Like a diamond with many facets, Obi Asika has arguably been able to shine through in different areas of doing business in Nigeria. Only a few will disagree that he has successfully carved a niche for himself in the media/entertainment industry in Nigeria. Over the years, across different platforms, Obi has workedpassionately to reshape the image of the country’s entertainment industry and make it an enduring brand on the global stage. Founder, Dragon Africa, chairman of OutSource Media, and Storm 360 – one of Nigeria’s leading media and entertainment companies; Obi is also chairman of Social Media Week Lagos, a global franchise that made its debut in Lagos this year.
Educated at the prestigious Eton College, the University of Warwick and Nigerian Law School, he serves on the boards of companies across industries. In this interview, Obi talks about his business, his vision for Nigeria, his marriage and what it means to him.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You spent some years in the UK. How did growing up shape your ‘Proudly Nigerian‘ identity?
Obi Asika: My parents were so passionately Nigerians, both by personal history. My father had a favourite quote, he used to say, “I was born in Nigeria and I have lived my life as a Nigerian, and I have little doubt I would die as a Nigerian.” That pretty much says it all. It is just part of my DNA. Yes, I am from Onitsha, but I am Nigerian. I was born in Lagos, and my friends are all over the country. I have never made a friend based on where they are from. I am a Nigerian, get over it! (Laughs).
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are a man of many parts and business interests from oil and gas, sports marketing, music production, marketing and communication, media and entertainment, to organising events. What are your success secrets?
Obi Asika: I don’t know. The first thing – are we successful? Who defines success? For me, success is just about overcoming your failures. We continue to fail every day, and by doing that we would succeed because as we make those mistakes, we would come out and do it again.
The key drive has always been passion and respect – for artistic integrity, for artistic talent across all elements of creative expressions: from an architect to a software developer, from a football player to a musician and film director. I happen to believe that film is the highest form of art in terms of creative expression. I think writing is the foundation of everything. Without the written word, you cannot begin to imagine the visual.
So I start with the written word, those are the people I have the highest respect for. The power of the written word and creative people should never be disrespected or underestimated. I believe that they are the highest forms of people on the planet.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You talked about failure, but interestingly as an entrepreneur and a man of ideas, you may have struggled or failed at times in your quest…
Obi Asika: All the time … (laughs)
Sam Umukoro Interview: What were your challenges and how have you learnt from them to become successful?
Obi Asika: It is an ongoing process. Your challenges are always the same: access to capital, try not to be too far ahead of the curve, I have always had that situation. So you are doing things that your environment really does not understand or is not ready for yet.
Remember our conversations ten years ago when I started to tell people about what I believed about Nigerian music culture, fashion and lifestyle, and everybody thought that I was mad. Now it looks like I am a genius, but I am not a genius. I just knew that in a country where the population average age is 19, they were going to pay attention to issues that they were interested in. Most people seem to believe that Nigerians are focused primarily on entertainment, but that’s not true.
Most young Nigerians are focused on how to get a job, but entertainment becomes worthy of youth because it gives them an alternative expression. I think success in any aspect of life is measurable, and for me, success is not based on how much money you make but it is based on how much impact you have had.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did you cope with some of the failures in the past and did they make you want to give up, especially in this clime?
Obi Asika: I think in Nigeria, we don’t even discuss failure. It is as if nobody failed, whereas we know that many of us have failed and continue to fail in our personal business enterprises. For me it is first about being honest with oneself about the reasons why an enterprise is not working; whether it’s business, personal or environmental, and then deciding on how to change it.
Social Media Week (SMW) Lagos is a classic example. When I acquired the franchise with my partner I had absolutely no idea whether it was going to be successful or not. I have done events for twenty years and I can tell you that one event in Lagos is a nightmare, but we did one hundred and fourteen in five days; I still don’t understand how we did it! We have the data. But my brother, it is unbelievable that it happened.
Sometimes if you are lucky, you tap into the energy of your environment and your people, I am a firm believer in the confluence of culture and technology that is really where I am sitting right now. I believe that utilising technology to globalise our culture.
