Funmi Iyanda is a multiple award-winning Nigerian Entrepreneur, Writer, Film and TV producer, TV Host, and Philanthropist. She owns her own unique voice- metaphorically like a town crier’s gong, and she is constantly using it to impact society in a very positive way.
She made her first remarkable TV appearance on NTA with the program ‘New Dawn’ and from there went on to anchor great shows and accomplished riveting feats in the media space.
She is a mother of one—a daughter whom she adores so much and a firm believer in humanity. According to her, humanity should come first before every other thing.
As a firm believer in humanity, she’s enthralled by human freedom—freedom of choice. She believes the sexuality of anyone is entirely the choice of the individual and should be void of any external interference. This has made people question her sexuality on several occasions, most especially when she was honored with an award by the LGBT community.
She is the Executive Director at Oya Media UK and CEO of Ignite Media Nigeria and co-founder of Creation Media TV and founder of Change a Life Nigeria.
Recently, she screened her latest show, Public Eye, which is in its second edition in Lagos.
In this interview with Azuka Ogujiuba, the media mogul addressed some major issues that have stuck to her like fin to fishes— her daughter, career, marriage, and life going forward.
Q: Your show in NTA then was one of the most watched programs until you suddenly stopped shooting—tell us, what really happened, because there has been a lot of speculations about your interview with a gay man being the cause?
A: So many stories, so many rumours; of course, that is what happens when you don’t explain too much. And I’ve never really liked explaining and explaining, I like to experience, and like people to experience things too. The show wasn’t shut down because I interviewed a gay man, or because the government shut it down- there was nothing like that. The interview with Mr. Alimi at that time was in 2004 or thereabout and the show went on till 2008. So, that’s four years after. What happened with that particular one was that the show used to be live daily at first, and then it became three times a week, and there was one that was a one-on-one interview that was also live. What happened is that, they took it off live and it became recorded which in a way was beneficial to me because it allowed me to tidy things up and also develop other kinds of skills in the production process itself. So, it didn’t happen because I interviewed Mr. Alimi at all. It was in 2008 that I stopped the show. I stopped the show because I was tired. I remember when I turned 50, one of my friends showed me a comment about myself, because I don’t read comments about myself—someone said it’s a lie, that I can’t be 50, that I must have been 60 or 59. I think it’s actually because I have always made friends with older people. My closest and dearest friend, Remi Lagos was 10 years older than me, so maybe that’s why. Also, I started quite early, I started everything quite early. What people do not understand is that New Dawn was my own independent production—I’m talking about Nigeria in the days when we didn’t have all the facilities like we have now. I started TV in 1995, then I was a kid, I just came out from the university. It took a lot of work to do ‘New Dawn’- physically, mentally and emotionally, because at the back of New Dawn was also something like ‘The Change a Life Foundation’ which we were running – dealing with people who were passing through so much.
New Dawn was emotionally draining. Also, the part that I don’t talk about enough is where New Dawn didn’t have as much commercial support as people would think. Even though it was the most watched show on TV at the time, it was really popular because it was at par with Telenovelas and you know what that means when a show is at par with Spanish Telenovelas which were very popular. We didn’t get commercial support, we didn’t get advertising, I would go to advertising agencies, companies and they’d say to me; “The show is in the morning, no one is watching it.” I’d say, “that’s irrational, everyone is watching it.” I couldn’t understand it— the commercial support was not coming, at least to commensurate with the number of viewers and rating success we were having. Mostly, it was actually because of gate-keeping. I mean, there were people who were just out to block everything—I don’t really know why, because I’d never tried to understand why people do what they do, I have only known the reasons for my own actions.
Q: In essence, all of what you did then was self-sponsored?
A: It was a lot of credit to NTA, because NTA was making it technically possible, I was making it possible creatively, I was doing all the work. It became challenging because I’ve never done cash-for-journalism, so, it became challenging because some other people at the station would think that it must be that she was collecting money and she’s not remitting the money to the station, which was not true. We were struggling. We were actually bootstrapping. The internet would have changed everything because that was pre-social media and Youtube era. It would have been a completely different story if it was an era like today’s; but then we had nothing of the sort. It was always a constant battle to keep it going. It just got to a point where I was like what I wanted were two things because I don’t give up easily—I wanted to do something else, I wanted something that would make commercial sense, not that the show didn’t make commercial sense, but in terms of the structure behind it. And also, I needed a break, I was really exhausted—just tired, it was a lot to do.
