The rise of influencer culture in Nigeria

Opening up any social media app and scrolling through your feed, it doesn’t take but a minute before you stumble across an influencer posting about the latest product in town, be it a wig, a pair of shoes, a new skincare product, or an alcoholic drink. Influencers are the new class of celebrities taking over our feeds and in some cases our hearts; but still, even as more people in Nigeria become digitised and the influencer job description grows in legitimacy and genuine currency (lots of it), the term carries with it a negative connotation.

Influencer’ is one of those words that has been rendered somewhat derogatory, owing in parts to its ubiquity. The influencer is, firstly, both a lifestyle and occupation for one to aspire to, if you have the right elements to become one, but also a title to hate on if you’re unable to infiltrate this class of pseudo-celebs getting all the freebies from your favourite brands. Though the actual role of an influencer is simple – in essence a contracted individual hired to promote a product or service – the label is a contentious one, and for Tobi Ojora, who began as a fitness influencer, the checkered history of the creative occupation made her hesitant to engage with her growing audience.

‘I had sort of a rocky relationship with the term ‘influencer’ because of the negative connotations it has gained over the years but the narrative is beginning to shift– I think it’s becoming more than just posting clothes and getting likes’.

Tobi only started warming up to the idea when she realised that she was able to use her growing platform to educate and inform her followers about the many injustices women face in society. This is a sentiment mirrored by other young influencers today, like Naomi Offor, known online as ixxuvi, who uses her platform to impart moral values and educate her followers when action needs to be taken. Influencing has come a long way from just being about the latest fashion trends, and we’re starting to see more and more influencers wield their platforms as an educational and informative tool for their audiences.

 

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Whereas before, traditional 9-5 jobs were all we had to look forward to on our trajectory to success by societal standards, today the creative industries are getting their due as more and more millennials and Gen Zers are turning to this growing mode of employ to make their coins and hone their creative crafts. But don’t be fooled, creating content that can be monetised is not as effortless as the pictures on your feed might suggest. As more people tap into the influencer pool, and as more apps emerge, giving potential influencers another avenue to enact their public sway, the competition between influencers becomes more vigorous. What sets them apart? The numbers.

With the advent of technology and social media, we’ve begun to attribute the worth of a person or idea to how well they fair on social media – judging by how many likes, views, clicks, and shares it was able to garner. The more views an influencer is getting on their page, the more brands trust that their products are getting to as many eyes as possible – it’s a simple marketing technique primed to generate more sales in this capitalist world.

But this isn’t to overlook another important ingredient in an influencer’s success story: their ability to form an authentic connection with their following. This is how the top influencers are able to affect the spending habits of their followers. With viewers invested in their signature aesthetics or larger-than-life personalities, there is a level of trust built by the influencer, to their audience, just by the sheer authenticity and seemingly close proximity between the influencer and their audience. With this assumed proximity – that stems from the fact that this generation of influencers keeps fans religiously updated on their lives – influencers become the tastemakers through which their audiences make decisions, whether that be fashion, beauty, or even lifestyle choices like where to travel or which concerts to attend.

The most notorious incident of such untamed social media influence is the Fyre Festival. Back in 2017, Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule pulled off one of the biggest scams of the century, failing to host the multiple-day luxury event now famously known – thanks to Netflix – as “the festival that never happened”. Taking place in the Bahamas, the Fyre festival became a catastrophic disaster when millions were left stranded and shelterless after flying over to the remote island venue for the event.

The problem began with a boatload of influencers. The experience promised by Instagram’s finest, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, Emily Ratajkowski and the likes, through ads and various social media posts, was far different from the experience that concert-goers received. Following the Fyre Festival fiasco, many called for the death of influencer culture, as the callous indifference from the esteemed influencers as to whether people got their money’s worth after the festival’s demise exposed the fact that influencer marketing is inextricably linked to consumerism and hinged on capitalistic exploitation.

But still, influencer culture continued to blossom. It still thrives and, daily, reaches new heights. People, especially young people, want to see how influencers live, they want to hear who they’re wearing, which products they’ve just bought, who’s rendering their essential services, and they want to know all this even in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. When Jackie Aina uses her platform to demand change from brands, we see the workings in their subsequent actions, and this is the true crux of social media influencing; the ability to inspire people you’ve never met. When content creator and influencer, MelissaWardrobe posts a picture wearing the latest It-dress, in a second these items are sold out, all purchased by a community of young women across the internet proudly brandishing the hashtag #MelMadeMeDoIt to signal their culpability in the sold-out spree.