SUI: What inspired Social Media Week Lagos and how much do you think it would shape Africa’s growth and discourse across different sectors on a global stage?
Obi Asika: I think it is already shaping the conversation. Toby Daniels, the founder of Social Media Week on the global platform, told me point blank that they were speechless to see the numbers that were coming out of Lagos. For Lagos to be the number two in the overall matrix of the whole twenty-six cities worldwide is unbelievable and it has swung into action – conversations, engagements, presentations, speakers, and knowledge shared.
Social Media is an enormous collaboration platform and that was a key thing. Last month, we organised the Social Media Week Lagos in London, it was an enormous collaboration with four hundred people physically present, and it was streamed live to twenty-six cities worldwide.
I didn’t know that there were eighteen innovation hubs in Lagos, or of the incredible things those guys have been doing over there, writing codes and creating new software packages. It’s about distribution.
Twenty-five years ago, India transformed from being considered a land of Bollywood musicals to one of technology, a land that changed the world of service, customer care, and the various industries that India has basically reinvented.
Nigeria has that same opportunity now, by virtue of her history, population, demography, and technology. So we don’t have to live in our past, it is time we embraced the future and utilise these tools to own our future and tell our story, which is the most important thing because, frankly as Nigerians, we haven’t told our story.
People don’t know who we are, they know about only the 0.1 percent of us that engage in credit card fraud, 419 and all these other negative things. But what about our builders, inventors, doctors, engineers, our athletes, celebrities, football players, politicians, and our business people globally? There are many who will continue to impact and actually do all kinds of positive things all over the world.
I think we have spent time on negative energy. Think about the fact that in 2012 Nigerians sent back like $15 billion to Nigerians through Western Union – that is unbelievable! This tells you about the size of the Nigerians demographically in America. Also, what this means is that we are not strategically engaging them.
That’s more money! I think for the first time ever, Nigerians abroad send more money home than foreign investments or foreign aids into Nigeria; that tells you something – we don’t need anybody to help us, we can help ourselves, and that is a very powerful thing.
The only thing left for us to do is to control our story so that we are no longer defined by third parties but by ourselves. I hope that in the next five years this would bring the emergence of powerful media organisations out of Nigeria.
Sam Umukoro Interview: In the last decade, Nigerian music, movies and fashion acts have achieved more global prominence than before. Being a major player in the industry, what do you think sparked the revolution and boom in the entertainment/creative industry in Nigeria and what does the future hold for it?
Obi Asika: It is a confluence of a number of factors. There were people like me who were coming from strategic positions and believed that there was value in what our people do, and that value needed to be celebrated and put on a particular level. Also, there was the advent of platforms such as MTV Base for the music, which improved the level in terms of production. So, we went from nowhere to totally overwhelming the platform.
You must pay attention to Africa Magic and Channel O who singlehandedly took our culture across Africa. We are now the soundtrack in Africa. We are the 7pm movie in many television stations across the entire continent.
Any Nigerian that travels knows the difference between being received today and being received five years ago in Nairobi, Accra, Johannesburg, and Rwanda. But it wasn’t so seven or ten years ago. Now Africans everywhere know Nkiru Slyvanus, Tuface, Flavour, and D’banj.
Also, you have to mention people like Kenny Ogungbe and the boys at Kennis Music that just kept on pushing. A lot of times, people here just focus on the talents. Yes, the talents are great, but without the guys behind them – the Audu Maikoris, the Kenny Ogungbes, the Obi Asikas, the Chris Obosis … You won’t have anything in content to push out if these guys did not invest in things, right? Today, you can no longer sell Michael Power to Nigerians; you have to use a Nigerian, which is the most singular important thing that we have achieved so far.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Despite all the so called negative obstacles of doing business here, many companies are still rushing into Nigeria, and CEOs like you are breaking new grounds and succeeding. You also believe that Nigeria’s significant obstacles are significant opportunities for entrepreneurs to grow businesses in different sectors. What defines your view in this regard?
