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Meet iROKOtv, the Netflix of Africa (Guest Column)

Behind a high-security gate on a side road off the frenetic Apapa Oworonshoki Expressway, in the Anthony Village district of mainland Lagos, stands a nondescript three-story concrete building. The cement is chipped and the paint on it faded. So it’s something of a surprise to find, inside on the second floor, one of the most innovative Internet companies in the world: iROKOtv.

iROKOtv is the Netflix of Africa. Just as Netflix is changing the way content is made in the United States, iROKOtv is changing African film. It’s the brainchild of Jason Njoku, 34, a handsome, brash, fast-talker born in the United Kingdom and raised by his Nigerian mother on a council estate in London.

Njoku studied chemistry at the University of Manchester, England, graduating in 2005, but he was always interested in business.
While at university he started a party-promotion enterprise, then a lifestyle magazine named Brash and in 2008 a network of aspirational blogs and websites. All the projects failed. By 2009 he was back in London, living with his mother on that council estate.

Which is, of course, where he got his big idea.

Njoku noticed that his mother’s TV viewing habits had changed. His mum had always watched British soap operas, but he now discovered she was watching Nollywood movies on DVD, the discs imported from Nigeria and sold out of suitcases at African grocery stores for a few pounds. The discs were of terrible quality, as were the production values of the movies, but the films struck a chord with his mum. And, it appeared, with every Nigerian in the United Kingdom: Njoku discovered you could watch the movies on YouTube, pirated versions streamable in scratchy 10-minute segments. Despite the poor quality and the fact that they violated copyright, the clips had tens of thousands of downloads. A light went on; he had an idea.

He borrowed money from a college pal, Bastian Gotter (Gotter is now Njoku’s business partner), and made a trip to Lagos. In Lagos he visited the vast Alaba bazaar where Nollywood DVDs are sold wholesale by the truckload, and he began tracking down local movie producers and offering them cash for rights to their catalogs. He purchased 200 titles that trip, paying up to $1,000 for the agreements. Once back in the United Kingdom he launched a website, Nollywood Love, and struck a partnership deal with YouTube to pay him with ad revenue.

The site did well, but Njoku soon realized it would not work from afar: he needed to be in Nigeria. Nigeria was where the movies were made and where he had to be to license them. And so, in September 2010, he picked up and moved to the land his mother had left behind and set up iROKOtv.

In 2011, after an article about his company appeared on a tech blog in the United States, he drew interest from the hedge fund giant Tiger Global Management, which wanted to invest in tech in Africa. (Tiger Global was an early investor in Facebook.) Soon they had raised $8 million, and iROKOtv was on its way. Within six months it had licensed many movies and opened offices in London and New York. Next it moved off YouTube onto its own cloud-based platform.

Today iROKOtv.com is a subscription service with some 5,000 movies and TV shows. Rates are $2.99 a day in the United States, or $7.99 a month. The company won’t disclose its revenue income, but if you’re looking for evidence that there’s money in the business, iROKOtv has now raised $25 million in venture capital from international investors. Most subscribers are in the United States and the UK diaspora since African Internet speeds are not yet able to handle streaming. But the company is well positioned to cash in when all that fiber-optic cable goes live.

iROKOtv is also poised to cash in on the coming-of-age of Nigerian cinema. The industry still churns out thousands of cheap movies, but it’s making more sophisticated big-budget productions now, too, such as Half of a Yellow Sun, directed by London-based playwright Biyi Bandele, and Figurine, directed by Kunle Afolayan, which are given blockbuster cinema releases in Lagos and other African capital cities. At the same time, Nigerian filmmakers are turning to international stars such as Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Isaiah Washington. Don’t be surprised to see Hollywood-Nollywood collaborations in the near future.

Those second-floor iROKOtv offices look like a tech company in Tribeca. Some 30 staff members are hard at work on computer monitors, downloading DVDs to hard drives, adding subtitles and fixing sound problems. An entire section is for staff drawing up licensing agreements, sifting through the hundreds of films to work out a fair price, and separating TV rights, Internet rights and in- flight rights.  Film producers literally knock on the door of the iROKOtv building to offer their wares for licensing.

As do musicians, as it happens. Njoku has expanded into online music with iROKING, licensing and streaming single songs of upcoming Nigerian artists à la iTunes. The company buys the song from the artist upfront and allows it to be downloaded for free online.

Meanwhile, just as Netflix broke the TV mold with original content such as “House of Cards,” iROKOtv is now making TV shows, too. “Festac Town” is a 23-episode drama about a poor neighborhood in Lagos. Two other shows are set to go online: “Losing Control,” a “Friends”-style comedy, and “Poison Bait,” about a literary agent. iROKOtv has Nollywood and Ghanaian directors on its books and a full-fledged movie studio.

All this from an idea a diaspora Nigerian came up with while sitting in his mother’s South London council flat. He knows Nigeria is a world away from the life he lived in London. Neither is doing business here easy. Licensing movies can be complicated, with people claiming rights to films they don’t have. At least one staff member he trained left to start a rival company doing the same thing. But Africa is his home now.

Ashish Thakkar (pictured above) is the founder of Mara Group, a global investment group employing over 11,000 people in 22 different countries. This column is an edited excerpt from his new book “The Lion Awakes: Adventures in Africa’s Economic Miracle.”

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