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Investing in African entertainment and storytelling

MultiChoice is the world’s leading and most loved African story teller.

Chief Executive Officer for Connected Video for the MultiChoice Group, Yolisa Phahle is a creative at heart.

She started her career in music, as a classical pianist. Since then, she is a member of the MultiChoice Group executive team and serves as an independent non-executive director of the Phuthuma Nathi Board. Phuthuma Nathi is one of the country’s most successful Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) schemes which owns a 25% stake in the South African operations of the MultiChoice Group.

She holds an MBA from GIBS Business School. Tribe sat with this incredible modern leader, and she took us through how she constantly drives innovation within her content strategy.

Thrilled about how most recently, MultiChoice started collaborating with the best creative talent in the world, Reyka a co-production with Fremantle International, has been nominated for two International Emmy Awards. She is determined to make sure MultiChoice competes with the best in the world.

“The music business is tough: it’s highly competitive, it takes incredible discipline, practise, and you’re only as good as your last show.”   

You are the Chief Executive Officer for Connected Video for the MultiChoice Group. What triggered your inspiration for television?

My love for storytelling goes back as far as I can remember. As a child growing up in London, my parents would share stories of their childhood. They both grew up in South Africa. I was also lucky enough to grow up around other incredible South African storytellers like Grammy-nominated Hugh Masekela and the award-winning filmmaker Lionel Ngakane, both of whom were friends of my father. But my love for television came later.

When I was about 10 years old, my mother’s cousin from KZN came to stay with us in London. There wasn’t really much TV in South Africa then and he literally watched it all non-stop. By the time he left, I was also hooked. In fact, my sister and I watched so much that we didn’t do our homework, our housework or our piano practice, and my dad then got rid of the TV for a couple of months. In that time, I came to realise how much it meant. Back then it was live TV, no catch up, and no internet, and if you didn’t see the show you’d missed it and were left out of the conversations at school.  TV, or video entertainment as we call it today, is such a big part of life. It brings people together, can create incredible social cohesion, and it can educate, inform and also provide the escapism we all need.

 What does it take to be the world’s leading and most loved African storyteller?

 It takes an absolute commitment to your audience. This means giving them what they want, and also giving them things they never ever knew they wanted. And it takes investment. MCG is the biggest investor in telling African stories. We produce in 22 languages and counting, have a library of local titles that amounts to more than 70K hours, and are always looking for new ways to surprise and delight our viewers. We’ve just finished production on Shaka Ilembe. This is an epic production that tells the story of Africa’s most well-known king. But this remake is being told from our perspective. It’s 100% produced in Zulu, and the story starts before Shaka is born. We get to see how the circumstances of his birth shaped his ambition. We also delve deeply into the strong women who surrounded him and influenced the way in which history played out.

How do you constantly drive innovation within your content strategy?

We have an incredible team and Africa is an innovative place. We take risks, learn lessons and more recently have started collaborating with the best creative talent in the world. Reyka is a co-production with Fremantle International. It has been nominated for two International Emmy Awards and proves that as a company we can compete with the best in the world.

You started your career in music, as a classical pianist. How did you successfully assimilate from being an artist to serving as group executive, among other responsibilities?

The music business is tough: it’s highly competitive, it takes incredible discipline, practise, and you’re only as good as your last show. I learnt so much about taking the audience seriously, building a brand, team work and managing my own business. This has been so valuable. Playing for bands like Duran Duran, Jamiroquai, Take That and other top-selling artists taught me so much about taking responsibility and the power of good entertainment.

You have held several senior roles. To date, what has been the highlight of your career?
I’ve had many. The success of our Showmax local content strategy is a dream come true. I believe in the power of African film and television: to see that we really can compete with global competitors by investing in our own languages, creatives and stories is truly rewarding. Being part of our industry’s growth is a vocation.

What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
My sister was killed in a road accident in London in 2004. It was a devastating loss. I actually moved to South Africa in 2004, and in some ways starting work at M-Net in 2005 was the new challenge I needed.

Covid-19 made people turn to their screens more because of the lockdown restrictions. Did you face any challenges during this period?
Yes, many. The entire production industry shut down. We had to find a way to support our producers and creatives and then find a way to produce in a Covid-safe way. Blood Psalms and Reyka were both produced under strict Covid-safe regulations.

Many young women look up to you and are inspired by all the work you do. What advice do you have for those who one day hope to follow in your footsteps?
If I can do it, anyone can. The big thing is to find someone who believes in you. My mantra is that if you are a woman who has managed to climb the corporate ladder, be sure to give other women a chance. I have had this incredible opportunity because someone gave me a chance. MultiChoice is great at this. We have a number of female CEOs and gender equality is one of our core values.

The streaming service for Showmax Pro recently got a price reduction. What do you hope making it cheaper will do for your clients?
We would like as many people as possible to be able to enjoy the stories we tell.

IN THE KRAAL
WITH YOLISA PHAHLE

What relaxes you?  Yoga, family, playing piano duets with my son

Your favourite gadget? My laptop and phone. I’m addicted to them, which is not a good thing

Your favourite TV program?  Right now it’s The Wife on Showmax; S3 is coming in November.

Where would you want to go for a vacation?  Cape Town.

You cannot live without? My family.

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