The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.

Georgia Arnold is the executive producer of hit MTV series Shuga and the senior vice president for social responsibility at Viacom International Media Networks. Shuga is ‘set against the clubs, bars and student hangouts of Lagos’ telling ‘a bitter-sweet tale of love, betrayal, relationships and heartache in Lagos.’

Launched in 2008 the show was originally set in Kenya but has relocated to Lagos and is now popularly known as Shuga Naija. Shuga is part of MTV’s initiative to engage young Africans across the continent with issues related to pregnancy, HIV, domestic violence and more. The fourth season just launched this September.

Tell us about yourself!

I’ve been working at MTV/Viacom for 21 years now! I started as a temp and then got myself a job as PA to the chief-exec a year later… and somehow I never walked out of the door. When I joined MTV, the company was so much smaller than it is now and I was given responsibility for our $5000 charity budget and told to ‘figure out what we should do with it’, to find an issue that was relevant to a growing international organisation.

I’ve only every had wonderful experiences on my travels across the continent throughout my career. I’ve seen the best that Africa has to offer.

This was the mid-90s when HIV/AIDS was at its absolute peak and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to think: young people + global + sex = HIV campaign. So back in 1998, Staying Alive was launched as a one-off documentary looking at stories of young people affected and infected by HIV. From there, it’s grown to become a registered charity, MTV Staying Alive Foundation which I run. It’s become the largest HIV prevention media campaign in the world and we give out small start-up grants to young people working in HIV prevention within their communities.

I’m about as un-African as it gets. I’m not only a vegetarian (I don’t think anyone has heard of ‘vegetarians’ in Africa!) but I’m also a Tottenham Hotspur fan – this fact causes enormous hilarity when I tell people on my travels. Despite the baggage of being a Spurs fan in Africa, I’ve only ever had wonderful experiences on my travels across the continent throughout my career. I’ve seen the best that Africa has to offer: from the wonderful, beautiful and diverse landscapes to the amazing, inspiring, driven and ambitious young people, who – without fail – are each so proud of their own country. This, I feel, is uniquely African. You certainly don’t get the same national pride when you travel to other continents and I love it!

How difficult was it to get actors to star in a programme about sex and what has been the reception of Shuga?

We’ve never had a problem getting actors to star in MTV Shuga, but I think partly that’s because we ensure that they’re well briefed on all of the issues that their characters cover. However, I do think that our actors are brave, as the audience won’t always distinguish between the ‘character’ and the real-life actor. So an actor who’s playing an HIV-positive character or a wife-beater is really being brave by putting themselves on screen in this way.

When Emmanuel Ikubese saw the script from Season 2 when his character Femi discovers he’s HIV positive, he was really concerned about how he would develop in Season 3. His first thought was that he’d be playing a role where he would be ‘ill and miserable’ all the time. But it’s credit to Emmanuel who realised that just because Femi is HIV positive, it doesn’t mean that he loses his innate characteristics.

He’s now one of our strongest spokespeople on stigma, discrimination and he heads up a campaign in Nigeria on domestic violence. I’m so impressed at how he’s grown personally since he got involved with MTV Shuga.

Of course, I’m incredibly proud that the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o’s very first role was starring as ‘Ayira’ in the first season of MTV Shuga… and we’re always looking for who our next Oscar-winning performer will be in the next series!

This is really what MTV Shuga’s about: an audience who not only love what we do, but an audience whose attitudes change (for the better!)

We get incredibly positive reactions to MTV Shuga. When we launched the new season within six weeks, we’d had over a million views of it on YouTube (and it’s growing). What’s great about the conversations that we have with our audience is that they not only tell us how much they love the show but they share with us their own personal stories and tell us that they’ve gone to get tested after seeing the latest episode.

This is really what MTV Shuga’s about: an audience who not only love what we do but an audience whose attitudes change (for the better!) because of watching MTV Shuga and an audience who take action (e.g. getting tested for HIV) because of MTV Shuga. In four months earlier this year, we tested 48,000 young Nigerians using the Shuga brand!

The ‘bad’ reactions are complaints that the new season is only six episodes long and why can’t we make it longer.

Who’s your African of the year?

I’d like to nominate Mallah Talbot for my African of the year. Mallah is an amazing young Cameroonian, who was an MTV Staying Alive grantee and now sits on the board (so she’s my boss!). She launched United Vision, which targets young women in rural Cameroon to empower them and provide them not only with HIV information but crucially – and often overlooked – negotiation skills.

This year, Mallah was one of the inaugural ‘Queen’s Young Leaders’ and I had the privilege of going to Buckingham Palace to watch her getting her award from Queen Elizabeth II. I felt such pride in watching this young woman be recognised for her incredible and selfless work. Mallah is a powerful African woman, and one who epitomises how someone with youthful enthusiasm can develop into a young and driven leader that the world is impressed by.

Follow Georgia on Twitter @georgiaarnold

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