Q: There was a program you also anchored, where you’d go to make a documentary about notable figures like 9ice—from their hometown and life generally, what happened to the program also because you did that for a while before leaving the country?
A: I got tired of being in the studio basically, and because a lot of people had come from different parts of the country to be interviewed by me, I had a really good sense of Nigeria. Prior to doing New Dawn, I travelled around the country, because I love Nigeria. I travelled around the whole country, so, I wanted to express that again, I wanted to go to people’s homes and talk to them, it wasn’t just about the artistes—I was talking to everyone, I would talk to farmers, I would talk to governors, musicians and actors and everyone because I wanted us to get into a conversation, regarding the things that really mattered to everyone. Also, I wanted to do it in such a way, because then, things were already changing so we had a different model for this program, different from that of New Dawn on NTA. We had a model where we wanted to presale the show—I was pre-shooting, pre-editing, I was basically doing 13 documentaries in one around Nigeria. I mean it still stands up to par with any such work that is done anywhere in the world because it was one of the first shows out of Africa at the time that was nominated in competition, not in the special Africa category, but with all the others—some of the biggest festivals in the world. I was very proud of the work that we did with that, but already, I was making my moves. I registered my first company in 1996. I was always quite clear that I wanted to build my own media empire of sort. I also wanted to express myself creatively. I went into journalism purely as an accident, I think that deep down, I wanted to be an artist or something, but my dad wanted me to be a doctor and I love my father very much so I wanted to be what he wanted me to be, but that didn’t pan out as he had wanted it to be. That’s a long a long and different story. However, I was already shifting the focus of what I did from day time TV, to building a structure, where we can be making contents of all sorts for different platforms anywhere and everywhere in the world.
Q: The theme for this year’s women’s day was ‘Breaking the Bias’, do you think, women have really broken the bias in Africa and Nigeria?
A: I consider myself as a being that is experiencing what it means to be human. I find conversations about gender and other forms of identity quite tiresome. We have said all that we need to say, and I cannot speak for Africa or for women, I can only speak for myself and my own experience that I am having as a human being. A lot of time now, they never get to the core of the matter, and for me the ‘core’ matters. I like to go the core of things. When I make friends, I really make friends, I am better at really connecting, so when it comes to conversations about bias, we all have bias.
Q: What about the women supporting women slogan, what is your take on that?
A: I don’t do slogans. I think that women support women, men support women, women support men, some women support women and so forth – I think women should cut themselves some slack. There is too much attention on women, and all of it is really about limiting them, even when we say we are supporting them. First and foremost, for me, my daughter said something to me and it was really interesting—she said ‘mum, we live on a giant rock rotating around a ball of fire, at precise distance. Everybody needs to take a chill!’. It’s amazing to be human, and that fascinates me much more than all the labels that we put on ourselves. I think that as humans, what is most important is survival, and I am interested in what gets in the way of people surviving, I am interested in the concept of desperation, what do we do as a society that drives people into desperation such that it makes them less human. That concerns me, and that concerns me for everyone.
Q: You were very close to Remi Lagos, and when she died you were broken. Was that part of the reason you decided to take a break?
A: Remi was like a soul-sister to me. You must remember that I lost my mother very young, and then Remi became almost like a surrogate mother to me, so it was like, losing my mother again and also the rather tragic circumstance under which she died was very shocking. However, I didn’t pull back—I went to start a company in the UK, which is a lot of work. I didn’t pull back, in fact, when Remi had to be flown to the UK, I had to take care of her even as she was dying. I had to take a break from the company at that time, but it was a very short period of time. Of course, Remi’s death shook me. As I said, I don’t make friends lightly. If I love you, I truly love you. I think that people are uncomfortable with love. They are uncomfortable with intensity, because they feel that they must also reciprocate—I don’t need that, but that will be nice, but if love you, I love you. That is simple, and I genuinely loved Remi. All the people that I have truly being friends with, if the friendship ends, it really does take something from me. So, that’s part of the growing up lesson, I didn’t feel like I needed to get over Remi, Remi came to experience the world.