 

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Unlike in Western countries where influencers were borne out of blog culture and close proximity to Hollywood stars, influencers here have not had quite that easy a trajectory to follow. Here in Nigeria, celebrity status, as either an entertainer or an artist, was the quickest way to get you a large following but not much else could boost you to a wider audience. That is until the onset of reality TV shows like with Big Brother Africa and subsequently, Big Brother Nigeria from which past housemates have had doors open up for them in other spheres of influence like film and music. Much like how reality tv shows such as ‘Love Island’ and ‘The Bachelor’ gave participants an entry into the celebrity social club, so were popular BBN housemates like Mercy Eke and Uti Nwachukwu able to leverage the internet to extend their time in the public eye – one need only be on Big Brother for a couple of episodes and the lasting buzz is enough to guarantee you are pushed into influencer-stardom, on the condition that you have the active personality to match.

Even still, before we got the current crop of influential GenZers, like the Amy Okoli‘s, Queendarerah‘s, and Diana Eneje‘s of today, we had popular public figures like Toke Makinwa, who capitalised on her huge following from her lifestyle blog, carving her own niche on the internet as that rich aunty you want to grow up to be. Social media also birthed the likes of influencers like Bobrisky, who’s infamous bleaching cream and gimmicks online endeared her to a host of new followers and eventually lead to brands and musicians reaching out to the Snapchat queen turned Instagram starlet when they need promotions.

As the landscape in Nigeria changes, we’re beginning to see a slew of young people who are determined to be their most authentic selves, whether that’s in music, or in film, from the likes of Sharon Ephraim, and now lifestyle entertainment with a new class of influencers who are doing things all on their own terms. For Amy Okoli, she never had any innate plans to become an influencer but found herself already doing the job following the release of her Youtube channel back in 2018. “It was through posting and promoting my Youtube content on my Instagram that brands started contacting me to work” she tells NATIVE. Soon enough, Amy had racked up an impressive CV that could rival any other girl in town. Other women like Ella, known to her 20.5k Instagram followers as The Wallflower, carved her niche on the internet first by being a model and then a fantastic video vixen.

“Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to try out modelling because it was something that I really liked. So I started doing a couple of shoots and I started posting these shoots online and from there, people took an interest in me. I have a way with my body and working the camera, and I [am] able to [use this to] sell fits.”

 

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The landscape has massively changed to the point that anyone can easily be an influencer today, but it’s the willingness to go the long run and develop skills like consistency and attention to detail that ensure a steady incline in the competitive industry. Tobi Ojora shares her working formula with me; after noting which posts got the most engagement, she tailored more content towards what people were more inclined to like. ‘I think I’ve been able to identify my ‘market’ pretty well. I know what my followers like to see, and I know what I like to post and what my style is, so I just merge the 2 – for example, I know that they love streetwear, but are a little less keen on florals and flowy dresses, but I like both, so I alternative and revolve around multiple styles to keep it interesting’.

We’re coming into times where the creative industry is witnessing a huge boom in stakeholders but factors like budget and funding are still a hindrance to those just starting out. Influencers in Nigeria bear the brunt of this. Naomi (@ixxuvi) shares how breaking into the industry was difficult, especially when she was just growing her followers, explaining, “I started off by doing a lot of free work for exposure and even after two years in this industry I still get requests to do so instead of being paid“. With the industry just in its infant stages, creatives professions like influencing are still not taken as seriously as they should and many influencers spend a good amount of time trying to establish that trust with brands that are willing to pay them what they are worth.

Even international brands have created a rep for underpaying influencers from these parts, or not paying them at all. Amy Okoli notes how these brands reach out to her for promotions but rather than pay her, they bank on exploiting her following for free promo though they do pay influencers from other countries.

“Starting out in Nigeria is hard because you quickly notice how international brands rank the influencers from African countries compared to those elsewhere”

Despite this pushback however, Amy Okoli remains unapologetic and unafraid to demand what she is worth, as the industry can be exploitative if you do not tread carefully. With Amy revealing how contracts are drawn up atrociously in favour of the brands who demand the influencer expend more than they are paid, it seems the Nigerian government ought to take a leaf out if Ghana’s book, investing in the creative industries so that we may properly protect our creatives from bad deals.

Nigeria still remains a socially conservative nation, but we can’t deny the strides that this new generation of creatives have made since starting out their careers. In today’s world, all it takes is one viral moment to usher you into influencer-stadorm and here in Nigeria, as we continue to see the creative industry grow, more influencers are going to be born. Thanks to the help of apps like TikTok and platforms like Youtube, we’re going to be seeing the rise of more GenZers able to catch the attention of the internet. It’s already happening and from what we can tell, the kids are doing more than alright.

Feature image credits/NATIVE


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