New Media in West Africa

Thursday, November 8, 2012
7-9 PM

This forum launches the sixth Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT.


Despite many infrastructural and economic hurdles, entertainment media industries are burgeoning in West Africa. Today, the Nigerian cinema market--"Nollywood"--is the second largest in the world in terms of the annual volume of films distributed behind only the Indian film industry. And an era of digital distribution has empowered content created in Lagos, or Accra, to spread across geographic and cultural boundaries. New commercial models for distribution as well as international diasporic networks have driven the circulation of this material. But so has rampant piracy and the unofficial online circulation of this content. What innovations are emerging from West Africa? How has Nigerian cinema in particular influenced local television and film markets in other countries across West Africa, and across the continent? What does the increasing visibility of West African popular culture mean for this region--especially as content crosses various cultural contexts, within and outside the region? And what challenges does West Africa face in continuing to develop its entertainment industries? 


Derrick N. Ashong leads the band Soulfège, a group that produces an eclectic blend of hip-hop, reggae, funk, world beat and West African highlife music and has been featured in such major media as MTV Africa and NPR. Also known as DNA, which is the name of his blog, Ashong hosted Oprah Radio’s The Derrick Ashong Experience and Al-Jazeera English’s social media TV show The Stream.

Colin M. Maclay is the managing director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. Both as co-founder of Harvard's International Technologies Group and at Berkman, Maclay’s research pairs hands-on multi-stakeholder collaborations with the generation of data that reveal trends, challenges and opportunities for the integration of communications technologies in developing communities.

Fadzi Makanda is a business development manager in the New York office of iROKO Partners, a distributor of African--and particularly Nollywood--entertainment. Makanda leads the development and execution of U.S. advertising sales strategies for the company. 

Ralph Simon is founder of the Mobilium Advisory Group, which studies innovation in mobile usage in such countries as Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. He has served as an executive at Capitol Records, Blue Note Records, and EMI Music, and he co-founded the Zomba Group with Clive Calder of South Africa. Simon earned the title "Father of the Ring Tone" when he created the first ring tone company in 1997.


Video of New Media in West Africa is available.


A downloadable podcast of New Media in West Africa is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim trancsript.]

By Katie Edgerton, CMS

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

“There are 800 million mobile phone users in Africa,” said moderator Ralph Simon, founder of the Mobilium Advisory Group. “That’s expected to grow to one billion in a few years. In Africa, the smartphone currently has a negligible access. But there's also enormous growth in low-cost smart phones that are able to create good film and television content.” For the first time, Africans can easily create, consume, and distribute content globally. As a result, “we're seeing cultural impact from these developing countries as never before."

Ralph Simon
“Our objective tonight,” Simon continued, “is to first give the audience a sense of the latest developments of emerging entertainment in West Africa. Second, we hope to provide a view into what's happening with African music and creative products both inside Africa, and in the wider African diaspora. Third, we’ll look at how trends in West Africa, can touch the lives of people internationally.”

Fazdi Makanda, business development manager of the New York City of African film distributor iROKO Partners, kicked off the discussion with a “sizzle reel,” showing clips from iROKO’s films, the majority of which were produced by Nigeria’s “Nollywood” film industry.   This visually rapid montage offered scenes from popular genres like comedy, action adventure and romance.

Fadzi Makanda
“The Nigerian movie business is worth about $250 million a year,” said Simon, putting iROKO’s sizzle reel in context. Nollywood filmmakers make 1,000 to 2,000 different films each year, of which about 800 are “feature” length, running about ninety minutes or longer. Nollywood’s output is extraordinary—as point of contrast, the American film industry centered in Hollywood makes roughly 250 films each year, while the Indian film industry—“Bollywood”—produces about 800 movies. “The democratization of the production process has helped us see a huge explosion of creativity in Nollywood," Simon concluded.

