AfrolandTV was recognised as media startup of the year by the Berlinale International Film Festival. Adaora Oramah looks at how the new pan-African streaming platform is disrupting the film industry in Africa and beyond.
“Our stories are for everyone” proclaims AfroLandTV’s website, the newly launched streaming platform that brings African movies to viewers’ screens. Recognised as a leading top media startup for 2020 by the prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival, in Germany, the Afrocentric streaming service invites you into a world of drama, comedy, thriller and romance, all played by strong Black leads.
Its founder, Zimbabwean actor turned entrepreneur, Michael Maponga, has realised his vision to develop a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) streaming platform featuring and curating Pan-African film and television content. ”We’re bridging Pan-African stories globally. Now someone in Brazil can watch Nollywood or a film from Uganda and enjoy it on one platform.”
The market is attracting many suitors and even though it’s not crowded it’s one that has been tough to pierce. Netflix, which has poured a lot of money in local productions, has 1.4m subscribers according to Digital TV Research on the continent. Long established pay-TV group Multichoice has almost 20m, the bulk of which are in South Africa.
Another longstanding player i-Roko TV, founded by entrepreneur Jason Njoku, has curtailed its growth plans in Africa and Nigeria specifically following the downturn caused by the pandemic. Despite a surge in subscriber numbers at the beginning of lockdown, falling incomes and a falling naira have put a stop to this. The majority of its revenues are still outside of Africa, targeting the diaspora in the US, UK and Europe. Njoku also complained that the regulator in Nigeria, which has slapped an additional tax on streaming companies, doesn’t help.
AfrolandTV’s pan-African focus conveys a unified cross-cultural approach through storytelling. Ranging from African, African-American, Black European, Caribbean, and Afro-Latinx content, the platform’s localised content offerings provide users with a lens into stories made by and about underrepresented and misrepresented African and Afro-diasporic communities. Whilst successful platforms like Iroko TV only offer Nollywood titles (but will soon offer International content), AfrolandTV makes the bold decision to accommodate varying Afrocentric productions across the globe, positioning itself as a digital hub for original unique content.
With the rise of broadband-based innovations, declining data costs and growing networked technologies, there have been increased efforts to share digitally-native authentic stories directly to the continent and beyond, creating a collective digital African diasporic community.
AfroLandTV is fuelled by a desire to develop a strong network of emerging African and Afro-diasporic content creators and filmmakers. Developing meaningful and dialogic relationships between key stakeholders is how it strives to maintain localised connections when it ventures into developing original film productions in the future. “Licensing their value is one thing, but the relationship is the most important thing,” says Maponga. Converging community and content is integral to AfroLandTV’s strategy, affording opportunities for collaboration, exposure and monetisation of young creators’ works.
Media giants such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney, DSTV and other media conglomerates have long dominated the digital media economy and television market, maintaining control over the global media and communications ecosystem while simultaneously penetrating and influencing various international markets. While niche start-up SVOD companies have attempted to make their mark in a highly competitive digital media market, some have failed and others have not grown to the strength and stature of the aforementioned transnational media companies.
The digital landscape echoes communications scholar Vincent Mosco’s academic explorations on the ‘Political Economy of Communication’, which is concerned with how power is reified through communication mediums, artifacts, institutions and processes. It is a study of how “social relations, particularly the power relations, that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources, including communication resources”, writes Mosco. From media representation to foreign dominance of digital distribution systems, to the concentration of creative knowledge-hubs and production studios in the Global North, it is evident that there are unbalanced power relations in the global media landscape.
Maponga’s business strategy and vision for AfrolandTV reflects the communications scholar’s work. Adopting a forward thinking mindset, AfrolandTV strives to make impactful large scale contributions to develop Africa’s film and entertainment industry across all facets of the creative value chain.
Strict vetting process
The institutional and structural power of Western mainstream media entities have contributed to the monolithic and stereotypical narratives used to describe Africa and predominantly Black communities across the globe. As a result, Maponga reveals AfroLandTV’s strict vetting and submissions process for content creators.
“We don’t showcase titles surrounding any wars, poverty, and sickness. The big platforms are already doing that,” says Maponga. Similar to digitally native platforms like For Africans By Africans, there is a conscious effort by African content-driven platforms to counter and reject harmful imagery that have plagued African communities and have pervaded sociopolitical discourse.
