Tony Abulu is a global digital monetisation expert, an advocate of African creative industry and a film producer.
In this interview with CHIJIOKE IREMEKA, he says though the Federal Government appreciates the fundamental value of Nigerian Diaspora remittances currently at almost $35 billion yearly, the government has not been adequately informed on how it can easily direct the remittances to a specific International Money Transfer Organisation (IMTO) and simply monetise it to earn over $1billion annually. He also says the Nigerian creative industry has the potential to save over 100 million youths by creating viable employment for them. Excerpts:
The name Tony Abulu rings a bell, but because of those who are yet to know you, could you lead us through your family and professional backgrounds?
I’m Tony Abulu. I was born in the commercial city of Onitsha in Anambra State. I’m from the family of Mr. Joseph Agbon and Mrs. Patstella Chinemogo Abulu. We used to live together in Zaria as a family with my three other siblings until my parents travelled to London for studies. While my father went for Engineering, my mother was studying Architecture.
Then, I was barely three years old. As a result, my siblings and I moved from Zaria to Lagos with my uncle, Charles Abulu, and grandmother, Princess Egyadame of Idumebo, Ekpoma, then Midwestern State. The train trip from Zaria to Lagos took three days. I attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Primary School, Yaba, Lagos.
I graduated with a distinction to advance to St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka from 1971 to 1975 under the great moral instructor/Principal and Catholic Priest, Fr. Dennis Slattery. I graduated with an aggregate 25 due to just a pass in Religious Studies. I just missed Grade One and was devastated. I consequently proceeded to Ansar ud Deen College Isolo for Higher School Certificate (Physics, Chemistry, and Math, the three subjects required to study Architecture at the University of Lagos).
Soon, I was admitted to study HSC in Ibadan Polytechnic in 1976. While I was still studying Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, something happened. My roommate, the great artist Yemi Fagbohun (who now lives and has worked in US for the past 40 years) saw my drawings and told his lecturers at the Art department that he had met Nigeria’s best artist.
After one year at Ibadan Poly studying Physics, Chemistry, and Maths, the Art lecturers were able to convince me to switch to Art instead of my dream Architecture, convincing me that I would do Nigeria a major disservice. That was how I joined Graphics Design and Illustration class at the Ibadan Poly.
It was also in 1976 that I wrote my first movie script ‘The Scroll’ and spent some time with Chief Hubert Ogunde, who eventually became one of my film mentors. I graduated as the best student in Graphics Design and Illustration from Ibadan Poly in 1981. I did my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, Enugu State and joined the Lintas Advertising Agency in Lagos in 1982 as the youngest designer ever. There, I started my magazine, ‘Black Ivory, Ancient Africa Illustrated’.
At what point did you move to U.S. to focus on your profession having dumped architecture, and what happened subsequently?
I resigned from Lintas in 1984 because I felt unchallenged as an artist. Then, I moved finally to New York City, U.S.A in the same 1984, where I met the great Stan Lee, the Creator of Marvel Comics and later founder of Marvel Movies. I also met the Publisher of Time Magazine, Black Enterprise Magazine and several others.
I started a graduate degree programme in Art at the City University of New York but dropped out for lack of finance, and then continued my magazine with a study in Afrocentrism, which had earlier been influenced in Nigeria by my mentor, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
In 1997, I returned to Nigeria to join the bustling Nigerian film industry and shot my first feature film, Back To Africa followed by American Dream and Crazy Like a Fox. One of them was nominated in the Best Film category at the Hollywood American Black Film Festival.
I shot another Nigerian feature, Superstar with top Nigerian Afrobeats and comedy stars. It was followed in 2012 with the international blockbuster, Doctor Bello, starring Hollywood superstars, Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox, Jimmy Jean Louis, Bern Cohen and Ebbe Bassey as well as Nollywood stars Genevieve Nnaji, Stephanie Linus and others.
In 1990, I produced the first ever Africa music festival on Broadway, New York City. In 1992 and 1995, I toured the spectacular Nigerian National Troupe in the U.S.A. In 2004, I set up the Filmmakers Association of Nigeria (FAN), U.S.A with backend office specialist, Caroline Okolo and DVD distributor, Rabiu Mohammed. The FAN, U.S.A then facilitated the US tour of 50 Nollywood superstars and established DVD distribution/ monetisation for Nollywood films in America.
In 2005, we organised the first copyright conference with the US and Nigerian governments in the US. In 2010, FAN, USA organised a raid of all Nollywood copyright infringers in Brooklyn, New York with the support of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
I then spent the next 10 years seeking monetisation solutions for the African creative industry. My company, Blaze Channel, USA, built the first African digital monetisation platform for the African creative industry and now setting up the monetisation of the African Diaspora remittances in symbiotic relationship with the entire African creative industry. In 2022, we launched the first annual Africa Expo in New York City to support FOREX generation for ‘Made-in-Africa’ products.
