Five years ago, Jason Njoku set out on his entrepreneurial journey. He had one simple plan; set Nollywood free. At the time, Nollywood, Nigeria’s entertainment village, was pretty popular. It was the world’s third biggest movie industry, only topped by America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. But Jason saw a bigger opportunity. Despite Nollywood’s popularity, it was barely visible beyond its home market and parts of West and Southern Africa, therefore, taking it online would make it more accessible to the West, and more importantly Nigerians in Diaspora. It was a brilliant idea. Nigerians in Diaspora were equipped with better internet infrastructure and a fairly higher income than most at home, making it the right blend to attract subscription and revenue.
Since it took off in 2011, iROKOtv, the brand under which Jason floated his Nollywood business idea, has attracted more than $26 million from investors and channel subscriptions in Africa grew from 3 percent to 11 percent of the user base in 2014, at a y-o-y rate of 457 percent. However, the last few months have seen the original plan tweaked a bit. iROKOtv has introduced Hollywood series into its offerings and has hinted that it plans to showcase blockbuster movies from the American movie industry. This begs the question: Has Nollywood streaming lost its appeal?
Jason doesn’t think so. He told me in an email last week that his primary aim was to set Nollywood content free and give it the distribution platform it deserved. “I believe we’ve done that, and more” he acclaimed. adding that the company’s decision to diversify its product offerings was motivated by its existing consumers. Jason goes on to discuss the impact iROKOtv has had on the Nigerian movie industry and plans it has for the future.
It’s been about 5 years since the revolutionary iROKOtv took off, can you summarize the progress it has made within this short space?
In five years, we’ve transitioned from my two room apartment in Festac with a team of less than 20, streaming Nollywood movies on YouTube, into a VC-backed dedicated SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) platform with a global team of over 100 with offices in Lagos, New York, Johannesburg and Kigali. We’ve gone from simply licensing movies from producers, to co-producing our own movies, as well as selling content to broadcasters around the world, as well as in-flight services. As of this week, we have also diversified our distribution to include linear TV, having launched two TV channels, IROKO Play and IROKO Plus, on StarTimes.
In short, we’ve totally disrupted and reorganised the distribution of Nollywood.
Has iROKOtv been able to achieve (or a significant part) of the vision it stated during inception?
Our vision was really quite simple – to set Nollywood content free and give it the distribution platform it deserved. I believe we’ve done that, and more. We’ve not only brought Nollywood to a much larger, global audience, but through our considerable investment, we’ve also helped to elevate the quality of what’s now being released. Producers are now able to better monetize their content and can reinvest their higher profit margins into better facilities, equipment and so on. I hope that we have had a positive effect on Nollywood, improving the industry for both producers / directors, as well as fans.
What is (or are) the most prominent challenge(s) iROKOtv has faced so far?
Carving out a whole new distribution model for an entire film industry has seen many challenges – very few of them are insurmountable but they do require huge investments, not only in money, but also time. Technology has been the most consistent challenge we’ve had to face throughout the company’s existence. Unlike our VOD counterparts around the world, we’re working in a bandwidth-light environment, where the majority of our audience doesn’t have access to fast or cost-effective internet, which means we have to really consider how we optimize our site and compress our content so that one film doesn’t eat up a viewer’s entire data allocation. We’re working on an Android app at the moment which will, we hope, address a lot of the problems that our viewers in Africa are presented with.
Will you say iROKOtv has been able to help address the issues (e.g piracy) the Nollywood?
We’ve challenged the pirates online, by ensuring any content that is legally licensed to us but is found streaming illegally on other sites, is taken down. In terms of the wider issue of pirated hard copies of movies, that’s an industry that grows ever more sophisticated each day, and is something that needs to be tackled by the industry as a whole. I’m sad to say that Nollywood piracy is bigger than IROKO, we cannot fight it on our own.
Has iROKOtv been able to alter the status quo, particularly in the sales and distribution aspect of the movie industry value chain?
We’ve not just altered the status quo, we’ve redefined the industry and added inexorable value, having developed and pioneered a whole new distribution arm for Nollywood, pumping millions of dollars into the industry and giving viewers a better choice of what they can watch, wherever they are. We don’t do ‘status quo’ at IROKO – we’re continuously looking to disrupt wherever possible. We don’t stand still and we don’t accept the norm.
We noticed that iROKOtv recently added foreign content (series shows) to its content offering. What motivated this strategy?
Our audience motivated this strategy. We speak to IROKOtv viewers all day every day, to garner a sense of how they use the site, what content they want to see, what we can improve upon etc. and it was clear from our viewers in Africa that whilst they loved Nollywood, they also wanted better access to international content, but were unable to pay for costly pay TV subscriptions. This is why we launched IROKOtv.com Africa last year, to bring international content, at a good price, to Africa. Our audience speaks, we listen, we put into place.
Will you say Nollywood streaming is losing the hype with implementation of this new strategy?
Not at all – our first love and the core of our business is Nollywood – that will remain the case for many, many years to come. With the introduction of international content to our catalogue, we wanted to complement our Nollywood movies and provide additional content to our loyal fanbase, as well as reach out to new audiences who may prefer Bollywood or Telenovelas to Nollywood. It’s really just about giving people a choice and broadening our appeal beyond a solely Nollywood audience.
In the next 5 years, which of these scenarios is likely to play out for iROKOtv: Luring more nollywood savvy customers or building a much more diverse stream of content offering (more foreign)?
Both. But with a strong emphasis on Nollywood. Our ethos is simple – setting content free and providing mass audiences, in Africa and around the world, with the very best content at an affordable price.