Arnold: We’ve Harnessed Media, Entertainment to Empower Nigerian Youth


Georgia Arnold is Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility for MTV Networks International, where she develops and implements social initiatives across MTV’s broad range of channels. She is also the Executive Director and Founder of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, which provides funding and training to the youth on HIV prevention projects. It has donated over $6million to over 200 HIV based organisations in over 70 countries worldwide. Arnold is the executive producer of MTV Shuga, an MTV Staying Alive Foundation initiative and hit TV series that focuses on the lives of young African millennials, as they navigate their way through their adolescent years. MTV Shuga has been broadcast in over 61 countries across the world, showing on 179 channels and reaching over 720 million people. In this interview with Vincent Obia, Arnold discusses the mission and impact of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in Nigeria, especially among its most productive population. Excerpts: 

MTV Staying Alive Foundation aims, “To build an empowered and educated generation of young people, equipped with the tools and knowledge to protect themselves and their peers from the HIV epidemic,” according to information on your website.  How much of this mission would you say has been achieved in Nigeria?

 The MTV Staying Alive Foundation’s aim to educate and empower millennials with respect to their sexual and reproductive health is an on-going process. With each generation, our mission is renewed, as we are faced with a whole new set of young individuals that require access to vital sexual and reproductive health information. In the case of Nigeria, we take great pride in the impact that MTV Staying Alive Foundation, and our award-winning mass media campaign, MTV Shuga, have had on young people. An evaluation conducted by the World Bank in 2014/15 on MTV Shuga among young Nigerians found that the campaign was directly responsible for a 58% decrease in chlamydia among female viewers. Viewers of the show were also twice as likely to get tested for HIV, with double the number of young people who watched MTV Shuga getting tested for HIV than those who didn’t watch it. Further findings from the World Bank’s evaluation were as follows:

•MTV Shuga improved knowledge, attitudes and behaviours related to HIV transmission and testing.

•Viewers were less likely to have concurrent sexual partners, and also engaged in safer sex with sexual partners.

These results show the extent to which MTV Shuga has been able to positively affect the attitudes, behaviours and health of young Nigerians.

Given the general acknowledgement of the link between poverty and HIV prevalence, are you also engaged in poverty alleviation programmes, apart from the projects directly related to HIV information dissemination initiatives?

MTV Staying Alive Foundation gives out grants to youth-led organisations across the world to run HIV-prevention and sexual health programmes. Without this vital funding, many of the organisations would not be able to operate and affect positive change in their local communities. While such programmes may not be specifically designed for poverty alleviation, the by-product of our funding can be extremely positive in this sense. By spreading awareness about STIs and HIV, young people are able to take ownership over their personal health. This means that they are either able to access the medical help that they require, or practise safe sex and remain sexually healthy. Both consequences can help prevent people from spiralling into a state of economic hardship. Also, such measures can serve as effective birth control measures, thereby preventing young people from assuming the financial responsibilities that come with having a child.  We also run a social enterprise scheme that helps our grantees in their final year turn into sustainable business. Currently, there are six social enterprise projects that we fund, with each business receiving $30,000. Each enterprise commits a certain percentage of their profits to HIV prevention services, helping to draw the link between our funding and tackling the prevalence of HIV.  The enterprises range in focus, from a hair salon in Nigeria to a chicken farm in Kenya.

How would you rate the level of HIV awareness in Nigeria vis-à-vis other African countries?

The level of awareness about HIV in Nigeria remains a key issue in the fight against it. Although HIV prevalence among adults is comparatively low (3.1%) compared to countries such as South Africa (19.2%) and Zambia (12.9%), which suggests a high level of awareness, there are still considerable gaps in knowledge among Nigerian youth. For example, whereas 70% of Nigerian men (ages 15-24 years old) were aware that condom use can reduce the risk of contracting HIV, only 56% of women the same age retained such knowledge. This lack of awareness goes some way to explaining why young women have a higher HIV prevalence than their male counterparts, and emphasises the need for raising more awareness about safe sexual practices among all Nigerians.

How many Nigerians have accessed your grants since the funding programme started in 2005?

Since we began our grants giving programme in 2005, we have funded 19 initiatives in Nigeria. As well as receiving funding, each initiative was taken through specially curated training programmes, in order to enhance their ability to effect positive change in their respective communities. This was done through continuous interaction with MTV Staying Alive Foundation staff throughout the length of their funding, and also through in-person training at annual summits.

Does the MTV Staying Alive Foundation partner with the local, state, or federal governments in the pursuit of its objectives?

As with any successful project, there needs to be a multi-pronged, collaborative approach in order to maximise the desired impact. Where possible, we partner with local, state, or federal governmental departments if that will help magnify our impact on adolescents.

