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Multichoice unites entertainment and development

Interview - June 26, 2012
John Ugbe, Managing Director of Multichoice Nigeria, shares with Upper Reach his vision for the Nigerian branch of this pioneering multinational television services company; from shareholder relationships to CSR initiatives to providing local content, Multichoice is a solid part of Nigeria’s growth

The entertainment industry in Nigeria is on the rise, with a vibrant music scene. What is the role of pay-TV within this entertainment industry?

Pay-TV has played a very strong role. At the start, the biggest challenge for the industry was investment. At Multichoice Nigeria, that has been one of our key focuses over the years. Unfortunately in the entertainment industry, these investments do take some time. So it is not a matter of investing today, and immediately reaping the benefits. We have consistently invested in the entertainment industry, and we are very proud of where it is right now. We have invested in content, and to a large extent in skills and capacity building. Nigerian music has crossed boundaries all over the world. Now we have an industry that is providing jobs to quite a large number of young people, while bringing out talent and creativity. Pay-TV is a bedrock of that industry so we have been able to support the growth, and a new culture that is coming out of Nigeria.

Multichoice has been around for 18 years now, and has had a huge impact on the entertainment industry here, developing it further and encouraging innovation. What is the general perception of Nigerians when they think of DStv (digital satellite television)?

I think it brings a warm feeling to them. We started out in 1993, with the initial focus more on improving people’s knowledge, and bringing the world to Nigeria. However over time, we have now taken Nigeria to the world. We have been able to do that in the last few years by investing about $200 million (£128 million) in content. We buy content and have also commissioned our own local production. So we have content coming out of Nigeria that is 100% produced by Nigerians in Nigeria, which is world-class. This is now being watched in America, thanks to consistently believing in Nigeria, and the growth that is taking place in the country.

Within the pay-TV segment, you enjoy a very strong leadership role. What do you attribute this leadership to, and what distinguishes you from your competitors?

Over time we have believed in Nigeria, so it has not been a quick ‘get in, make some money and leave’ scenario. It has been an investment in the people and the community, and building relationships with our stakeholders. It is in providing the best quality entertainment, in a very reliable and consistent way, to Nigerians.

What are the company’s key milestones in terms of innovation?

One of the key things was the launch of digital satellite TV in Africa and Nigeria. In fact we were the second company in the world to introduce digital satellite TV. In 2003 we also introduced dual view recorders, which now allow viewing in more than one room from the same decoder.
We have also been at the forefront of technology, and in 2006 we moved on from the dual view decoder to the personal video recorder, which allows you to delay watching your favourite programmes, record them and watch them whenever you like. We recently went high definition, which is the highest standard anywhere in the world. Rather than lag behind the rest of the world, Africa has kept pace. In some instances we have been right there with them, or even led some parts of the world through these innovations. Another key milestone for us was the launch of mobile TV ahead of most regions in the world. We have a mobile TV product, which allows you to watch your favourite programmes with compatible mobile phones and you can also watch TV on the go with the personal handheld Walka device. We also have the Drifta device which enables you to watch TV on other devices such as the iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, PCs and laptops among others. 

Can you tell us about the importance of television in Nigeria?

Nigerians always want to learn, and it is a very vibrant culture. They are also very cosmopolitan, and TV brings part of that world from everywhere into their living room.

Aside from being offered throughout Nigeria, DSTV is also present in South Africa. But in population terms Nigeria is very, very big. What importance does it have to the overall group? 

Nigeria is a very important market for the group. It always has been, and it is even more so now given the growth in the Nigerian economy. The group believes in Nigeria, and I think that is underlined by the amount of investments made here. We believe that the growth of the Nigerian entity is very important to the group, and the group intends to participate in that new growth.

The entertainment industry provides a lot of jobs for the younger generation, which is crucial. How do you strike the right balance between providing jobs to Nigerians while satisfying your shareholders?

That is an easy thing to do if you look at our values. We place our people, our employees and our stakeholders as key to our business. For us it has been a matter of nurturing talent and growing resources in country. We are not a company that comes in and brings all of our personnel from abroad. For instance, we support the Nigerian Football League and the DStv Basketball League by airing it live on TV. We are able to do this with a large contingent of people. We have four large broadcast vans – Standard and High definition – in the country that are fully staffed by Nigerians who cover every one of those games.
We are now even being requested to cover football games outside the country. We know that Nigerians love football, including the Premiership and the Spanish Liga, but more importantly we are participating in the growth of Nigerian football. We are not just bringing in foreign content. Yes we have foreign shareholders, but we also have local shareholders, so we are a fully Nigerian entity. We concentrate on Nigeria, developing people here, and growing the business here.

For potential investors looking into Nigeria as an investment destination, what can they learn from DStv and Multichoice?

Nigeria is a completely different market than anywhere else in the world, so first you have to learn the market. You need to be in this market to understand it. For those looking to invest in Nigeria, you cannot have one leg in, one leg out; you need to have both feet in the market. It is a very immersive culture, which you have to be a part of in order to succeed here. The most important thing in any business plan should be being in Nigeria. You cannot just replicate a business plan that has worked elsewhere. It is a very interesting market with a lot of dynamics at play. However, this can be very positive for any business that invests here. The people here are warm, friendly and very receptive to people from all over the world. That really needs to be highlighted because that is one aspect of Nigeria that does not get talked about.

What is the corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative that you are most proud of?

We have quite a few CSR initiatives, but I think the key one is our Multichoice Resource Centre (MRC) project. We take learning into schools, and set up resource centres in schools. We train teachers and also provide content and instructional materials, as well as TVs and TV recorders to ensure that the children learn. We provide channels like Discovery Channel and History Channel, within a framework that also allows us to train teachers and educate children. Presently we have rolled out our resource centres is over 200 schools in 21 states in Nigeria, and we keep in regular contact with them and the teachers so see what the impact has been. Every year we add about 40 schools to our resource centre plan and we intend to increase the number in future.
We also support the Sickle Cell Foundation - Nigeria, which is one of our pet projects. Sickle cell is quite predominant in Nigeria, and so we support the foundation with a lot of enlightenment and facilities to get the message out and help control that. That is not all; we also engage in other corporate philanthropy projects on need basis such as the revamping of the Laboratory of Igbobi College, Lagos, as part of our Adopt-A-School initiative.

You yourself have a very close relationship to the UK having studied there. You started out in DStv Multichoice right out of university, and you have now returned as the Managing Director of the company. Throughout your career, what has prepared you to excel at your current position?

I joined Multichoice very early, and we have a very warm culture here. For me, values are the most important things. We try to create an environment that allows people to be innovative and excel. That is why I was quite happy to come back into the environment. That kind of prepared me for the future. I have been around the IT, entertainment, and internet industries, which are all very innovative industries. Personal values and hard work are very important, as well as a good outlook on life.

What legacy would you like to leave behind for Multichoice, and also for Nigeria?

More than anything I want Nigeria to be known throughout Africa and beyond. I want success for the country, as well as growth for the people. My pride would be to see the people well-developed, and in leadership positions in the entertainment industry.