Obi Asika: The bottom-line is this – if you give up on what you are going to do, go to London and get the dough, what is your alternative? I don’t have a plan B; Nigeria is my plan A, B, C and D. The second thing is this – the entire world since 2009/10 has been on the ‘Africa on the rise’ narrative.
I tell all my Nigerian friends and family anywhere in the world, if you are not in Nigeria, you are in the wrong place; I am not going to lie to you because, yes, we have issues, let’s not run away from them. But if we didn’t have issues, we wouldn’t have opportunities. As you rightly said, the issues we have presently are our opportunities. That is the frame of mind one has to engage and address Nigeria from.
The other thing to understand is all about value creation. Everyone that has ever brought value to this environment has always made money, and value is not money alone. Value may be technology, an intellectual property, or a proposition. It is that value that enables you to benefit from whatever opportunities in the environment.
Certainly it is not easy, but there is a reason to be hopeful. I am not a politician but I have to commend certain things that I see being done by the government. You can’t run away from the fact that the power situation is improving or the fact that power is finally about to be shifted out of the hands of the public sector to the private sector.
Africa is already richer than India as per capital GDP level, so for us, our issue is to deal with our extreme poverty, to bring those people at extreme poverty up to a manageable level, and to deal with youth unemployment and do to that through vocational training and pushing entrepreneurship because I don’t believe in ‘you will never create enough jobs to employ everybody.’ So you have to create an environment where there are small businesses and entrepreneurs.
But we are still in the grind. We are still building, we are still trying to innovate, and when you are in that situation, I think what it is that you have is to have natural passion and optimism, and that is what keeps you going.
I think that we (Nigeria) are just starting. This is just beginning. You should not let Nigerians into a party that you didn’t invite them to because they are going to take over the party. That’s what happened in Africa. They didn’t know, they kind of let us in through the door quietly, and we took over everything. That’s why I talk about Nigeria’s soft power.
The best story you have to tell is Nigerian creative industry and it is a soft sell, we have already won the armour, so why don’t you just come on board and we will just win everything else (laughs).
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is the future for you being a serial entrepreneur driven by ideas?
Obi Asika: For me it is always going to be around what you have just talked about. I am a Nigerian. I am very focused on the future of my country. Now that I am a father, that changes everything. And now you will begin to say to yourself that the things that were not been taken seriously before, now you have to start to take them more seriously.
We are grown-ups now we are no longer kids. I come from a background where public service is part of me, and I know that at some point in time I am always engaged with people but I have never been and I don’t see myself ever doing it in an elective office.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Your father was an administrator in eastern Nigeria when General Yakubu Gowon was the Head of State. Do you have any plans of going into politics?
Obi Asika: By nature you are born into it, but my father was not a politician, he was an academic who happened to have a very strongly held view about the cyclical changes that were happening in Nigeria at that time. He had just come back from his PhD at UCLA.
My father said that I was born in Nigeria I don’t know anything else. I happen to be an Igbo man by geographical accident the same way I happen to be a Nigerian by geographical accident. So, when he was called into service, he accepted the call. It was a very tough call for him.
Leadership is not about popularity, which is one thing Nigerians need to understand. Leadership is responsibility, leadership is doing the right stuff and sometimes the right stuff is the hard stuff, it is not popular, but it is what needs to be done.
So to answer the question briefly, if called to service, I think, depending on what it is, one will definitely engage. I don’t see myself going into an elective office right now, but you can never know, in five years time, I could be sitting with you talking from my country estate in Onitsha (laughs).
I could position myself like that, it is part of me, I am from there but that is not the agenda now in question. My agenda has been all about Nigeria and the possibility and the capability of the young Nigerian.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What’s new with Storm 360, and do we expect any new music?
Obi Asika: Storm 360 was never a label in the traditional sense, but it owns the Storm Records imprint and our brand has always been associated with talents, it has been always about a 360 approach to entertainment, strategically speaking, we are still in music but have been focused less on signing talent to talent management, commercial services for brands and working to develop platforms.
