Netflix sets its sights on Francophone Africa

By Léo Pajon

Posted on Tuesday, 23 March 2021 19:54, updated on Thursday, 25 March 2021 09:59
Yann Gael and Issaka Sawadogo, the two heroes of “Sakho and Mangane.” © Youri Lenquette for Canal plus

In the wake of the 100% African box-office hits ‘Queen Sono’ and ‘Blood and Water’, Netflix is planning to expand its presence into French-speaking countries across Africa, which may give the local film industry a boost.

Investigating Netflix is a real challenge. The secretive US streaming service doesn’t give many interviews and remains stingy when it comes to announcing figures. However, the little it does communicate reveals that it is thriving, in large part due to the ongoing pandemic.

In 2020, the group gained 37 million subscribers, which enabled it to pass the 200 million customer mark for the first time worldwide. And in Africa? It is impossible to know how the streaming platform is expanding its community on the continent, let alone country by country.

Only one figure is known: Netflix has 66.7 million subscribers for a vast area encompassing Europe, the Middle East and the African continent, i.e. 14.7 million more in one year.

One other thing is certain: the streaming platform is becoming more and more popular on the continent. Furthermore, the original series Blood and Water and Queen Sono have been well received by critics and the general public (a second season was even planned for Queen Sono, before Covid-19 forced the platform to reverse its decision and not renew it.)

Late arrival on the continent

Netflix has been present in Africa since January 2016, and its African teams are now scattered around the world: from Amsterdam to Dubai, London and Nairobi.

Although Netflix arrived rather late to the African continent (the company launched its subscription video-on-demand (VOD) service in 2007), this did not surprise Capucine Cousin, a journalist at Agefi and author of Netflix & Cie, Les Coulisses d’une (R)évolution (published by Armand Colin).

“The founders of the platform, which currently exists in 190 countries, have always had a global strategy,” she says. “It was launched in North America, then in Europe and Asia and then in less obvious countries like Japan and India. But the idea is to cover the whole globe, so Africa focused on creating local films shot in the local language with local actors to create stories that will appeal to global audiences.”

The author notes that the inclusion of black actors, such as Omar Sy in the original series Lupin and Regé-Jean Page in the Bridgerton series produced by the African-American Shonda Rhimes, has at least two objectives. “On the one hand, Netflix is showing that it is adapting to the times, by putting forward black, brilliant, sexy characters, even if it means completely revisiting history. And on the other hand, the platform is featuring actors who can speak to an African audience.”

Preferred targets: English-speaking countries

Quite naturally, Netflix initially focused on the continent’s English-speaking markets. Nigeria and South Africa, in particular, remain their preferred targets for reasons that are as much to do with demographics as with cultural proximity. French-speaking countries are also in their sights, but obstacles remain.

“VOD is still a niche in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Oscar Hessikaya, director of the media buying agency Coral Média Côte d’Ivoire. “The internet connection is not good enough to make videos accessible and few people can pay by credit card. […] Netflix is interesting, especially for its African content, but it is currently only accessible to a privileged audience!”

The platform seems all the more expensive as subscriptions are often sold by individuals in the country on social media. These individuals resell single subscriptions at around 3,000 CFA francs (around €4.50), which is more expensive than the rate applied in France for the “Premium” subscription (€15.99 for four screens, or €4 per screen).

Fake local official pages (in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Madagascar, etc.) also exist on Facebook, which offer the same type of packages.

But despite piracy, price and payment barriers, customer numbers could increase rapidly on the continent. At a time when the auditing firm PwC has confirmed the presence of some 350 million smartphones in Africa and foresees an explosion in their number in young and highly connected countries, the streaming leader has initiated a series of partnerships with local telecom operators.

What is the aim of these partnerships? To make it easier to pay online by adding a Netflix subscription to one’s phone bill. In South Africa, for example, the multinational streaming service has already signed these types of agreements with the operators Vodacom and Telkom.

“French-speaking Africa has been on Netflix’s radar for a long time, but 2021 is going to be crucial,” says Bernard Azria. The CEO of the Ivorian company Côte Ouest Audiovisuel, which specialises in producing audiovisual content, offers the platform original projects and dubs Nigerian and South African productions. According to him, the streaming giant clearly has a shot in West Africa.

French productions shunned

“The American veneer of Netflix series, including those from Africa, is not a problem for local audiences,” he says. “The American dream is still present, and this aesthetic appeals… whereas French productions are rather shunned. There is obviously a rejection that comes from a post-colonial feeling, and you also have to know that for years French TV gave away some of its programmes for free: Josephine, Guardian Angel and Navarro… which were broadcast on local TV stations. But what is free is worthless!”

According to the boss, Netflix’s real problem is a lack of content and professionals from French-speaking Africa. “Our film industry is in its infancy, especially if you compare it to the one in place in South Africa and Nigeria.

Our internationally renowned filmmakers are bottle-fed by European institutions! They are totally reliant on them…For example, the fantastic film Timbuktu received seven awards at the César ceremony. However, in Côte d’Ivoire, it was only seen by three viewers who came to the cinema by accident. Subsidies are only given to independent art films: there are no African crime films, no African romances, no African thrillers, no African erotica.”

On the other hand, Azria also condemns the crushing weight of Canal + on mainstream television productions. “When you have an actor who occupies an ultra-dominant position, and the two or three talented scriptwriters of the region work for him, it is also a problem!”

Netflix’s first major acquisition from the French-speaking world, Sacko & Mangane, by director Jean-Luc Herbulot, was originally a Canal+ Original series. Shot in Dakar, this “African X-Files”, which mixes crime and science fiction creating a polished aesthetic similar to Hollywood action films, perfectly meets Netflix’s criteria.

In an interview given to Le Monde Afrique in May 2020, Dorothy Ghettuba, head of original content for sub-Saharan Africa, regretted that the continent had only ever been depicted “as a territory of suffering.”

A third way ahead

“The platform will perhaps change the game by offering a third way between independent art films and low-budget productions,” says Cousin. “Even in powerful markets such as France, Netflix is capable of reshuffling the cards… just look at the lead role given to Omar Sy in the series Lupin. Everywhere, the platform has acted as an accelerator for the emergence of new talent. Africa should be no exception.”

Azria believes that the streaming giant opens up prospects and promises great hope for the professionalisation of the sector. “But we need time to deploy it,” he says, “the impact it will have on the local market will not be felt for two or three years.”

According to the CEO, if a competitor like Disney or Amazon benefits financially from offering local content, Netflix will remain above all an international platform.

“I know of at least two purely African platforms, made by African engineers with an African editorial, which are due to launch this year,” says the boss, who prefers not to say more. The digital transformation, which has reduced the obstacles and costs to enter the audiovisual sector, is contributing to the increasing number of players willing to try their luck. The VOD battle on the continent is probably just beginning!

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