I understood Remi better after she had died much more than when she was alive, because there were so many things, I wasn’t ready for emotionally, mentally and even spiritually to understand as she used to tell me and I’d just be like ‘Aunty Remi has come again’. But later on, I came to understand them much better. I do feel she was around so I could share time with her, but I still feel like she is here in a way. I am Yoruba, we do believe that the spirits of the ancestors are passed on, of course it’s true—look at me and my daughter for example, part of my genetic coding is in her, if she has another child or daughter, it will pass on—so we live on. I wasn’t devasted by Remi’s death, it was painful to lose somebody so dear, but I think that what people are confused about is that I am not a very public person, never have I ever been. I am an accidental television person, I didn’t walk into television wanting to be a television person, it happened as an accident. More than anything else, I am interested in creating things—just making things. And that usually is a very internal thing. If I am not out with people, I am comfortable with, I am very quiet—I don’t speak much, except I really find something that really fires me, I can be by myself. I can be on my own and so I think not seeing me on television was equated to not being there. If I am not on TV, except you are my friend, you won’t see me. I spent a lot of time out of the country, because I also had a daughter who needed to go to school out of Nigeria and that’s my only child. I wasn’t going to leave her alone in a new country—a new country, and a new weather. I had to be there for her, and that is one of the most important investments I have ever made in my life, spending time with my daughter in that way. I think it’s a combination of things that came together and was interpreted in certain ways. You know people will think that they know you when you are in the public, but they don’t really know you. I would say once again, I am not a natural television person, for you to see the television person, there has to be another person who sits back, because for me, it’s almost like rinsing out my soul and putting it out there. And you have to replenish it. It’s like soil, if you are farming on a piece, you don’t have to over-farm on it, you have to give it fallow period for it to be replenished. So, the times you don’t see me, are the times where I am replenishing my soul.
Q: What fond memories do you have of Remi?
A: Very many, but mostly, I remember her sayings—the sayings were really helpful. She used to say let’s experience things. She was a believer in experiencing life, so we did a lot of things together. She had a lot of catch-phrases and I remember, ‘Let’s be going’ because what she meant was that regardless of the situation in life that, you should keep going—walking. She also did use to say ‘do as if’ sort of, if you are not sure about anything, just carry on. I have come to understand that principle is much better, she’d say; ‘Funmi, do as if it’s already happening’. I remember all of that, so once in a while, when the going gets tough, I’ll tell myself ‘Funmi do as if.’
Q: Now that you are fully back in the country, what should we expect from you?
A: I am always a little taken aback by this rather pointless thing about always saying, ‘oh this person has abandoned me and has gone abroad.’ You must have citizens who go and come back. We must all do different things, the world belongs to all of us, and the more of our people we have everywhere in the world, the better for us. If we have a lot of people everywhere in the world, the better for us. We have a lot of people, so we can spare some to go and come back. Some will come back, some will not. For me, it wasn’t a question of leaving Nigeria completely, it was always about going and coming back as I needed to.
I am more here now than before because my daughter is now old enough to go and do her own thing, so I don’t have to be there. The work I was doing had been completed to some extent—I’d also made the in-rules that I needed to make. I’d made the relationships I needed to make for her. So, I had to build things from the scratch for her. I am more comfortable in Nigeria, to start with, the weather suits me, I don’t do well in the cold, the food suits me, and geographically, I love Nigeria. So, I love it more back here. In terms of what to expect from me, I feel sometimes that people want me to do what they know me to do, so what I do, often times they are still saying, go and do what we expect you to do.
Currently now, we started a show called ‘Public Eye’ in collaboration with MacArthur foundation, I must say thank you to the foundation for making that happen, and I must also say thank you, specially to Dr. Shettima and his team. I must say this about MacArthur foundation in Nigeria—it’s one of those places where they don’t need to know you, they go by the power of the idea, if the idea works, they will work with you. We came up with this idea, similar to what I used to do, but in a different—what a grown-up version of me will do. In that, there is so much misunderstanding today, there is so much polarization in Nigeria today, whether it’s ethnicity, religion and all of that. There is no middle ground. It’s not just Nigeria, it’s all over the world. We are living in a really polarized world and it’s a very dangerous time to be in that regard. At the end of the day, what makes us human is collaborations, so my own thing is to bring divergent voices – bring them to a safe space of understanding, because often times, everybody is too busy trying to get the other person to be guilty, so that they can be right, and we are not in a space where we can be, we are in a space where we have to grow, and to be able to gro w, we have to work with people, to build comradeship, to build institutions. We have to leave messages in time, for whoever is going to use them, so that is what Public Eye itself is about. I run Oya Media, I have a team that I work with, it’s not just me, I have really talented people that I am working with, we have a slate of productions that we are working on. At any time when one clicks, you’d see us do it. Aside from that, I have also learnt not to talk about the things I am doing, until its done. I think it takes the energy away from it. As I begin to do them with my team, people will see them— would say that I am only not just interested in media anymore, I am also doing some work in tech, doing also some work in production of certain things. Especially, I have found that in Nigeria, some of the things that really matter, and the things that the rest of the world is really interested in going forward, especially in the area of health, environment and beauty is big, and Nigeria has amazing knowledge and culture in those areas that we have not yet explored properly. Not only for other people, but especially for ourselves. I will say that for me, people always say they tell our stories badly, but I think that we talk to ourselves badly as Nigerians too—we are said to always pull ourselves down. I think that for me, I will like to support the process, where the average Nigerians see themselves more beautifully. It doesn’t matter what others think about you, what is most important is what you think about yourself. What does the average Nigerian think about himself/herself and his or her country? And how are we going to get anything better if we don’t actually start by having some kind of value for ourselves? That does not mean that we deny what the problems are. It means that we confront them, we think of what we are going to develop to solve these problems, and unless we are talking about that, what are we really talking about? Those are the kind of things that interest me now.