Even when we supported talents, it was never done within a commercial perspective. From day one we understood that the business model was flawed but we needed to unlock this market so we pushed it from the start. Almost 80 percent of Storm artistes were rappers, so you understand that comes from the fact that Obi was focused on Hip-hop from day one.
However the Storm brand is primarily associated with music and we are proud of everything we have done in that space and we will always be connected to that space, but we have come a long way in a short time, i just hope nobody takes this period for granted, the way Nigerians fell in love with their music has been incredible and its to be celebrated, the amount of talent out there is amazing and it just shows what happens when you give young Nigerians hope.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is the future for you?
Obi Asika: I am more interested in platforms: broadcast, mobile, digital tech … and those platforms which embrace full entertainment, news, education, movies, videos, sports, comedy.
I am pretty excited because we are hoping to do some big things next year, in different areas, including football. I am truly excited by some of the changes going on in Nigerian Sports in General and in Football in particular and we are trying to lend some support because i feel football is lifeblood for us here and if we take care of it then our League can return to glory.
Like many Nigerians I live for football in some respect, whether it is Liverpool FC, the Super Eagles, Enugu Rangers, and Real Madrid – those are my teams, I’m very interested in how we can marry the Nigerian entertainment industry with our major sports, we have all the ingredients to be a major sporting nation but we need to invest and plan to make it happen.
I think that is something i will be doing a lot of not necessarily through Storm but i have always been involved with Football so it’s a natural fit and i believe the business of sports is just about to begin.
I think at this time all our conversations are about conversion, monetization, we have created the ecosystem, now we need to enhance it and protect it, in this way those who create will continue to earn for a term period, i am very hopeful about the Nigerian Creative Industries, as we continue to build capacity and move from intuition to knowledge we will become stronger and institutional capital will follow many of us as the terrain becomes clearer.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Despite being so successful what took you so long to get married as some would say or wonder. With the benefit of hindsight do you think you should have married earlier?
Obi Asika: The thing is that should we marry early? These things happen in God’s time. I was engaged to another lady previously, which did not work out. So it wasn’t something to sit back and say, ‘it would have been great to have been married to my wife 10 years ago and have three kids and I will be done with it.’ But, hey, I am blessed to be going through that now, and I have a 65-year-old friend who just had his first child. So, as a guy, it is a different sort of dynamic.
For me, why did it take so long? It took so long to find the right person. The one person who will be with you for who you are, knows who you are, and where you are supposed to be or where your public image apparently is, because you need the person to be with you for real, not because they met you when there was champagne on the table, but they met you when it’s real. And for me my wife is the realest person I know. I can’t fake it (laughs).
Sam Umukoro Interview: How did you meet her?
Obi Asika: I just randomly met her. I knew her sister-in-law and she came over to say ‘hi’ to me like over 10 years ago or so. On the first day we met and spoke for six hours, and I thought, this was different. Then we hung out, got along very well, but nothing was involved.
She had a boyfriend and she was quite young at that time, about 10 years younger than me. She is a diplomat’s kid certainly and been around the whole place. So we just stayed in touch, and I found out after a while that I was spending so much time talking to this person and we were becoming really good friends. Nothing was involved.
Then four years later, we were both single, and we were still friends, and I said to her, look we are both still single, and I know that I am attracted to you, it is not like I am not attracted to you, I am not blind, you know my wife is stunning (laughs), so let’s see what happens. That is pretty much how we got together. That’s it.
Sam Umukoro Interview: How has marriage changed you as a person, as a business mogul and in life generally?
Obi Asika: It has helped me to be more focused in terms of you know what the priority is now; you know what you are working for, why you are working. So In that respect, you just know that the home front is sorted. I don’t have to think or worry about those things.
This gives a lot of stability. Also I now have a lot of respect for my friends who got married in their 20s. I am like, ‘bro, is this what you have been going through? I didn’t know that fees were like this, this and that.’ It is not easy, things are so expensive in this country, it is so tough economically for many, but people do it with a smile and that is just one of the great things I’ve discovered about Nigerians, they just find a way to ‘maintain’. That’s why I tell people that no matter how bad everyday is you will still find something to laugh about in Lagos.