Meet Africa's Oprah: Why Mosunmola 'Mo' Abudu wants to change the world's view of her continent
The Hammersmith-born presenter has had Hillary Clinton and Christine Lagarde on her show and built up a successful TV empire from scratch
Saturday 16 November 2013
If you're reading this, Ms Winfrey, there's someone still waiting for you to return her calls.
Back in 2006, with her two children having reached their teens, Mosunmola 'Mo' Abudu decided she wanted to make a rather abrupt career change. Though she was a successful human-resources executive for oil giant ExxonMobil, her heart was set on migrating from the boardroom chair to the chat-show sofa. There was just one problem. The Nigerian businesswoman had no TV experience whatsoever.
So she attempted to contact the woman best placed to provide some pertinent advice. "The first thing I did was to buy a box collection of Oprah's 20th anniversary, which had about 20 tapes of various episodes that she's done," Abudu explains. "Then I somehow got the details for her studios in America. I must have sent Madam Oprah Winfrey tons of emails. I was really hoping that she would give me the necessary guidance and mentorship to become Africa's talk-show hostess and executive producer of my own show."
Alas, the world's first black female billionaire never replied to Abudu. But that didn't stop her. In the seven years since she made her first sketchy TV pilot, the 49-year-old has created Moments with Mo, the first African daily talk show to be syndicated across the continent. She has interviewed the likes of Hillary Clinton, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, musician R Kelly and designer Diane von Furstenberg; journalists around the world have been quick to label her 'Africa's answer to Oprah'.
However, Abudu's dream did not originate in Africa or even Middle America – it began in 1970s Kent. "I was born in England and I am very at home here," she says. "I went to school in London and Tunbridge Wells. I was probably the second or third black person in that school and you find that you are being continually asked questions that just boggle your mind. Do you guys live in trees? Do you guys dance around fires? What do you eat for breakfast?
"For ever and ever, I always felt that I had to fight to prove who I was. For me, I think somewhere deeply buried in my subconscious was a need to tell Africa's story. My burning desire is just to tell everybody: listen, we're not a bunch of savages. We really are gifted."
If British ignorance prompted her ambition, it was Abudu's time slogging away in the British workplace that furnished her with the skills to market herself as the face of a modern Africa. "Believe me, there is nothing I have not sold in England," she says. "I've sold insurance, I've done cold calling. I've done all kinds of jobs – so it just arms you with the right ammunition to be able to go out there and sell anything to anyone."
Money matters: Abudu with IMF chief Christine Lagarde
Abudu already accepted she would be viewed as "mad" when she pitched up at a meeting with TV bosses from the DStv satellite company to persuade them that Africans deserved their very own Winfrey or Ellen DeGeneres. But her passion and belief won through – after showing them her fourth trial episode, they commissioned a series. Mo, though, harboured a bigger ambition; a dream she was well aware would have her dismissed as completely barmy if she let it slip. She wanted a global TV empire, Oprah-style.
She bided her time, though, building up her talk show through a combination of persistent letter-writing to potential guests and nagging friends and business associates for helpful introductions. Abudu adds: "We attracted bigger audiences because of the quality of the show. It still remains the best-produced and only pan-African talk show in Africa today."
But her restlessness – "If I have one character trait, I'm very impatient" – brimmed over when she stood at London's Marble Arch with a microphone to canvass opinion on her continent for a segment on Moments with Mo.
What is the very first thing you think of when you hear the word Africa? Go on, answer the question truthfully, because it is unlikely to be a burgeoning middle class, a rich cultural life or the continent with the fastest-growing economy and youngest population. Certainly not, if Abudu's findings were anything to go by.
"Mugabe was the first thing I heard," she recounts incredulously, as she enjoys tea and scones just down the road in Selfridges, five years on. "Somebody said Oxfam. Then I heard giraffes, safari, poverty. I think the nicest I got was sunshine."
Abudu (right) with fellow presenters and guests on her chat show
And so it was that in July this year, Abudu launched the continent's first global entertainment network, EbonyLife TV, to "sell Africa to the world". She opens her laptop to show off a dizzying array of shows – 1,000 hours of original programming per year.
The target is 18- to 34-year-olds, "the custodians of the present and the future", with all shows broadcast in English and covering everything from celeb news and sex tips to skin bleaching and domestic abuse. Reality series The Fattening Room sees six young women partake in the traditional 30-day pre-marriage rites to learn everything they need to know about being a woman from local matriarchs (who attempt, in vain, to fatten them up).
Referring to one of her programmes showcasing up-and-coming Nigerian fashion designers, she laments: "People don't think that people live in Africa like this. They don't think that we have high-profile events where people look glamorous and they're all dressed up.
"But this is Africa today – people need to know that this kind of Africa exists, we have moved into the modern age. BBC and CNN are in Africa but they don't cover things like this. They're going to look for some horrid bush and some forsaken story about HIV."
As if to illustrate the point, Abudu, dressed-down but glamorous in head-to-toe black and wheeling her designer suitcase behind her, arrives for our interview clutching three copies of that day's Daily Mail. The front page blares: '£1bn of your cash to help Nigeria join space race'. She is taking them home to show friends and colleagues the kind of headlines their country inspires abroad.
Abudu was born in Hammersmith, west London, in 1964 to a caterer mother and engineer father and grew up in the UK, with the exception of four years in Nigeria from the age of seven. She emigrated to her parents' homeland aged 30 with her husband, whom she has since divorced, but her sisters still live in Britain – one owns a small media company; one works in the NHS – and Abudu's two children are both studying here.