The new season of MTV Shuga in Nigeria will focus on contraception uptake and family planning services. Therefore, the Foundation is currently working closely with the Director of Family Health Department, Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Adebimpe Adebiyi, and is also collaborating with the Ministry of Health in Lagos State.  As HIV was the core message of our last campaign in Nigeria, we continue to enjoy a great relationship with the head of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS, Dr. Sani Aliyu.

How does the foundation get money for its projects?

The MTV Staying Alive Foundation receives funding through a variety of methods. This includes: trusts and foundations, an annual art auction (RE:DEFINE), corporate partnerships (including Kiehl’s), special events and challenges. Additionally, international partners are also key contributors when it comes to delivery of the Foundation’s work throughout the world. In the past, funding for MTV Shuga has been secured through wide-ranging partnerships. Alongside the continued support of VIACOM International Media Networks, key partners such as: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (who are funding the production of two seasons in Nigeria), PEPFAR, Linkages, USAID, Marie Stopes International, Positive Action and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation.

What are the biggest challenges of the foundation?

The challenges faced by the Foundation are similar to the obstacles encountered by all foundations operating in the world of HIV and sexual health. Over the past few years, we have witnessed worrying trends in attitudes towards HIV and AIDS developing. Following decades of fighting against the spread of HIV, there is now a general sense of complacency in the funding sphere. There are those who believe that HIV is no longer an issue. This is despite the fact that AIDS is the biggest killer of young people across Sub-Saharan Africa, and among certain demographics, the epidemic is worse now than it has ever been.  Such opinions make it extremely hard to secure the funding needed to tackle the spread of HIV and increase knowledge among adolescents.

How many groups are you collaborating with in Nigeria? Can you mention some of them?

Part of MTV Staying Alive Foundation’s strength lies in its wide-ranging partnerships. Working closely with local and international non-governmental organisations, as well as government departments, has allowed us to deliver the right information and help to those who need it most. These partnerships enhance the efficacy of our work, as we develop our campaign to address the specific needs of our chosen demographic. In regards to Nigeria, we have currently established partnerships with MTV Base, Hello Lagos (a Lagos State government initiative), and Naija Girls (a Society for Family Health initiative). These valued partners, alongside other prospective partnerships, will allow us to deliver our work in the most effective way possible.

What gave rise to the MTV Shuga series?

MTV Shuga’s rise came as a response to the HIV epidemic. Importantly, it was the need for forward-thinking solutions to HIV prevention that stimulated a novel response, which looked to use the power of media to affect positive change in the lives of millennials. Whereas previous programmes may have come across as didactic and ultimately failed to engage their target audience, MTV Shuga, as a show about young people, came to fruition as an innovative reply to the challenge of HIV on the African Continent.  By fully immersing our target audiences through our 360 mass-media campaign (TV show, radio series, graphic novel, peer education, social media and digital platforms), MTV Shuga is able to fuse entertaining content with important sexual health messaging, and reach young people in a way that many other programmes cannot.

Give us an overview of the MTV Shuga series?

MTV Shuga is a 360 mass media campaign that uses the power of entertainment to generate positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes among young people. At the core of MTV Shuga is a TV drama, which follows the lives of a group of young friends as they encounter sexual, social and educational challenges throughout their adolescent years. Following on from two seasons in Nairobi and another two set in Lagos, the fifth season had been produced in South Africa for the very first time.

The new season, set in Nigeria, will play host to issues concerning family planning, contraception, HIV prevention and sexual health education and will highlight the incidence of gender based violence. Season 6 of MTV Shuga centres around topics relevant to the modern African society, especially, urban youth culture. The show puts a spotlight on family planning and real issues that affect young people from day to day, with a particular focus on adolescent girls.

How has MTV Shuga fared so far, especially in Nigeria?

MTV Shuga has gone from strength to strength throughout its previous five campaigns. The tangible impact of MTV Shuga has been well-established through various evaluations carried out by the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the Population Council, and many more. Yet, critically, MTV Shuga has been received as an award-winning drama series that resonates among young Africans across the globe. The MTV Shuga drama series has reached over 720 million people, with our social media reach extending to 118 million people. This vast following attests to the high regard in which our viewers hold MTV Shuga, and reflects the quality instilled in the production of the series. To name a few, MTV Shuga was the recipient of the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Award for Best TV Series 2015, as well as winner of the World Media Gold and Grand Awards 2014 and 2016 for Education.

What is the motivation behind bringing MTV Shuga Season 6 to Nigeria?

