Wame Jallow is the executive director of MTV Staying Alive Foundation (SAF), the umbrella organisation for the edutainment series; MTV Shuga Naija and MTV Shuga DownSouth.
Having worked as a global health, rights and environmental advocate for over 22 years, and fiercely fought for the rights of women and young girls, Wame brings her passion, skill and experience in changing the narratives in youth health issues using storytelling.
In this interview, Wame, a mother of two daughters, tells Obinna Emelike the focus of SAF since 25 years, impact of edutainment series, talent discovery, World AIDS Day, among others feats.
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How has it been leading the role of executive director of MTV Staying Alive Foundation?
It has been an exciting new journey. I joined the MTV Staying Alive Foundation in September 2023 – joining a passion-driven and talented team. MTV Staying Alive has a mission to help young people to make healthy choices for their lives and wellbeing.
This is a work that is close to my heart, as a mother of two young daughters. My own journey spans over two decades in advocating for global health, rights, and environmental causes, and that has equipped me with a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of these issues and the power of storytelling in helping to drive change.
What impacts have MTV Shuga Naija and MTV Shuga DownSouth made in the African entertainment scene, especially discovery of talents?
MTV Shuga Naija has been very significant in the Nigerian entertainment industry through its collaboration with leading local production professionals and supporting younger creatives by giving them an international platform to showcase their talent, while identifying new talent who have now excelled in their acting careers and are now leading award-winning actors in the country.
Across every season of MTV Shuga Naija, we have prioritized collaborations with local producers, directors and industry leaders to lead productions, while working with young people to identify the barriers to change within their communities through focus group discussions. This is also supported by national and state health agencies in the different regions to ensure our messaging is effectively communicated on the ground, provide important helplines and service providers while aligning the content with the country’s health objectives for the younger population. Nigeria has a vibrant, colourful and energetic urban youth culture, especially in regards to its music. Through our existing partnership with Paramount, we are able to merge our storytelling with music and pop culture, collaborating with trending music talent, which our target audience recognize and can relate with, including special music performances, cameo appearances and even acting scenes. A case of this would be Tiwa Savage, Nigerian superstar music artiste, who launched her acting career on the first season of MTV Shuga Naija. MTV Shuga campaign has also worked with Wizkid and Banky (cameo’d in Kenya season 2), Larry Gaaga, and RMJ.
Through our public and digital auditions, which have had thousands of young Nigerians audition for roles on each season, we have identified new talents and given them a global platform to showcase their acting skills on the TV drama. Aired on Paramount international channels worldwide, with the content also offered rights-free to third party broadcasters and content platforms, these actors have gained both local and international popularity and have become some of Nigeria’s most sought-after actors in the TV & film industry. We also merged storylines from other MTV Shuga regions and switched actors for the season. An example of this is Emmanuel Ikubese, who first debuted on MTV Shuga Kenya, his character story saw him move to Nigeria. Jemima Osunde also moved to film a season of MTV Shuga Down South. Some of our MTV Shuga Naija stars include; Dorcas Shola-Fapson, Emmanuel Ikubese, Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Timini Egbuson, Jemima Osunde, Olumide Oworu and Kanaga Umeh Jr (KanagaJR), who launched his acting career on the just concluded MTV Shuga Naija season 5. He was selected from our public auditions and later went on to become first runner up on the Big Brother Africa TV show in South Africa earlier in the year.
With the launch of the Talent Accelerator program earlier this year, we invested in young female creatives who are just making their entries into the Nigerian entertainment industry behind the scene. This involved putting out a call for applications and selecting 11 creatives who had little to no experience in the TV and film industry, we provided workshops and internship placements across production units of season 5 to advance gender-aware media in the Nigerian TV and film industry. The crew of MTV Shuga Naija Season 5 was 80 percent female, further emphasizing the campaign’s objective of investing in female creatives in the Nigerian media market. Since the completion of the program, these creatives have proceeded to work on other projects within the campaigns based on referrals. We also collaborated with two young female creatives for the new season of MTV Shuga Naija 5. These were the youngest producers we had ever worked with since we launched in Nigeria. The new season has been very successful and the engagement received from young people across different digital platforms has been impressive.
What have been the feats of the Staying Alive Foundation in the past 25 years?
Exactly 25 years ago, at the height of the HIV epidemic, MTV SAF was launched in response to the need to get lifesaving information to young people. As a non-profit organization we wanted to equip and empower young people to make informed choices about their health and well-being. Our goal has always been storytelling with a purpose and proven impact.
We have focused on developing diverse and relevant content for young people directly with the communities that we are working with. From the very beginning SAF has been bold and brave, looking beyond the stats to the realities of young people’s lives.
Over the past two decades we have also broadened our focus from HIV prevention, to young people’s overall sexual health and reproductive rights, gender based violence, LGBTQ+ rights and mental health. We look at young people’s lives with a 360 approach and want to reach them where they are consuming information, with content that they can relate to.
We reach young people where they are with content that resonates and has been broadcast on over 180 channels in 70 countries and has reached over 720 million households.
Do you think the MTV Shuga series has done enough health enlightenment among African youths?
Lots more to be done! We have demonstrated impact – evaluations of the series have shown that this approach works. For example, a MTV Shuga viewer is twice as likely to use condoms, twice as likely to test for HIV, and more likely to exhibit positively changed attitudes against gender-based violence.
What did SAF do on December 1, World AIDS Day?
The theme for this WAD is ‘Let Communities Lead’ – something which MTV SAF has long supported through our community-based approach to all our work. For example, using the content created for our campaigns, our peer educators provide on the ground support helping to create safe spaces for young people to share their stories and facilitate help within their communities.
This World AIDS Day around our 25th anniversary, MTV SAF used it to spotlight the progress achieved in the fight against HIV/AIDS while emphasising the importance of continued commitment, innovation, and solidarity in ending the epidemic.
Our message revolved around empowerment, education, and the urgency to eradicate stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS because the world can get back on track to ending the epidemic by 2030.
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How far has Africa fought the AIDS scourge and what are the feats?
Whilst we should celebrate that new HIV infections are at the lowest point since the 1980s, AIDS still takes a life every minute and African girls and young women are disproportionately affected.
After 25 years, what is the new chapter in SAF?
We will continue to be determined to support young people in all their diversity to take control of their lives and the choices they make. As we look ahead of the next 25 years, our work will be rooted in the global south and the realities of young people’s lives.