Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The man who brought MTV to Africa

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri September 28, 2012
  • Alex Okosi is the senior vice president and managing director of MTV Networks Africa
  • In 2005 he helped convince his bosses to open a dedicated MTV channels for Africa
  • The company says that more than 90 million people have access to its content
  • In 2008 the company also launched the MTV Africa Awards

(CNN) -- Alex Okosi left Nigeria as a young boy in the late 1980s to seek a better future in the United States.

By the early 2000s, the music executive was carving a successful career with broadcasting giant MTV, holding strategic positions within the influential medial company both in the United States and Europe.

Yet, Okosi never forgot where he came from. His dream had always been to promote his continent's diverse music scene and vibrant youth culture.

In the mid-2000s, at a time when not many were convinced about his continent's economic potential, Okosi helped persuade his bosses to launch a dedicated MTV channel for Africa.

Quality vs. quantity in Africa
Building from the ground up

Today, as the senior vice president and managing director of MTV Networks Africa, Okosi runs MTV Base, the company's first localized television service targeted exclusively at sub-Saharan Africa.

"We've ... been quite lucky in being able to create a brand that we have taken from our international stable and bring into the continent to be able to create content and experiences that people enjoy, localizing them to make sure that they cater to the attitudes and tastes of African audiences," says Okosi, now based in South Africa.

Read related: Malian kora legend breaks music barriers

Born in the West African country of Nigeria, Okosi moved to the United States at the age of 12. He excelled throughout school, graduated with high honors in 1994 and won a scholarship to St. Michael's college in Vermont.

He credits his mentor Midge Monte for shaping his character and showing him the value of working hard to achieve your goals.

"Midge was such an important an influential part of my life as she served as my guardian the last two years of my high school career and has since remained a huge part of my life," says Okosi. "Midge also instilled in me the importance of hard work and commitment as one strives to be successful."

Okosi's determination and academic excellence helped him land a job with MTV straight after university. His talents soon started to shine -- Okosi worked both in MTV's New York and West Coast offices before moving to London to be part of the company's international strategy team.

He first planted the seed of bringing MTV to Africa during a business lunch with the head of the broadcasting giant. Okosi was convinced about the power and value of the African market, but putting together a viable business plan was far from easy -- a lack of data on the size of the advertising market, coupled with infrastructure challenges, hampered Okosi's ambitions.

We have a young vibrant, incredible youth culture that also is able to create great entertainment, great music.
Alex Okosi, MTV Base

Yet, despite all the challenges, Okosi was determined to succeed.

"I just focused on the fact that there's this great opportunity to do something that I believe would enable us and our youth culture to be projected in the most different way," he says. "The excitement and the passion to do what we've been able to do completely overshadowed everything that was there to consider."

Read more: Guitar hero of the desert

Once Okosi's business plan had convinced his MTV bosses that a foray into Africa could be a success, his vision and dream were put to the test. The brand was well entrenched in the developed world but setting up shop in the continent had its own unique challenges.

At first, he says, the quality of the music videos was the biggest setback.

"We had to up the game, we had to create a benchmark for what the quality was," he explains.

As a result, the company started training producers, artists and directors in its key African markets how to shoot better music videos. It brought experienced international directors to work together with their African peers and also helped create free music videos for a number of artists.

"That also kind of helped create what we have today which is an incredibly exciting African music market where we're now having African music videos being played in London and the U.S. and across the continent, which is quite exciting."

Read more: Somali rapper makes songs in the key of love

Over the years, MTV Base has also teamed up with local terrestrial stations in various parts of the continent to gain access to a bigger audience that can't afford to pay for content -- today the company says that more than 90 million people have access to its programs.

In 2008, the company also launched the MTV Africa Awards, a high-profile event that's helping talented African artists to raise their international profile.

"[It's a] great story for Africa because it enables the world to see that we have a young vibrant, incredible youth culture that also is able to create great entertainment, great music," says Okosi.

MTV Base has also rolled out a series of initiatives aiming to inspire and galvanize the continent's youth population. During Nigeria's last elections, the channel launched its "Choose or Lose campaign" to prompt the country's young population to participate in the democratic process in order to make sure their voice is heard.

Okosi says the future of Africa lies with the millions of young people across the continent who are willing to work hard in order to succeed.

"One thing that I do admire about our young Africans is their spirit," he says. "They're a bunch of young people that have the same aspirations as their international counterparts and they manage to succeed even despite some of the challenges that we face on the continent," he says.

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 7:40 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
The veiled female rapper tackling Egyptian taboos head on
Meet Mayam Mahmoud, the 18-year-old Egyptian singer tackling gender stereotypes through hip-hop.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Gikonyo performs a medical check-up for one of her patients at Karen Hospital in Kenya.
Leading pediatric surgeon Betty Gikonyo reveals how her life changed at 30,000 feet and her mission to save the lives of countless disadvantaged children in Kenya.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele
As a child, Biyi Bandele immersed himself in a world of literature. Today he's taken that passion and turned it into a career as a celebrated writer, playwright and now director.
updated 6:26 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Sanaa Hamri in Los Angeles, 2011.
Music video and film director Sanaa Hamri shares her story of how she made it from the streets of Tangier to the big film studios in the United States.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
African Voices meets James Ebo Whyte a passionate storyteller with a series of successful plays to his credit.
updated 5:16 AM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
Actress Lupita Nyong'o attends the 86th Academy Awards nominees luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o has become a new critics' darling after her breakout role in last year's hit movie "12 Years A Slave."
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Celebrated designer Adama Paris reveals how she was tired of seeing "skinny blonde models" on all the runways, so she did something about it.
updated 11:48 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Packaging can change how people see things. And when it comes to sex, it could maybe help save lives too.
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Global perceptions of the tiny country in east-central Africa are often still stuck in 1994 but local photographers are hoping to change that.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Lightenings strike over Johannesburg during a storm on December 14, 2013.
Ending energy poverty is central to a resurgent Africa, writes entrepreneur Tony O. Elumelu.
updated 5:45 AM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
A group of young students have taken stereotypes about the continent -- and destroyed them one by one.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.