Executive Group International and Storm to start shooting Africa's version of The Apprentice in January

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Two weeks ago a crowd of hopefuls sat in the Serena Hotel in Kampala waiting for their turn to audition for Africa’s version of the Apprentice, the search for business person show that has been popular in the USA (with Donald Trump as the host) and in the UK (with Sir Alan Sugar). In January 2008, a Nigerian-American production company called Executive Group International will start shooting. Russell Southwood sees what all the hoopl-la is all about.

The smartly-dressed Kampala candidates sat waiting nervously and looked outwardly as if they were going for a job interview, which in a way they were. The winner from this search for a business will get an annual salary of US$200,000, a luxury vehicle and a job in Nigerian host Biodun Shobanji’s company. The Ugandan candidates included doctors, lawyers, tax consultants, insurance brokers and journalists. Each of the last 10 were taken through a Q&A session where they had to explain what drove them, their greatest fear, the fictional character they admired the most, their definition of success and how badly they wanted to be on the show. They were then asked to perform a one-minute "feat" that would impress the CEO into choosing them over their competitors.

The programme will introduce 18 selected candidates from a number of African countries (including Nigeria, South Africa, United Kingdom, Ghana, Tanzania, London and Kenya) in the sixteen week reality show. According to the show’s producers, the reality series will focus on education, leadership, management skill sets, entertainment and introduce to the Africa-wide viewing audience varying African contestants who will learn to work together through professional and personal adversity. At the end of each episode one of the candidates is fired.

However, as anyone who is familiar with the show in its previous incarnations knows, it is the theatre of the host telling the contestants “the story of their lives” before firing them and the accompany circus of contestants slagging each other off and occasionally sleeping with each other (off screen, we hasten to add) that gets the audience’s adrenalin running.

The Apprentice was originally developed by Mark Burnett, who successfully brought Survivor to the USA. The format has already had its first outing on the continent with a version in South Africa that was fronted by ANC “mover and shaker” and businessman Tokyo Sexwale. The new version for the rest of Africa has been created by the Executive Group and Storm Vision Ltd and in Nigeria it has teamed up in partnership with Bank PHB. The Executive Group pitches itself as an investment vehicle that will be making investments in television productions, energy and real estate.

The show’s host could only really be Nigerian as it has a number of successful self-made entrepreneurs who have the outspokenness widely famed across the continent. The chosen Nigerian is Biodun Shobanjo (known as Shobee) who is known as the “father of Nigerian advertising” and is currently the Chair of the Troyka Group and Insight Grey, Nigeria’s largest advertising agency. He gets the title of founding father as the best known of a trio of bright professionals who set up a tiny firm and then grew it into a conglomerate of seven thousand staff over twenty-five years. He has cultivated his image by wearing bow-ties and tailored suits.

He started life in broadcasting thirty six years ago but left to produce advertising commercials. An interview in African Business gives a flavour of his style: “I’m driven by success. People say I’m very aggressive. I have no apologies for that because winning is everything. You’ve got to come first and to come first, you’ve got to work very hard. These are things I imbibed from a very young age.”

He has also clearly dealt with having to make hard choices about people:” “People have disappointed me in the course of time. I think it’s a Nigerian phenomenon. You tell a man to run a business, this same man has everything going for him but you later discover that he has floated a parallel company to the company you gave him to run. That’s been a low point for me. You just wonder why people will do that kind of thing. You find people who you think are part of you and they then stab you in the back when you turn around, they try to take your business.”

The 17 tasks in The Apprentice Africa have been developed to showcase emerging sectors in the African economy like telecommunications, banking, aviation, hospitality and tourism. It will be interesting to see whether the show will be the start of Africans seeing themselves in a different way. No more the poor victim of a cruel global economy but active players in their own destinies.