The apples certainly don't fall far from the tree. Her 23-year-old daughter, who just completed her masters in London, also wants to go into television. However, by mutual agreement, she will not be gaining a nepotistic step-up in mum's company – at least not until she has forged her own path for a year or so. Her son, currently completing his A-levels at Harrow, wants to work in the food industry with an eye on "making African cuisine global".
Abudu with Hillary Clinton who told her interviewer: 'Mo, people like you have to create an alternative media - it's the only way that things are going to change'
Abudu has taken over one of the very few purpose-built studios in Sub-Saharan Africa – a state-of-the-art complex in Calabar, southern Nigeria – where the recent adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, was shot. The building is often the first stop for visiting celebrities and dignitaries keen to promote themselves in Africa. "There's no one else for them to call upon, so you find that you do get the phone calls," Abudu says. "I was on a summer vacation in the States when I got a call from the American embassy saying: 'Would you like to interview Hillary Clinton when she comes to Nigeria?'."
When the pair sat down together, she says, Clinton counselled her interviewer: "Mo, people like you have to create an alternative media – it's the only way that things are going to change".
Steve Forbes, chairman and editor-in-chief of US business magazine Forbes, is another admirer. "She is an immensely talented entrepreneur," he says. "Her pan-African cable station is a stunning achievement. I believe she is on her way to changing people's perceptions about Africa around the world – and in Africa itself. She is a media giant with a mission."
Abudu is the only high-profile chat-show host whose reach spans Africa, but she must surely also be one of the few chat-show hosts in the world who, when interviewing the head of the IMF, could demand to know what is being done to improve the odds for her viewers "watching tonight who are living on less than $1 a day".
She is forthright and opinionated, but hesitates before sharing her firm views on international aid. "Maybe I should plead the fifth in this instance... Yes, it's termed as aid. But then I think that Africa has been robbed of so much that I don't see it as aid – I'd just call it payback time." Abudu says she would not rule out entering politics in the future but, for now, is wedded to the TV screen as her weapon of change.
"I just think we're the most misunderstood continent on the globe today. I do also believe that African governments need to play a stronger role in changing perceptions of the continent – because it doesn't just happen by itself. The reason why I say that people want to go to > America is because they see all those amazing movies and they think they're going to make their fortune and become a star. We all know it doesn't work that way, but that's the power of media."
Unfortunately, the power of media has not yet eliminated casual stereotypes. Abudu tries to shrug off the discrimination she encounters ("My days are way too busy to let racism get at me; I try not to notice it") but admits: "You hear it from all sorts of people, 'I don't really like black people, but I like you, you're different'. You'd be amazed, but they think they're actually being nice – it's a compliment. That happens in the UK, it just happens. The most amazing thing is when I go to the States, and they're like, 'My God, you have a British accent!' What do you expect me to have?"
Referring to the incident in August this year when Oprah Winfrey claims she was told by a boutique in Zurich that one of their handbags was "too expensive" for her, Abudu says: "If that can happen to Oprah – hello, she's my hero – it could happen to anyone. I know what my salary is every month. It would probably pay the wages of a lot of people in here today. But the thing is that people just think, oh, maybe you're collecting the dole or something."
Abudu with fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg
Despite being the oldest face on her channel, she also insists she is not remotely bothered about TV's inherent discrimination against women over the age of 40. Of course, there is the fact that she is the network's boss, but there is also her nonchalant acceptance that she will simply step aside when the time is right. Earlier this year, she launched a reality show, Mo's Search, to find two fresh faces for her series, which resulted in a 23-year-old and 30-year-old being hired "to keep the show young".
Likewise, a trifling matter like corporate sexism is just another minor obstacle. "Yes, I think it is a man's world, and some men will say that you are 'overbearing' or they will say: 'Sit at home and raise your children'. In that same breath, I've had a lot of support from men. I think I've had more support from men than I've had from women. They've said, 'OK, Mo, go out there and let's see what you can do'."
She quotes former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in declaring: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," and adds: "It's one of the big things I preach all the time. We often pay a lot of lip service to women supporting women but I think it's in our genes to just pull each other down a lot of the time, and that's one major battle that women need to fight. Women don't trust each other, I think it's a global trend."
Apart from EbonyLife, Abudu still owns the recruitment consultancy she set up after leaving her job at ExxonMobil, and has a stake in a hotel business. Across the three companies, she employs about 600 staff, predominantly female.
Named last month by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the '25 Most Powerful Women in Global TV', she is ticking dreams off her career wish-list in quick succession. Her network is now in more than 40 countries across the continent and she is finalising deals that should see it broadcast in Britain on Freeview and TalkTalk by the end of the year. She has just signed a contract with Disney to remake Desperate Housewives for Africa, with Wisteria Lane relocated to Lagos.
What's left? Well, she has her sights set on producing big-budget movies in the next few years, is putting in requests to get President Obama on her sofa – and continues to yearn for a meeting with Oprah.
"I still pray and hope that one day we'll be able to meet. And I hope that if we do meet at some point in the future, it would be on a more equal footing. You have done a, b, c, d; I have done a, b, c, d. You have created a network; I have created a network. I've got great African content; you've got some great African-American and American content. Maybe there could be some collaborations going forward. I will continue to make my requests..."
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