From your story, would you say you chose to do what you are doing now or it is a child of circumstance? I mean your involvement in the creative industry.
As I explained earlier, my choice to be in the Nigerian creative industry was deliberate, propelled by the critical need to create viable survival opportunities for the African people.
What is the current state of the Nigerian creative industry viz-a-viz indices, monetisation, banks, government and private sector support, among others?
The Nigerian creative industry has the potential and capacity to save over 100 million youths by creating viable employment for them. Unfortunately, the industry itself has not made a credible case to the government on how this can be achieved. The industry is made up of great artists but not businessmen hence the challenge. Therefore, government has been lukewarm in its support of the creative industry.
The government does not understand or see why there should be cash infusion in the industry. This is very unfortunate, though the Nigerian government is fully aware of the international exploits of Nollywood and the Afrobeats music industry, they still do not understand how the industry can be viable.
The Nigerian creative industry suffers this challenge because we are looking at it as separate entities: film, music, sports, fashion, fine art, culinary arts, dance, publishing, photography and crafts, among others. So, government just lumps the creative industry with the Ministry of Information and Culture, with a minister to just basically supervise it and not necessarily monetise it.
The government may mean well, but without knowing, it subjugates the industry’s opportunities. Nigeria should first create a separate ministry for the creative industry with a talented and knowledgeable director or a minister. The industry requires specific knowledge and skill to monetise it. The minister must be able to establish symbiotic relationships with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and commercial banks. The person should not just fund edifices, but should show the banks how a symbiotic relationship can be kept.
The government is trying to force the banks to fund the creative industry at single digit loans (CIFI Loan), the banks balk at the move. Whereas the main power of the Nigerian creative industry is not to create products for sale, though it is part of it, it is the ability of the industry to create products to attract the eyeballs and earlobes of Nigerians, especially in the Diaspora. It is not what the art is worth, but what it can sell.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) has a huge data on Nigeria’s remarkable contribution to the music, arts, creative and fashion industries in Nigeria and across the world. How would the country leverage this while rebranding?
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the Federal Government appreciates the fundamental value of Nigerian Diaspora remittances, which is almost $35 billion yearly, the Nigerian government has not been adequately informed on how it can easily direct the remittances to a specific International Money Transfer Organisation (IMTO) and simply monetise it to earn over $1billion in fees annually.
It’s not just the government that is unaware of this great opportunity, even the banks and fintech institutions. The Bible says ‘My people perish for lack of Knowledge.’ No place is this more evident than the Nigerian Diaspora remittances. Would you believe that not a single Nigerian bank or citizen operates in the international remittances corridor.
The required licenses cost maximum of $50 million in the United States. Even $10 million can mobilise it in specific symbiotic relationship with the Nigerian creative industry which provides the attraction of the eyeballs and earlobes to a global digital monetisation platform, which, by the way, has already been built.
The symbiotic relationship has already been signed with the Nigerian creative industry. All that is left is mobilisation of $10 million. Do we go and beg Oyibo again for ordinary $10 million? If we do, they will own our entire creative industry and influence it with lifestyles to which we are not accustomed.
We see a number of Nigerian artists creating content and signing up contracts with foreign filmmakers like Netflix. What will be the impact of this on Nigeria’s creative, music and arts industries?
The signages are personal, so a few artistes and filmmakers will benefit, but what happens to the others? For your information, 10 years ago, Nollywood boasted of 5, 000 registered filmmakers, today, I doubt if we have 100 active. Ten years ago, Nollywood was renowned worldwide as the second largest film industry in the world, feeding over one million Nigerian families.
Today, though the content has become more qualitative, the monetisation is appalling. Maybe the foreign film companies will fund 20 filmmakers at $25, 000 each. How many Nigerians will benefit from that cash infusion? Or is it better to win Academy Award and one filmmaker shines with zero cash revenue and the remaining 100 million Nigerian youths languish, praising the winner on social media? Very funny!
In the decades you have spent in this industry, what do you consider the major challenge and what is the way forward?
Ignorance and apathy. Time to engage realistically. Let’s shelve the normal politicking in the creative industry. If the Federal Government or state governments that are busy building so-called film villages are not interested in saving their own people from languishing, then we will have no choice but to go and beg Oyibo on Wall Street. But nobody should cry10 years from now when we produce weird content.
Having spent 40 years in this industry, what would be your message to Nigerians regarding the Creative Industry?
Whoever pays the piper dictates the tune. The foreigners are here already. All we see is the money, international exposure and fame. What about the attendant content control? In five years, it will be too late to reverse the damage. We must take control of our children’s future. We cannot be lackadaisical. $50 million will determine the future of the minds and values of our children for the next 100 years. Is our quest for infrastructure building and personal wealth accumulation more important? Think well my people.