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Netflix’s Africa play: Mo Abudu, free access and local partners

By Jaysim Hanspal

Posted on September 27, 2021 12:58

 © Nigerian entertainment mogul Mo Abudu / all rights reserved
Nigerian entertainment mogul Mo Abudu / all rights reserved

The US streaming giant Netflix is conquering markets in Africa by partnering with well-known actors, film makers and producers like Mo Abudu and John Boyega. It is pushing for free plans in Kenya to whet appetites for the service, and using local telecoms partners to open new channels for delivery, and make up for the lack of payment infrastructure on the continent.

The company has partnered with renowned Nigerian filmmaker Mo Abudu for a deal that includes two series and several Netflix branded films – the first for any African media company. One of them is Death and the King’s Horseman, a play by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.

Abudu, who has previously been described by Forbes as “Africa’s most successful woman”, was born in London, but her roots are in Ondo Town, southwestern Nigeria, where she lived from the age of seven to eleven. It is this upbringing that has inspired her to promote the visibility of African stories on mainstream media. Her media group, Ebony Life TV & Film, is a pan-African entertainment channel that has fostered relationships with Sony Pictures Television, AMC and Will and Jada Smith’s Westbrook Studios.

EbonyLife’s popular Netflix series Castle & Castle tells the story of a married couple who have a successful law firm but struggle with their contrasting ideals. It addresses issues like homophobia – as homosexuality is still illegal in Nigeria – and brings them to the fore for a wider audience.

Abudu also runs EbonyLife Creative Academy where hundreds of young Nigerians learn production, screenwriting, acting and lighting for free. The program is supported by the Lagos State Government through the Lagos State Creative Industries Initiative (LACI).

At the heart of Netflix operations, especially in the wake of Covid-19 theater shutdowns, is the financial muscle to snatch up the biggest and most prominent filmmakers.”

Now based in Lagos, her reach is ever-expanding. Just this month, she opened the Asian Fusion restaurant Jinga at EbonyLife Place. It is Nigeria’s first luxury entertainment resort and was opened on Abudu’s 57th birthday. Those who attended the ceremony include influential figures such as Babajide Sanwo-Olu (governor of Lagos State) and Ben Llewellyn-Jones (British deputy high commissioner).

Abudu started her television career with no experience in the industry, but is now a trailblazer. Her show Moments with Mo has had guests such as Hillary Clinton, Diane von Furstenburg and former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. When interviewing the head of the IMF, she asked him how viewers who are “watching tonight [and] are living on less than $1 a day” might improve their lives.

Last year, a campaign dubbed ‘Made by Africans, Watched by the World’ promoted African creatives including Genevieve Nnaji and Pearl Thusi.

Nigeria’s film industry is currently worth $600m annually, the biggest market on the continent, and second only to Bollywood in terms of output. ‘Nollywood (a nickname for the industry)’ produced 635 films within the last three months, and as a result, has a big cultural impression on the entire continent – from slang to fashion. Specialising in micro-budget, straight-to-video films, it is no surprise that they represent a shiny new gem in Netflix’s crown.

‘Free’ Netflix in Kenya

The Abudu deal charts the path for expansion of Netflix in Africa, a strong attempt to bolster the demand side of the equation by offering local content. However, the US streaming giant is also working on the supply side too: on 21 September, the company announced that it would be offering its plethora of films and TV shows “completely free of charge” in Kenya.

This isn’t the first time Netflix has offered alternative plans in developing markets – in 2018 it offered a $3 mobile-only plan in India – but it is unclear how long the service will be free in Kenya. Netflix executives have made it clear that the initiative is a ‘try-before-you-buy’ style attempt to whet Kenyans’ appetite, with a limited selection of shows on offer under the free plan.

Dominance needs telecoms partners

Currently, with 209 million global paid memberships, the collaboration between Netflix and Abudu reflects a growing push by the company to foster an audience in Africa using locally made programs. The company recently struck a development deal with John Boyega’s UK-based UpperRoom Productions, with a focus on non-English language films from West and East Africa.

However, slow internet speeds and a lack of payment infrastructure have created barriers to the company’s continued domination of worldwide streaming websites. Consequently, Netflix has linked up with companies like Vodacom and Telkom South Africa to add its subscriptions to their bill. By the end of 2021, it is predicted that the streaming giant will reach 2.6 million subscribers.

The expansion of Netflix into Africa could seemingly have a positive impact on the continent’s tourism sector. A cultural affinity survey by SA Tourism and Netflix – that was conducted with subscribers from Canada, Germany, the US, the UK, Brazil and France – found that after watching South African content, viewers were 3.1 times more likely to make South Africa their number one travel destination, and 5.6 times more likely to learn a local language.

Not everyone is glued to their screen

However, in a piece for The Verge, Nigerian film critic Wilfred Okiche voices his suspicions about the impact of the company’s domination of Nollywood. He says: “[…] industry insiders have had cause to worry […]. At the heart of Netflix operations, especially in the wake of Covid-19 theatre shutdowns, is the financial muscle to snatch up the biggest and most prominent filmmakers.”

Netflix says it offers competitive rates for films based on market rates; but while the amount for Abudu’s new deal is unknown, Okiche says Netflix only pays $10,000 to $90,000 for African productions, compared to the $500m promised to South Korea and the UK.

Okiche is sceptical of this model and is advocating for Netflix to pay top dollar for African content if it really is ‘watched by the world’.

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