Digital site taps into Nollywood

iRoko online movie platform appeals to Nigerian expats

JOHANNESBURG — With the bulky frame of an NFL linebacker, iRoko Partners CEO Jason Njoku was hard to miss as he paced the hall at the Discop Africa conference in Johannesburg last winter.

If all eyes were on Njoku, it was nothing new for the British-Nigerian entrepreneur. With the wildfire success of his iRokotv online movie platform, Njoku is the man many hope can lead the way across the continent’s uncertain digital terrain.

“Digital is the future of Africa,” he said in his Discop keynote.

If the digital revolution is transforming the way content is delivered across the world, the potential seems especially great in Africa, where ramped-up investments in broadband and a staggering number of mobile phones — an estimated 700 million, on a continent of 1 billion — have many analysts believing Africa can leapfrog traditional technologies, like TV.

For many African entrepreneurs, iRokotv’s success has been the first clear indicator that Web and mobile distribution platforms can be monetized.

“We’ve actually created a marketplace where people respect that there’s some value for Internet content,” Njoku says.

Njoku, who was raised in the U.K., was inspired to launch iRokotv after fruitless attempts to track down Nigerian DVDs for relatives in London. Before long, he realized most Nigerians in the diaspora were forced to watch Nollywood pics online, where feature-length films were chopped up and uploaded in short segments onto YouTube, or distributed by fly-by-night peer-to-peer sites.

Despite the poor quality, the pics had a huge following. Njoku realized how much untapped potential the Internet offered for the Nigerian film biz.

He wasn’t, he admits, reinventing the wheel.

“What we’ve done hasn’t been radical,” he says. “We basically made something that was very popular easily accessible.”

What began as a dedicated YouTube channel, Nollywood Love, was soon getting more than 10 million page views a month. Bandwidth costs were becoming unsustainable, and Njoku knew the company needed a bigger platform in order to grow.

Enter hedge fund giant Tiger Global, an early investor in Facebook, which came calling in 2012 with an $8 million injection of capital. Tiger had already invested in Ivi.ru, a streaming service known as the Hulu of Russia; NetMovies, a Netflix rival in Brazil; and Youku, which is often dubbed the Chinese YouTube. To Njoku, it was clear that Tiger saw the value in what he was trying to build.

“They knew what kind of unique position we were (in),” he says.

With a library of some 5,000 films, mostly from Nigeria, the success of iRokotv has been impressive. The site has roughly 800,000 registered users, and is growing its base by 10%-15% a month. Njoku estimates that some 207,000,000 minutes of content are being viewed monthly across all of the company’s media platforms (including music). The average viewer consumes about two hours of content a day — a figure that has attracted the interest of advertisers, whose short ads generate the bulk of iRokotv’s revenue.

Significant hurdles remain. Piracy remains a constant problem, with much of the company’s catalog popping up illegally on other sites. And while iRoko continues to pull in fresh investment, Njoku often finds himself having to tinker with his sales pitch.

“In the West, when I have an hour meeting, I spend the first 45 minutes convincing them that Nollywood actually exists,” he says.

But the company still has grown swiftly — so fast, in fact, that Njoku himself seems to be tinkering with new business models and revenue streams on the fly. (“Nigeria is the land of the copycat,” he says, by way of explanation.) In July, iRokotv launched its Plus service, which puts the latest theatrical releases from Nigeria behind a paywall. An online music service, iRoking was getting some 30,000 downloads a day just a week after launching.

The company now has offices in Lagos, Nigeria; London; New York; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Njoku says the popularity of Nollywood films in the diaspora — which drives roughly 90% of the site’s traffic — has offered him the chance to catch lightning in a bottle. “This opportunity doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” he maintains.

But the company’s rapid rise has created a template for other African entrepreneurs to follow, and where there were only doubts before, Njoku now sees believers in his business model.

“Every single day, we’re converting people,” he says.

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