“I learned about Nollywood roughly four years ago,” said Colin M. Maclay, managing director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “I was in Nigeria working on a project centered on technology and civil society.” Established in the 1960s, Nigeria’s indigenous film industry took off in the early 1990s when digital video cameras and editing tools made it easier and cheaper to shoot and cut films. “Nollywood is a massive source of employment, credited with creating a million or so jobs,” said Maclay. “It's a huge economic force, but it’s also a cultural force.” In Nollywood productions, “Nigerians tell Nigerian stories.”

Colin Maclay
One of the great ironies of Nollywood is that unlicensed copying, or piracy, has been expanding the reach of Nigerian films to the entire African continent, as well as to diaspora communities all over the world. Thanks to piracy, Maclay said, Nollywood has built an audience of international fans that rivals telenovelas. Although Nollywood films exemplify storytelling rooted in a Nigerian context, they’re clearly resonant with a broad, heterogeneous international community. These films are being distributed to that community without official institutional support. “There are no studios,” Maclay said. “No money.” Many Nollywood films are low end. “Not all the films are as fancy as the sizzle reel we saw, but people love Nollywood storytelling, and now they love it everywhere,” he continued. “We're at an exciting moment that makes me wonder what's next?"

iROKO is trying to revolutionize the way that Nollywood movies are distributed, Makanda said. “If you're a Nigerian or West African abroad you didn't necessarily have access to content created in your home country until iROKO entered the market.” The massive African diaspora community has a huge demand for stories from home, and “we’ve been able to reach that diaspora community online,” she said. iROKO’s distribution platforms are available in 178 countries. The United States is the largest market, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Italy, and Malaysia.

In diaspora communities, stories that reflect the moral “values” of home are particularly popular, said Makanda. People like films with a strong grounding in morality. “Audiences like to see good guy win in the end,” she said. Films that promote Christian and Islamic values are also popular, and these types of stories are relatively common, because “a lot of funding for Nollywood films comes from the churches.”

Technology was another popular theme. “We’re seeing modern stories where technology is very relevant,” Makanda said.  Two of iROKO’s most popular Nollywood titles are Facebook Babes and Blackberry Babes, referring to the Blackberry-brand smart phone.  In Nollywood films, “all the characters are tech savvy,” Makanda said. That’s a reflection of how Africa is today, and how African society is developing.

African society is also increasingly multinational, said Derrick Ashong of the Ghanaian band Soulfège. “We did a remake of a traditional West African song, ‘Sweet Mother,’” he said, “and we did add a new perspective, hip-hop.” Soulfège’s “Sweet Mother” cover was sung in Gha, English, and Pidgin—a West African Creole dialect.  “Few people can understand the whole thing but they get the idea,” Ashong said. “They understand the sentiment.”

According to Ashong, that trend is visible across the continent. In the 1990s, American artists dominated hip-hop available in Africa. In the 2000s, he estimated, 80% to 90% of the top hip-hop music in Africa was sung by local artists in indigenous languages.

African artists articulate distinct, hybrid identities, Ashong said. Heterogeneity is normal in Africa. “I grew up in a home with four languages,” he said. “And you need to speak that many, just to understand your neighbors.” Projects at the intersection of culture and technology—like Nollywood, like African hip-hop—give Africans an opportunity to articulate their diverse cultural identities.

That being said, English skills tend to increase with income levels, Ashong said.  Speaking English is often a first step to broader distribution. “If you're not educated,” he said, “you might not have the ability to sing in a language that's globally recognized.”

The recently established Innovation Council in Lagos, Nigeria could help facilitate some change, said Maclay. Nigerians realize that the Nollywood industry should continue to improve, and people are asking what do we need to do differently? Training has become a key issue. People want to increase production values, while keeping the spirit of Nollywood and the great storytelling that’s characterized the form and made it a global sensation. Hopefully the Innovation Council will be able to provide some of that training.

