Mo Abudu
Courtesy of Ade Okelarin

On a recent trip to Spain, Nigerian media mogul Mo Abudu seemed to be losing sight of what was meant to be a short retreat. Late into the night she was still answering emails, returning texts and speaking with colleagues overseas.

“I don’t really see my work as work,” she said, laughing. “I just love what I do … I’m totally addicted to EbonyLife TV.”

Nearly three years after Abudu launched the upscale entertainment and lifestyle network, the woman often referred to as “Africa’s Oprah” has a full plate: inking deals with the likes of Netflix, CBS and Disney; unveiling an ambitious slate of formats and original programming; and presiding over an expansion of the network from its original home in eastern Nigeria, with a new studio opening this month in Lagos, the country’s entertainment and media capital.

It’s all in keeping with a philosophy nearly a decade in the making, since Abudu became a household name with the debut of her talk show “Moments With Mo.”

“There are so many African stories that are yet to be told,” she said. “Let’s take these stories to the world now. That’s the journey we’re on.”

For Abudu, that journey has been many years — and unexpected twists — in the making. Born in the U.K. to Nigerian parents, she moved to Lagos in 1993 and spent more than a decade in the corporate world, where she launched a consulting firm and, later, a hotel.

In 2006 she conceived “Moments With Mo,” which would become the first syndicated daily talk show on the continent. Sitting across from an impressive range of guests, from Nigerian Noble Laureate Wole Soyinka to fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Abudu began to earn comparisons to her idol, Oprah Winfrey.

“There are so many African stories that are yet to be told. Let’s take these stories to the world now.”
Mo Abudu

In 2013, Abudu decided to follow in Winfrey’s footsteps with the launch of her own network, EbonyLife TV, the first fully Nigerian-owned entertainment channel to be carried on South African pay-TV platform DStv. With a mix of original reality programming, drama series, newsmagazines and talk shows — including a spin-off of the show that made her famous, now called “Moments” — Abudu created a signature brand that resonated with black audiences both in Africa and its diaspora. EbonyLife now airs in the U.K. and the Caribbean; discussions are under way to bring it to the U.S. and Canada.

The network’s global ambitions, summed up with the tagline “Made in Nigeria for the world,” reflect a contracting media landscape, in which African audiences are increasingly glued to the same TV shows as their friends and family overseas. To address this, EbonyLife last year partnered with Disney to co-produce “Desperate Housewives Africa,” which drew rave reviews across the continent. And in the fall, Abudu acquired the rights to “Dynasty” and “Melrose Place” from CBS Intl.; the local versions are expected to go into production later this year, while talks are under way with Disney for a second season of “Housewives.”

Still, Abudu knows that her audiences in Nigeria and across Africa are craving “premium, quality, homegrown programming.” As she put it, “We can take formats and make them our own, but we can also create our own stories.”

The potential to export Nigerian stories to the world was evident with “Fifty,” EbonyLife’s first feature film, which was picked up by Netflix and released worldwide on the streaming platform two weeks after its Nigerian theatrical premiere. Showcasing four successful career women facing difficult midlife crises, “Fifty” is a film that reflects Abudu’s broader desire to tap into unfamiliar narratives of Africa — and African women in particular.

“I don’t really think the world has seen your middle-class African woman the way she is portrayed in ‘Fifty,’” she said. It’s a portrayal that strikes a personal nerve for Abudu — not just as the brains behind EbonyLife TV, but as a viewer. “I want to see more programming that speaks to me now.”

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