By Paul Ndiho
June 4, 2012
Nollywood films are growing in popularity in Africa, because they often touch on issues that many people across the continent can identify with. Now, an online distribution company is sending the movies into the homes of Africans, cutting out a notorious layer of pirates.
UK based iRoko TV, dubbed the “Netflix of Africa”, and is the continent’s leading online subscription and distribution service for TV and Nigerian movies. The platform streams content directly to avid consumers in amazing high-definition quality.
31-year old Nigerian-born Jason Njoku, the founder and CEO of i-Roko TV, says the idea came to him when he realized his family and friends in London had an insatiable appetite for Nollywood films, but were always struggling to get the latest releases.
“Being that I lived with mom again, I was going to aunties and uncle’s houses and friends and families in the Nigerian community in London. And they were all watching this similar type of movies. I was just — how have I missed this huge movement, huge phenomenon in Nigerian cinema and i am a media guy? So i task myself which is to find out more about the industry.”
Since January, iRoko TV has recorded about three-thousand titles and signed-up over 100-thousand subscribers. The films are currently distributed for free because revenue is made from advertising, but, starting in June, subscribers will have to pay for the service.
Nollywood films are often tales of cannibalism, witchcraft and weeping girlfriends who put curses on their errant boyfriends – but Nigeria’s nearly one-billion dollar film industry is Africa’s biggest after India’s Bollywood and America’s Hollywood.
Njoku says iRoko’s wide-ranging viewership spans from Africa– to the diaspora, with the largest markets being in the united states, the U.K., Canada, Germany and Italy, mostly because of the high-broadband penetration.
“Production values are probably not as high as what people would expect in the west, but it’s not really about the production value it’s about the stories. Why people who have access to everything in the west are going on to a computer and watch Nollywood movies? It’s because they connect to it somehow and that’s where the story comes in, that’s where the cost comes in, that’s where the actors and actresses come in.”
Njoku says Nollywood churns out about 50 low-budget films a week. To find the movies for distribution, he had to move back home and physically find the production houses, many of which did not have offices and were often a setup of one man and his cellphone.
Producers eventually got acquainted with the idea– and now they call him. But, piracy is rampant, and producers lose out on huge amounts of revenue from the illegal sale of their copyrighted films and music.
Njoku says with better internet penetration in Africa, where millions of fans still rely on DVD’s that are often illegal copies, the market is set to grow tremendously in the next five years.
“In London, we have more viewers in London than we do have in the whole of Nigeria. But when you think, how many Nigerians Africans are even in London compared to the 150 million or so in Nigeria? So once the broadband penetration improves then we expect to see a massive surge in sort of interest in Africa. So my prediction is by five years’ time we’re talking about an African business as opposed to being a western one.
Award-winning filmmaker, Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, often referred to as the “father of Nollywood”, says iRoko TV is creating a new avenue for films to be seen, and in turn, eliminating piracy and making sure film revenues go to the right people.
“What iRoko is doing is going to help our industry but, the only challenge i foresee which i am not praying for it to happen, typical of Nigerian industries, there is always this ingenuity in us Africans, especially Nigerian to circumvent whatever someone has created and he thinks is full proof,” he said.
While some of Africa’s expertly trained filmmakers disdain Nigeria’s commercial approach, others believe it is filling a gap which will bring dividends in the long run.
IRoko TV employs 100 people on three continents and recently 8 million dollars of funding through the U.S.-based investment manager, tiger global.
“… A great thing is that as long as our viewers love what we’re doing, and then we’re going to be okay as a company,”
About one-thousand movies are produced in Nollywood each year – most are in local languages – Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, while English accounts for more than 40 percent of the films produced.