The situation is complicated because piracy continues to be an issue, said Maclay. Although unauthorized distribution helped to create the market for Nollywood films, it also exacerbates the money problems that plague the industry. After Nollywood films premiere, filmmakers and investors have roughly two weeks to make their money back before the film enters the piracy market. At that point, filmmakers can expect to split all returns with pirates. In this landscape, there’s no incentive to make expensive films. “How do you crack the nut of injecting more money into the Nollywood industry so you can create better films, while having a model where it’s difficult for filmmakers to recoup their costs?” Maclay asked.

iROKO pays Nollywood producers $5,000 to $15,000 to have exclusive digital rights to their film content, said Makanda. “We want producers to have an incentive to produce content,” she said. In the current model, Nollywood films rarely cost more than $50,000 to produce, so iROKO’s licensing fees are a significant portion of the budget.

“The Nigerian government has also established a $200 million fund to promote Nollywood filmmaking,” said Maclay. “But no one knows what you need to do to get money. So far, it’s been difficult for filmmakers to apply for and be granted funds.” The Nigerian government also seems to be more interested in funding films created in the Hollywood model—shot on highly expensive 35 mm film stock, for instance—as opposed to the digital video that characterizes Nollywood productions. “The government doesn’t seem to be in sync with Nollywood,” said Maclay. “There’s a $200 million fund to support the Nigerian film industry, but who knows what's going to happen?”

In general, governments don’t understand the value of soft power, said Ashong. “This might be my bias, but I think that people don't take the arts seriously enough in governmental and business circles. We have a profound cultural arsenal—in terms of our arts, our films, our music—and people in positions of power often overlook it.”

I agree, said Maclay. "There's a lot of power to unleash, and we're not tapping into it yet." One promising examples is Nollywood storytelling. Some non-profit foundations are interested in seeing if they can insert socially relevant issues related to health into classic Nollywood pictures.

Soft power can also come from the grassroots, added Ashong. Take cheap internet-enabled mobile phones. “Smartphones are not just about communication; they change how you interface with the world.” Many people in Ghana want to be wired, but they have to go to an internet cafe. But if you move from the feature phone to the smart phone, all of a sudden you have a whole world open to you. Once all of Africa is wired, “I'll think we'll be shocked at the innovations Africans will pioneer.”

Audience Discussion

I’m interested in this idea of soft power through film, said an audience member. How do can make films that speak to global audiences, but also make sense in their local context?

Derrick Ashong

It’s already happening, said Ashong. “I’ve met Nigerian filmmakers based in Hollywood who are working on feature films. Now, these aren’t Nollywood movies—they’re films based on the American Hollywood model. But these filmmakers are still telling stories resonant with their cultural heritage. “We’re trying to create stories that talk about home, but can also reach a broad audience.”

We’ve talked about the global market for African content, said an audience member. How would you distribute this content on the African continent? That’s potentially a billion dollar market. How can mobile money begin to play into African distribution models?

iROKO is expanding to Zimbabwe, and the rapidly growing Zollywood industry, said Makanda. In the coming years, the company hopes to take a more pan-African approach in terms of acquiring content. Kenya and South Africa are also a hugely popular market for iROKO’s current content.

“I want to pick up on the mobile money part of the question,” said Maclay, “because that’s a huge piece of the puzzle in places like Africa where people don't necessarily have credit cards.”

“Kenya leads world in mobile parents,” added Simon. “Approximately 70% of Kenyans pay through their phone, in almost exactly the same way as a credit card works. The Kenyan system is currently spreading to Tanzania and Uganda.”

If people can pay with their phones using mobile money that opens up other forms of monetization and compensation, said Maclay. “Mobile money facilitates a commercial change.”

“Could you talk about the relationship between content production and content consumption in an African context?” asked an audience member.

“People want technology,” said Maclay. “The best thing we can do is help people use that technology more efficiently.”  In the United States, we’re more oriented towards the consumption side of the spectrum, although that may be changing. The exciting thing about low cost technologies in Africa—mobile phones, foremost among them—is that they enable content creation. There can be a tremendous number of new content creators, and new storytellers.