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Africa Poised to Break Out as Distributors Mine Prestige TV Projects for Global Markets

When South African writer-director Gareth Crocker was developing “Shadow,” a series about an ex-cop with superpowers who fights crime in Johannesburg’s underworld, he took the unusual and risky approach of bypassing local broadcasters to get the project made. 

The show’s executive producers wanted to keep the rights to a series they thought had global potential. “We simply produced and financed the show ourselves before taking it to the market,” Crocker says, adding that the eight-part series was made on an “extremely modest budget” in a country where an hour-long episode costs around $100,000.

The gamble paid off when Netflix swooped in to acquire the program, which rolled out in 190 countries on March 8 — the widest release of an African dramatic series to date.

If TV’s golden age has turned everything from Mexican drug running to British royal intrigue into required viewing, African stories have been noticeably absent from the conversation. That’s set to change. A “scramble for Africa” is afoot as international firms ramp up efforts to produce prestige projects in one of the world’s biggest developing markets — and bring those series to global audiences. 

The scale of the output is small compared with that of other territories, and navigating such an unfamiliar landscape presents significant challenges. Few African producers have a track record of delivering high-end content for the global market, and there’s scant evidence so far that the continent’s homegrown stories can find success overseas.

But driven by a growing desire for diverse voices on-screen, a vast pool of untapped talent, and hopes that the next “Narcos” or “The Bridge” might emerge from an unexpected source, at least a dozen high-end African shows are in development or production by such international powerhouses as Amazon, Sony, Fremantle, Gaumont and Canal Plus.

Netflix is among those making moves. The streamer recently appointed Kenyan producer Dorothy Ghettuba to its international originals programming team, and has commissioned two originals out of the continent: spy dramedy “Queen Sono,” starring Pearl Thusi (“Quantico”) as a secret agent; and teen drama “Blood & Water,” about a high school student who discovers her family’s secret past. Both are set to go into production in South Africa later this year. “This is just the beginning of our investment in Africa,” says Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s vice president of international originals for Europe, Turkey and Africa.

Amazon Prime Video is developing a drama based on the first book in Octavia E. Butler’s “Patternist” sci-fi series. The show is being produced by Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Prods., and co-written by Kenyan helmer Wanuri Kahiu and award-winning Nigerian sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor. Kahiu is the director of “Rafiki,” the lesbian romance that played at Cannes last year. Okorafor is also consulting on an HBO adaptation of her post-apocalyptic novel “Who Fears Death,” a series from “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin.

Canal Plus, which has long had a pay-TV presence in French-speaking Africa, has a raft of high-end series in the works, including “Agent,” set in the world of African soccer, and wrapping production in Mauritius and South Africa. The network recently launched police comedy series “Sakho & Mangane,” produced with Lagardère Studios’ Senegal-based subsidiary Keewu Prod.

For newcomers to the region, it’s been a slow dance of finding and courting partners. “We’ve spent time getting to know local producers and broadcasters across the territory, as knowing the local market is key,” says Christian Vesper, creative director of global drama for Fremantle. “We’ve been working on projects in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, but are actively looking across the continent. It is a hugely diverse landscape, so we want to tell a wide range of stories to many different audiences.”

South Africa is leading the charge. With Hollywood ties and a rep for world-class servicing, the country has the tools to follow the path of territories like Israel, Turkey and Spain as a reliable source of quality, cost-effective TV content. Johannesburg-based MultiChoice Group, which includes pay-TV heavyweight DStv and the M-Net channel group, is set to develop three or four scripted drama series a year with international partners, including Fremantle and German broadcaster ZDF. “Everybody realizes that the best programming in the world is being created through collaborations,” says Yolisa Phahle, MultiChoice’s CEO for general entertainment.

How well African series travel remains to be seen. But on a continent where cash-strapped broadcasters have long put a ceiling on creators’ ambitions, producers now enjoy new possibilities. “There is a surge in African stories because they offer a fresh perspective and worldview,” says Mo Abudu, CEO of Nigeria’s EbonyLife, which last year inked a three-series deal with Sony Pictures Television. “The world wants more, and studios need to be ready to offer more.” 

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