular about improving the quality of our programs,” says Alabi.

The need to create an array of choices as well as a home for African content for their viewers saw the development of additional channels to the Africa Magic platform. M-Net launched local language channels, starting with the Yoruba, Hausa and Kiswahili language channels. This increased the amount of content being produced in local languages and created a distribution outlet for independent African producers. Five Africa magic channels were rolled out as part of M-Net’s stable.

Content had to be moved from the existing M-Net international platform to a premium channel, Africa Magic Entertainment, earlier in the year. This saw a complete overhaul of the Africa Magic platform.

In spite of the infrastructural challenges that affect doing business in Africa, Alabi attributes the success of the brand to the dedication of her team and the can-do attitude of Africans at large.

“This really is the ingenuity of it all, for me. Yes, there are challenges but finding ways to deal with them, is the only way forward,” she says.

Despite her dedication to the brand she manages, there is room for Alabi to do more.

“I believe we all have a role to play, no matter how small and I love engaging with organizations that have a purpose of making a difference,” she says.

She recently joined the Pan African Civil Society Organization, Africa 2.0; she’s also a member of the Africa Leadership Network (ALN) and was named a 2012 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. Alabi has kept to her ambitious track record as she also served as a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Entertainment in 2010.

When she isn’t working, Alabi enjoys spending time with her family and travelling with her husband.

From pre-med days to M-Net Africa, Alabi might have come full circle but also believes there are never enough circles to draw.  

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