Q: In the past, you produced a movie called Walking with Shadows, what was the movie about?
A: I mean this was Olumide Makanjuola’s thing. He is a very brilliant person. He was running tears, in Nigeria at that time about the state of the nation and we were talking about using storytelling to engineer the whole society. Look at what the Koreans are doing with their drama—you can engineer your whole society that way, and we were thinking what project can we work together on. Also, we wanted to do Jude Dibia’s book since I had read it. The reason is that, when you read books that are authored by Africans, we always try to explain ourselves—you are explaining yourself to people who don’t care, they have their own problems—do your own thing. That story was an ease about it—it was just a simple story of a person whose life fell apart because somebody told something on him and that’s not even just about the story of what was told on him, it’s about the story of all of us, how life can fall apart for anyone, so I really liked the story. And that’s why we wanted to do it. Olumide and I worked together to make it a reality and of course, it was a success. It was premiered at the London Festival and a number of other festivals, it’s on Amazon now, hopefully we will be on Netflix soon. We are done with that, so on to the next one.
Q: You were nominated for an award by the LGBT community, does that mean that you are in support of their practices despite how they are seen here?
A: I am in support of all human beings, don’t get it twisted. I used to say on TV, before feminism became fashionable in Nigeria, they used to accuse me of being a feminist, and I will say for example; I don’t think you should kill flies unduly, does it make me a ‘flyist’, but I think that only comes from people who supports things because it benefits them. I think that we are all connected as human beings including plants and animals—animals and plants, there is a who lot more research, every day we are finding out that they have their own kind of intelligences, that they have their own senses at the end of the day, that I support people who are LGBT says nothing about me—what do we even mean by practice? I am not interested in what people do in their day-to-day life as long as it doesn’t concern me or affect other people what adults do. I support children, I support men and women, I support anybody who is human, who does not get in the way of another person in that regard. So, I think it’s a small-minded way of looking at the world. Some people even start accusing me, that maybe I am gay, that I am a man eater, that I am stealing your man, or a woman eater, that I am stealing your woman. So, I just tell people to make up their minds about what I am. I have compassion for us as Nigerians. I have compassion for myself as a Nigerian—I don’t think it comes from a bad place, I think when people don’t understand things, they tend to misunderstand everything. If you are Igbo for instance, they have a way they think that you should behave as an Igbo person and if you don’t behave that way, you are not Igbo again, likewise Yoruba. If you deviate a little, you are seen as a bad Christian, Moslem, Igbo or Yoruba. That comes from a place of wanting to take ownership. I repeat again, first and foremost, I see myself as an entity that has come to experience what it means to be human.
Q: The Nigerian community still finds it difficult to accept the reality on ground, that we have a lot of gay men and lesbians around, what’s your take on that?
A: So, we are talking about if people are gay or not in a country where we don’t have electricity. I feel for us. Do you know what it means in the 21st century to stay without electricity? How dare anybody involve in all those stupid talks! I can’t even be bothered to engage in it. We don’t have light. There are countries where they have free wifies. I have friends internationally who do not understand the concept. Do you know when electricity was created that we do not have light? Long ago, the world has had had electricity, but here in Nigeria, we don’t have electricity. I can’t even dignify such kind of conversations, we need to get things sorted, we need to have electricity, we need to have roads. The people selling tomatoes should be able to get it around the whole country, the people selling in the market should be able to get their stuff around the whole Africa, that’s when the world will take us seriously, that’s when Africa will grow.
