The battle is on: Nigeria's iROKO announces new funding for Africa content, as Netflix, Showmax march in

It's suddenly all very exciting as video-on-demand services take off--and the battle could very well be won on content.

NIGERIAN online television and film distribution service iROKO on Monday announced $19 million worth of new deals, including with French giant Canal+, to boost operations and take-up across Africa.

The deals for content development and capital funding come just weeks after US streaming giant Netflix expanded to 190 countries, including to all African countries, putting them in direct competition with the Lagos-based firm.

It also sets up a scramble for subscribers, with Naspers-backed Showmax having joined at least two other video-on-demand services in the South African market, and smaller players like Afrostream and Kenya’s BuniTV also seeking their own space in the African market. 

Telecoms giant PCCW, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li, also last year launched its video-on-demand service in South Africa late last year, while other players like French telecoms unit Orange Horizons are also set to enter the continental market this year.

“We’re taking Nollywood content to Africa,” iROKO founder Jason Njoku told news agency AFP in an email, referring to Nigeria’s domestic film industry.

“We have plans to dub content into French, Swahili, Zulu—so we’ll stand apart from Netflix in terms of localisation of content. We are going narrow and deep into local content.

“However Netflix entering into the African market is really exciting, as it reveals the huge potential of the market. For us, we’re flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as them.”

iROKO, whose operation has been dubbed “the African Netflix”, said in a separate statement it aimed to produce “at least 300 hours of original content in 2016, with the expectation of doubling that by 2018”.

Mobile phone use has exploded in Africa in recent years and firms such as Njoku’s have tapped in to increasing Internet access through smartphones and the popularity of Nigeria’s film industry across the continent.

Nollywood is the world’s second-biggest film industry in terms of production, is estimated to employ some one million people and contributes 1.2% of Nigeria’s GDP.

As part of the new deal, Canal+ Overseas boss Jacques du Puy joins the iROKO board, the statement said.

The Paris-based firm’s chief financial officer Fabrice Faux said the investment would lead to a “scale-up in French-speaking Africa, with clear ambitions and the means to reach them”.

The shifting ground portends big opportunities for makers of African content—and one they have been sizing up as seen by the rich growth in content, including unlikely genres like Afrofuturism

The battle will also be won on service—iROKO and Showmax allow downloading of movies as one way of beating connectivity issues on a continent where the vast majority of internet connections are on mobile—and also pricing.

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