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Ethiopian Industry Begins to Blossom

As airwaves open up, private players enter the fray

JOHANNESBURG — Turning on a TV in Addis Ababa just a few years ago, you were likely to be treated to drab program blocks on pubcaster EBC, unless you tuned into one of the popular satcasters beamed in from the Middle East.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the country got its first private channel – a satcaster based in the U.S. – and only in the past two years has real liberalization taken place, as a wave of private broadcasters have entered a suddenly fast-growing market.

With a population of 100 million-plus and a booming economy, Ethiopia is now one of the promising newcomers in the African TV sector.

Free-to-air satcaster Kana TV was a shoestring operation when it launched early last year. At the time, the company’s founders noticed how many Ethiopians were consuming Arabic TV shows on Middle Eastern networks.

“When we initially looked at the market, over 50% of the viewership were watching content in a foreign language they didn’t understand,” said deputy managing director Welela Haileselassie, during a panel discussion at Discop this week.

The company recognized an opportunity to fill a programming niche with content dubbed into the local Amharic language. Before long, Kana was bringing primetime dramas from South Korea, Brazil and Turkey into an estimated four million households and grabbing close to a 50% market share.

In a country whose media space is tightly controlled by the government, Kana execs took pains from the start to signal their benign intent.  “From day one, we were very transparent” with the government, said Haileselassie. “That worked to our advantage.”

With their mission to offer local audiences a general entertainment network, the network’s execs “are very careful when we select our content to make sure it’s relevant,” focusing on “universal themes, as opposed to content that can rub [the government] in the wrong way,” said Haileselassie.

Government interference is hardly the only stumbling block for the young TV industry. “It’s a tough market to grow local content,” said Bruktawit Tigabu, co-founder of Whiz Kids Workshop, which produces children’s educational series. Production costs are high, thanks to import duties on equipment, and Kana isn’t the only broadcaster more interested in buying and dubbing foreign content.

“It’s very hard to develop talent and retain talent, because there’s no money,” said Tigabu. “But people are still doing it. We’re very passionate about creating local content.”

At Kana, execs are looking for ways to add more Ethiopian programming into the mix. Though roughly 80% of the channel’s programming is dubbed foreign content, “the strategy is to continue to grow local production,” said Haileselassie.

The broadcaster currently has 180 employees, more than half of whom work on dubbing and sound editing. According to Haileselassie, their technical training is likely to have a knock-on effect for the rest of the industry. “We’re trying to grow the skill base so we can do more local productions,” she said. “By watching quality content, they’re also understanding…what good content means.”

Opportunities abound. Advertising in Ethiopia is still “untouched,” said the Kana exec, as most local companies still “don’t recognize the value of doing TV ads or brand differentiation.” As the economy continues to grow, new players are likely to emerge—to everybody’s benefit.

“Competition is bringing in creativity,” said Haileselassie. “We need more and more channels to come into the picture. We need diverse content programming.”

Added Tigabu, “When Ethiopians put their minds and hearts into something, they can do anything. And they’re showing that.”

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