Despite the overwhelming success of the previous MTV Shuga campaigns in Nigeria, our work here is far from done.  As the most populous state in Africa, the amount of people living with HIV in Nigeria is stark. Despite having an HIV prevalence rate among adults of 3.1%, there were 3.5 million people living with HIV as of 2015. Such statistics illustrate the gravity of the situation in the Nigerian context.  Whilst HIV is an important issue that needs to be explored, this season will also unpack the issue of family planning and contraception. The population in Nigeria currently stands at 182 million people, yet the use of contraception is one of the lowest in the world. Just 11% of women aged 15-49 years old used modern contraception, against a global rate of 57%. With high rates of unintended pregnancy (1.3 million occur annually among young women), there is a clear need to increase the uptake and knowledge of family planning services among young Nigerian women. It is hoped that season 6 of MTV Shuga will help increase young people’s knowledge on the options available to them and how to access them.

What does MTV Shuga Season six aim to achieve?

Like all MTV Shuga campaigns, season six will aim to be even better than the last. Our desire to continually improve and enhance the project applies to all elements of the campaign. Specifically, we want to continue to effect positive change in the attitudes, behaviours and health of young Africans across the continent, while delivering a highly-entertaining drama series.

What should viewers look forward to on MTV Shuga Season 6?

A hard-hitting, entertaining and informative TV series that reflects the everyday challenges faced by young Nigerians across the country.  Whereas previous seasons of MTV Shuga in Nigeria focused predominantly on Lagos, this series will reflect the incumbent diversity of Nigeria as a vast and multi-layered country, highlighting the issues faced by Nigerians across the entire country. Viewers can expect a lot of ups and downs, as well as love, sex, relationships, heartbreak and a host of other issues that will be sure to keep them mesmerised by the upcoming season. Importantly, weaved into the gripping storylines will be important messaging concerning sexual and reproductive health, as well as sexual violence.  Our audience can look forward to being entertained and educated at the very same time!

What goes into the selection of the cast for MTV Shuga?

When selecting the cast for MTV Shuga, we are always looking for the very best talent the country has to offer. Nigeria is renowned for its vast reserve of acting talent, and we aim to recruit actors who are able to bring the important storylines to life in a believable and entertaining way.

Importantly, we are always on the lookout for fresh and local talent. We are keen to give young, up-and-coming creatives a chance to develop in the entertainment industry, and this has been evidenced throughout MTV Shuga’s previous seasons, where actors such as Lupita Nyong’o and Samkelisiwe Makhoba (who was selected from public auditions and played ‘Khensani’ in MTV Shuga: Down South), were given the chance to develop their acting skills in the drama series.

How would Nigeria’s entertainment industry benefit from MTV Shuga?

Nigeria’s entertainment industry is set to experience a positive impact from MTV Shuga coming back to Nigeria. MTV Staying Alive Foundation are fundamentally committed to investing in the communities in which we operate. Whether this be through championing local talent to generate the best production possible or collaborating with local stakeholders, our inclusive approach ensures that our work is specifically tailored to its local environment and incorporates the concerns, opinions and views of all relevant persons.

Using locally sourced talent in terms of actors, scriptwriters, producers, directors and other personnel from all levels of the entertainment industry will allow us to invest positively in the local entertainment industry.

How has MTV Shuga impacted on African youths?

MTV Shuga has challenged the attitudes, perspectives and behaviours of youths across the world in a positive way. The World Bank’s results have categorically proven the direct impact that MTV Shuga can have on the sexual and reproductive health of young people. One of the key strengths of MTV Shuga lies in our approach. We are able to speak to the youth in a way that governments simply cannot. Our non-didactic, riveting portrayal of sexual health messaging under the guise of entertainment means that adolescents are able to identify, empathise and relate to the characters of the series in a way that is wholly unique to this approach. Providing key knowledge and avenues for support if they need it (i.e. sexual health services through partners) equips African youths with vital tools to protect their personal health and future prospects.

What structures are in place to ensure the sustainability of MTV Shuga?

MTV Shuga’s sustainability lies in its evolutionary essence. Never one to stand still, MTV Shuga is continuously morphing to reflect the reality faced by today’s youth. By keeping up-to-date with the latest music and fashion trends gripping millennials, and by listening to the issues and concerns troubling young people today, MTV Shuga remains constantly relevant. This is its biggest strength when it comes to sustainability.

Another way in which MTV Shuga remains sustainable and forward-thinking is through scaling up. The underlying themes that inform the campaign are universal, lending themselves to multiple environments. As such, we are constantly looking to expand the reach of our campaign, establish new partnerships, and implement the project throughout the world. This was most recently evidenced on Tuesday, July 11, where we announced that MTV Shuga was going to expand to Egypt and India with localised versions by 2020.