“TV is the biggest influencer and programmer in the world,” says Maponga, a reflection that echoes Mosco’s analysis on how communication artifacts and corporations can be purveyors of ideological power. This explains the platform’s dedication to challenge the hegemonic representations of “Africanness”, which have historically been essentialised by slavery and colonisation. Developing thrillers as well as showcasing historical documentaries and fictional stories on Africa’s pre-colonial era are important components of the platform’s content offerings.
Education and job creation
In addition to providing a digital space for content creators, AfroLandTV’s ethos is ingrained in human development opportunities, education and training. In partnership with the German-based company Deutsche Welle, AfrolandTV is organizing workshops in Ghana and Ethiopia in 2021, as well as currently offers internship programmes with media schools on the continent. “We want to educate the next generation of filmmakers to continue to represent us well,” stated Maponga.
According to an International Labor Organization report (ILO), the creative industry has provided notable job opportunities on the continent, highlighting that Nollywood is the second largest employer in Nigeria with 300,000 direct employees, and Kenya’s creative industries generated KES 85.21bn ($800m) back in 2013.
AfrolandTV contributes to a growing cohort of specialised vocational creative programmes to curb Africa’s mass youth unemployment, improve creative skill sets, as well as diversify the global media landscape to include African creative professionals. AfrolandTV aims to develop African creative hubs and knowledge centres across the continent, which will further legitimise the importance of the creative industry, and position the continent as a strong competitor in a foreign dominated media and entertainment space.
Taking on the media giants
Despite its successes, the Dallas-based company has experienced its fair share of challenges. “As a startup we don’t have enough funds to license the content. But we have to grow from nothing to something with very limited resources,” says Maponga.
Afrocentric VOD start-ups have previously grappled with the cost-intensive process of licensing content, which contributed to the premature demise of Afrostream, as it struggled to license major Hollywood, European and African titles. “This approach was detrimental to the cash flow,” says Maponga. “Licensing Hollywood content is very expensive especially for a start-up and requires large upfront cash investments.”
In contrast, AfroLandTV adopts a leaner approach to its business development strategies, instead dedicated to developing a loyal following by distributing and monetising smaller and local African productions. “We are not trying to be like Netflix,” says Maponga. “We’re collecting these stories globally. You can consider us a niche platform, but we are a global niche platform.”
AfrolandTV does not aim to acquire market share from large TV and streaming corporations. Unlike KweseTV which attempted to challenge South Africa’s TV giant DSTV by providing exclusive NBA and NFL sports content, and has since closed despite banking from Econet Wireless, the Zimbabwean Telco group.
New entrants in the digital streaming and TV market have struggled to compete against DSTV’s reign in the African media landscape due to over ambitious licensing deals. It has become increasingly difficult given the popularity of its VOD platform DSTV Now.
SVOD start-ups also face the disruptive nature of illegal streaming sites that offer content for free. AfroLandTV’s value proposition rests on its dedication to providing original content at an affordable price of $3.99 per month, allowing users to diversify their streaming content. “On average people subscribe to two to three video streaming services. People are building streaming bundles for what they like to watch,” says Maponga. “We picked this price point because we want to make it easy for people to add AfroLandTV to their streaming bundle.”
In comparison, Netflix is about to offer a mobile owner package in Nigeria of under $3/month (less than a third of its US subscription price) and iRoko in Nigeria was charging less than $1/month.
Maponga hopes to scale AfrolandTV’s brand and product extensions, ranging from developing creative film schools, independent production studios, music streaming services, live theatre entertainment, and establishing cinemas across the continent. Forming relationships with government entities to cultivate Afrocentric creative products, services and professionals is a potential venture on the Zimbabwean entrepreneur’s mind.
Despite the tough competitive landscape, and the difficulties penetrating African and Afro-diasporic markets, AfrolandTV is developing a holistic approach to formalise Africa’s film industry value chain. Notably its drive to tackle systemic issues in media and entertainment is admirable. From dismantling hyperbolised African stereotypes, to challenging the lack of Black and African ownership of production, distribution and consumption channels through educational programmes, its strategy could be read as a subtle subversive method to challenge the dominance of legacy brands which have long controlled the political economy of the media and entertainment industry on the continent and beyond. This creates opportunities for African emerging players, with nimble, yet disruptive tactics to reshape the SVOD industry.
Adaora Oramah is a Nigerian-American creative strategist and photographer with a specialised interest in highlighting business developments and trends in Africa’s cultural and creative industries. Keep up with her on Instagram, LinkedIn and her website.