A glamour blogger, a filmmaker and a tech mogul are competing to create a homegrown African rival to Netflix, but poor internet connections and intense competition are proving daunting obstacles.
They dream of popularizing access to films made in Nigeria, which is home to the world’s second biggest movie industry in terms of production behind Hindi-language Bollywood.
With nearly $4 billion in revenue and almost 2,000 productions every year, films made in what is known as Nollywood are largely sold on the streets and to idling motorists caught in traffic as pirated copies for just a few dollars.
Local start-ups and Nollywood stars understand the interest in changing the distribution of films that are hugely popular across Africa, where cinemas are few and far between.
With such a huge potential market, video-on-demand platforms have sprung up in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and home to the country’s film industry.
And competition is already fierce.
Netflix of Africa?
Blogger Linda Ikeji — one of Nigeria’s biggest names on social networks — recently launched Linda Ikeji TV (LITV) to great fanfare.
It offers dozens of films, series and programmes inspired by US shows but with a Nollywood twist for a monthly fee of 1,000 naira ($2.80, 2.35 euros).
“We are hoping to be to Africa what Netflix is to the world,” Ikeji wrote on her Instagram page, which has some two million followers.
She promised glamour, sass and humor, particularly with reality shows such as “Football Wives” or “Highway Girls of Eko”, “a show on real-life prostitutes” in Lagos.
The 37-year-old former model-turned-businesswoman made her fortune through advertising revenue on her site, which tracked the lives of Nigeria’s rich and famous.
She said she had invested “half-a-billion naira” of capital in the project. As well as buying video, she is also making original content from her own studios in Lagos.
Before the end of the year, Nigerian company Envivo is expected to launch its own platform with an initial investment of more than $20 million, said filmmaker Chioma Ude, who is the firm’s marketing director.
“(US telecoms giant) Cisco wants a big footprint in Africa, and as our technical partner, they will provide all the technology, from the network to the video compressions, etc,” the founder of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) told AFP.
‘Prohibitive’ data costs
A viable economic model for the promoters of Nollywood online still needs to be found, given the lack of widespread high-speed internet coverage.
Only 34 percent of Africans have internet access compared with more than 50 percent in the rest of the world, according to the 2018 Global Digital report.
But Africa showed the biggest progression in internet users last year, especially through mobile telephones.
Serge Noukoue, organizer of the annual Nollywood Week in Paris, said price was everything and the African consumer wanted to pay “as little as possible” to watch a film.
“Even iROKOtv, the pioneer on the continent, doesn’t really make a profit,” he said.
“They have had a lot of success in fundraising but what subscribers actually bring in is less conclusive.”
Jason Njoku founded iROKOtv in 2010 but said he made a mistake to count on streaming from the start. “It simply couldn’t work,” he explained.
“Data costs were prohibitive, as is access to reliable broadband across huge swathes of the continent. Our customer service team was inundated with queries.
“We totally rebuilt our product and rebuilt our entire company around the African consumer and their habits.”
That led to an application that ate less data and which allows free mobile downloads of video files.
There is original content, while films have also been subtitled in French, Swahili and Zulu to make them more accessible to other African countries.
Competitors have emerged elsewhere in Africa in recent years, including Kenya’s BuniTV ($5-a-month) or South Africa’s Magic Go ($8-a-month).
“If these online platforms don’t make money yet they’re a bet on the future for when connections are better,” said Noukoue.
“A lot of projects have been created but there will not be room for everyone in the market in the long term. Competition will be fierce.”
Giants of the sector such as Netflix, which in 2016 launched in Africa, could outshine the continent’s video-on-demand pioneers in years to come.
“Netflix doesn’t yet have a real Africa strategy but it’s started to produce original African content. That will be a game-changer.
“It has considerable means at its disposal that the others don’t have.”