Q: Still in the same line, what’s your view about the 14 years jail term in Nigeria for the LGBT community?
A: You are still asking me questions about sexuality in a country where there is no light. Whether the person is gay, or straight, or whatever else the person is, they don’t have light—they don’t have light to cook, they don’t have light to produce things, and they don’t produce things, they can’t sell, and if they cannot sell, they cannot feed their children. What is wrong with us? Why are we having this conversation? Why do not have real conversations about us not having light? And that is not just the only problem we have. I cannot dignify these kinds of things. In my mind, I feel it’s a waste and I detest waste. There are very few things I detest, and waste is one of it—and that is one thing I don’t like about how we act in Nigeria, we waste time, we waste people, we waste resources, we waste money and even waste life. God will be angry with us for being wasteful and I don’t want to participate in waste.
Q: The 2023 is fast approaching, and we have myriads of people who are contesting on different political parties, from Tinubu, Atiku to Peter Obi, who among them do you think would move Nigeria forward?
A: We will help us to move us forward. In my own opinion, I think that Nigerians are too focused on the ‘who’ not the ‘what’. We have always been too focused on the ‘who’ not the ‘what’ and the reason we are focused on the ‘who’ is because we don’t want to do our homework. We are always seeking a messiah, if it’s not ‘Oyinbo’ who will solve the problem, then it is our own concept of God. You know, we always look for solutions in other things and the bible, just like all other holy books states that we have already been given authority and dominion over everything. God will be looking at us and sighs because we already carry the God code in us to be able to have solved our problems. So, to me, 2023 is not our problem, 2023 is just a continuum of where we are—Nations are not built overnight.
What I can say about 2023 is, one—let’s be going, two—the ‘who’ should be determined by the ‘what’, when I listen to everyone talking. I noticed they are always fixated about the personality of the persons involved and the ‘who’ that is involved, and not the ‘what’ that is involved. Even today, in our work field, how difficult it is for us to get our work done. How is it easy to find skilled people to do anything that you want to do? So, what’s going to happen is that somewhere along the line, the only kind of people with leadership that might change this country is the pragmatic one that focuses more on upscale—we need to upscale our infrastructure—we need to upscale our people, so that we become more productive. If that is not the conversation, we are wasting our time. I spent the last ten years out of Nigeria, coming back, I have noticed how things have changed, some for good and some now worse. I am not even a fan of good or bad, I think that those are perspective and whatever you make of it. So, I think that 2023 will come, and whosoever is going to emerge, will emerge, but I think the attitude of the people will go a long way. We are talented, strong and industrious. The day we come to our senses it will be clear to everyone else. 2023 will come and go, just like every other time, we are in the process.
Q: Do you have any political ambition in the future?
A: I have never watched and complain. I have never felt like I am not contributing. I used to speak a lot loudly, because I thought other people were coming along for us to do things. I didn’t know that people just enjoyed complaining. When we talk about leadership, I think that leadership is not a title for anyone. I think that at different points in our lives, all of us are in a position to lead and the other time to follow. I think each of us should know when to lead and when to follow. In terms of going into politics, I don’t think it’s my best voice, and I am very focused on using my best voice. I don’t know what the future might hold, I have come to a point where there is nothing that is set for me—I don’t go about saying in I’m this or that because everything can change. For me, the most beautiful thing about technology is that it has shown us, how it is at the end of the day you can program things differently. Once the core is the same everything remains the same, if you shift the core, you can change a lot of things. So, for me, never say never. However, as far as I know of myself, Funmi Iyanda, it is not my best voice, but I am aware that as a person, at any given point in my life, I am either playing both leadership and followership role as the need be, and at every point in my life, I have always contributed through story telling—through the things I am talented in, towards shifting perspective. So, I don’t feel the need to shout, especially not now anymore.
Q: Who inspires you as a woman?
A: As I said earlier—first of all, I see myself as human, and I don’t wake up wanting to be like someone else. People expect women to be inspired by other women, it is a limitation—you are limiting what a woman is capable of. I am inspired by ‘what’ and not ‘who’. So first and foremost, I am usually inspired by nature, and what literally inspires me about nature is just observing how things come to be and even with people. It is what they do that inspires and interests me. So, for instance, Kazim who did my make-up inspires me, I am inspired by how he does it—like him, anyone who does something great and right fascinates and inspires me in the moment. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. So, I cannot say that there is a particular person that inspires me because I am constantly getting inspiration from everything around me.