Why the Streamers Are (Finally) Investing in Africa

The year 2022 could be when the global media industry finally starts taking Africa seriously.

A string of recent deals among African film and TV producers and global studios and streamers marks a sharp change from the decades in which African talent and the African market were neglected, ignored, or dismissed.

“I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, and it’s only now that we’re seeing this real explosion, a real tipping point, for African content,” says Nigerian TV pioneer Mo Abudu. “The reality of the marketplace has changed.”

Abudu’s company, EbonyLife Media, has been a prime beneficiary of that change. In 2020, EbonyLife shut down its pan-African television channel, which was available across the continent, to focus on the more lucrative, and growing, the business of production, particularly with international streamers. It was the first African company to sign a multititle deal with Netflix for features — human trafficking drama Oloture, domestic abuse drama Blood Sisters, and the period epic Death and the King’s Horseman, based on the 1975 play by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka — as well as series, including Nigerian legal drama Castle & Castle, about a husband and wife who run a law firm. Other EbonyLife projects in the pipeline include a dystopian sci-fi series, Nigeria 2099, set up as a co-production with AMC; Reclaim, a six-part heist thriller that will kick off a co-production deal between EbonyLife and BBC Studios and which follows a team of art thieves looking to steal back Nigerian works poached by the British Empire 125 years ago; and an action series, developed with Sony Pictures Television, about the historical all-female West African army the Dahomey Warriors — an inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje of Marvel’s Black Panther.

In 2021, EbonyLife inked a multi-project development deal with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Studios for a slate of Africa-based series and features and successfully pitched Will Packer Productions and Universal Studios on a thriller based on the life of Nigerian Instagram celebrity and alleged fraudster Ramon Olorunwa Abbas, popularly known as Hushpuppi.

“We now have a satellite office in the U.K. and an office in the U.S. where we can pitch global stories about Africans,” says Abudu.

In the past month, Amazon has signed two major licensing deals with Nigeria’s Inkblot Studios and Anthill Studios, its first agreements with African production companies. Disney+, which plans to launch on the continent this year, starting with South Africa, has greenlighted Kizazi Moto: Generation of Fire, a 10-part animated anthology series, with Cape Town-based animation house Triggerfish, which will feature short films by directors from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Egypt.

At 2021’s Annecy Animation Festival, Disney unveiled the first images for Iwájú, a science-fiction series steeped in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture and produced with pan-African studio Kugali Media. On the live-action side, Disney is backing Greek Freak, a feature from Nigerian director Akin Omotoso about NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Athens to Nigerian parents.

Netflix, whose service accounts for more than half of the continent’s streaming subscriptions, debuted its first African originals in 2020, beginning with South African spy thriller Queen Sono and Cape Town teen drama Blood & Water. Netflix’s first Nigerian commission, which premiered in August, was King of Boys: The Return of the King, a seven-part series sequel to Kemi Adetiba’s hit 2018 gangster drama King of Boys and featuring Nollywood star Sola Sobowale as a ruthless mafioso-style businesswoman. In 2020, Netflix signed a development deal with John Boyega’s UpperRoom Productions to produce non-English films set in West and East Africa. The streamer’s current African slate ranges from sci-fi animated series Team 4 and the historic drama Amina — which premiered Nov. 4 and became the first Nigerian title to make Netflix’s global top 10 list — to A Naija Christmas, billed as the first African Christmas movie.

“There’s been a tremendous change. Just three to four years ago, you would have struggled to sell an African film to a big international platform, and financing was always difficult,” says Kunle Afolayan, director and producer of A Naija Christmas, whose recent dramas Citation and Swallow have also gone to Netflix. “Usually, I would make one film in two years. Last year, I made two films in a single year.”

Netflix and the studios are pitching their African investment as an overdue corrective to how Hollywood has long portrayed the continent and its people.

“In the past, African stories have been told by outsiders,” says Ben Amadasun, director of content in Africa for Netflix, speaking via Zoom from Nigeria. “We want to help local talent bring their stories to the world.”

There also are practical business reasons for the international push into Africa. Subscription numbers for Netflix in North America are stagnant, and growth in many territories, including Western Europe, is slowing. But Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is “an untapped market,” according to Tony Maroulis, principal analyst for London-based Ampere Analysis. “The reason for this focus on Africa is simply because the [streaming] penetration is very, very low there,” he says. “In North America, about 50 percent of households have a Netflix subscription, a figure that’s pretty stable. In Western Europe, penetration is just under a third. In South America, just over a quarter. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s less than 1 percent. So there’s lots of room for growth.”

Maroulis estimates there are now some 1.4 million subscription video-on-demand users in sub-Saharan Africa, a figure “we expect to grow to 2.4 million by 2026.” (Countries in Northern Africa, including Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt, are typically grouped together with the markets of Europe and the Middle East.)

Digital TV Research, another London-based data cruncher, is more bullish, estimating there are already 5.1 million SVOD subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa and that their numbers will nearly triple, to slightly more than 15 million, by 2027.

Even the more optimistic figures are a fraction of the streaming audience elsewhere. Netflix alone has 73 million users in North America and about 38 million in Latin America, a region with roughly half the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

The global investment in African content as part of a broader strategy by studios and streamers to copy the successful Netflix model by producing local content for local audiences. Disney+ has greenlighted a slate of new European and Asian local-language originals, including new series from France, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia. Amazon is already a major drama producer in India and Japan and recently upped its commitment in Southeast Asia, opening an office in Singapore to coordinate licensing and production activities for the region. And WarnerMedia’s HBO Max is doubling down on local-language productions from its hubs in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Africa is just a part of this global expansion. And, currently, a relatively small part.

“The SVOD market in sub- Saharan Africa, in terms of revenue, was about $107 million in 2021, which is not that much [given] a North American market worth $40 billion,” says Maroulis, “and the investment by Netflix, for example, in the African content is still relatively small in the grand scheme of things. What they’re doing is trying to establish a presence in Africa so that when the market does take off, they’ll be the default service.”

For now, the bulk of international investment in African content is going to three countries: Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, all of which have established film and TV industries and large English-speaking populations.

“We haven’t seen much investment here, in Senegal, yet, or West Africa,” says Pamela Diop, producer of Jean Luc Herbulot’s horror crime mash-up Saloum, a Midnight Madness favorite at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival and the first project from Diop and Herbulot’s Dakar-based Lacme Studios. “But as the markets develop, maybe that will come.”

Abudu thinks it will.

“There’s been a shift in audience appetite and a shift, a recognition, by the studios and the screeners, that everyone isn’t your typical white, blond-haired viewer,” she says. “If streamers want those global subscribers, if they want our money, they have to provide the content that this changing world wants.”

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