For the Women Driving the Booming African Screen Industries, the ‘Time Is Now’

Dorothy Ghettuba remembers the moment that changed her life. The Kenya-born entrepreneur was traveling with friends in Zambia when their driver fell asleep at the wheel, sending their van careening off the road and into a tree. The group left the accident unscathed, but the brush with death rattled Ghettuba. “Things can happen to you that make you pause,” she tells Variety. “And that was a thing that made me pause and say to myself, ‘If today was my last day, have I lived my best life?’”

Ghettuba had been working at a venture capital firm in Canada, but she left her job and returned to Kenya, where she began to chase a lifelong dream to join the entertainment industry and tell the kinds of stories that spoke to her. Within a few years she’d produced her first pilot for public broadcaster KBC and was soon developing a slate of series through her production shingle, Spielworks Media. Fast-forward a decade and the veteran producer was tapped by Netflix to be its head of African originals, as the streaming giant’s push for global content landed on African shores.

Since the rollout of its first African original series, “Queen Sono,” in 2020, the Los Gatos-based streamer has been at the forefront of a scramble for African content that has seen the likes of Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Sony Pictures Television and AMC Networks partner with local producers. Behind that flurry of dealmaking is a host of African women who are rewriting the script for the male-dominated entertainment industry and empowering others like them — in the writer’s room, in executive suites, behind the camera and on screen.

It is a moment that dovetails with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that in recent years have spotlighted workplace discrimination and inequality for women in the global screen industries. It is driven, too, by an awareness in Hollywood — influenced as much by the blockbuster success of “Black Panther” as the Black Lives Matter movement — that there is an audience hungry for more diverse stories on screen, especially those reflective of the Black experience. “The time is now,” says Ghettuba. “These are voices that need to be heard.”

For the women reshaping the African film and TV industries, there are countless cultural and institutional hurdles to overcome. In most countries, a patriarchy that views women primarily as homemakers and caregivers is firmly entrenched. “It wasn’t easy, where you have to work hard to be taken seriously, where you have to knock on doors that are otherwise closed to you,” says Ghettuba.

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Ama Qamata and Khosi Ngema star in Netflix’s South African teen drama series “Blood & Water.” Courtesy of Netflix

“As women, and as trailblazers, we have a mammoth task ahead of ourselves, because there isn’t an instance as a woman where you don’t have to prove to men that you’re up to the job,” concurs Heidi Uys, head of programming at Nigeria’s EbonyLife Media.

“I think it’s a huge credit to African female talent,” says Yolisa Phahle, CEO for general entertainment and connected video at South African media giant MultiChoice. “We don’t have equality, but we really do have increasingly improved representation, and we’ve got to continue to fight for that.”

Phahle joined pay TV network M-Net in 2005, rising through the ranks to become one of the key executives at its sister company, MultiChoice, the most powerful media conglomerate on the continent. Through its bouquet of pay TV channels and SVOD service, Showmax, she has spearheaded the company’s push into high-end scripted drama with series like “Reyka,” a female-led crime drama distributed by Fremantle Intl., while championing filmmakers such as Amy Jephta, who this year became the first woman of color to represent South Africa in the Oscar race with her MultiChoice-produced family comedy “Barakat.”

Phahle credits the company for progressive hiring practices that have fostered a diverse workplace stretching back to the 1980s, when M-Net launched at the tail end of apartheid. But she also recognizes the glass ceiling that women in her shoes so often encounter. “It’s very difficult for women in general, never mind Black women,” she says. “I grew up thinking that in life, one has to always try very hard to be the exception that proves the rule.”

Women have long been the engine of Nigeria’s prolific Nollywood film industry, thanks to pioneers like actress Joke Silva and marquee names like Funke Akindele, Rita Dominic and Kate Henshaw. In recent years, their presence has been increasingly felt behind the scenes: Genevieve Nnaji — who Oprah Winfrey once dubbed the “Julia Roberts of Africa” — is one of many bankable stars who chose to exercise her clout off-screen, making the shift to producing and directing with her 2018 Toronto premiere “Lionheart.”

When Nigerian media mogul Mo Abudu launched the lifestyle network EbonyLife TV in 2013, “I made a pledge to myself that I would in every instance lift up and empower women deserving of it,” she says. Two years later the company moved into original production with the romantic drama “Fifty,” and within the span of a few years, EbonyLife would grow into one of the continent’s leading studios, inking production and licensing deals with the likes of Netflix, Sony, AMC Networks and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Studios.

From day one, women have been the company’s driving force. “The EbonyLife Group is dedicated to harnessing [women’s] full potential and building successful female executives,” says Abudu. “We do not just say it, we do it. Our heads of programming, legal, PR, HR and creatives are all women. And I am happy to say they deliver, we deliver.”

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“Reyka,” featuring Thando Thabethe, is among the high-end scripted dramas produced by South African media giant MultiChoice. Courtesy of HBO Latin America Group

That spirit of solidarity is shared by the many women in the industry who have had to fight for a place at the table. “We don’t want it to just be the men in those seats,” says Zulumoke Oyibo, co-founder of Nigeria’s Inkblot Studios, which last year became the first African studio to sign a pact with Amazon Prime Video. “We don’t want it to be men in those rooms alone. We want women to be there as well.”

The shift has been instrumental in giving women more financial muscle in industries where they have long been economically marginalized. It’s changing the stories that are being told on screen, too, as female creators offer fresh takes on what it means to be an African woman today — whether that’s the super-spy “Queen Sono,” the high-powered lawyer at the center of EbonyLife’s “Castle and Castle” or the teenage girls tasked with saving the world in the upcoming Netflix animated series “Mama K’s Team 4,” created by Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema.

Female storytellers are also moving the needle on once-taboo subjects. When Senegalese producer Kalista Sy lifted the veil on adultery and polygamy in her hit series “Maitresse d’un homme marié” (“Mistress of a Married Man”), she not only stirred debate in the Muslim-majority country — where religious clerics called for the show to be banned — but across French-speaking West Africa. EbonyLife’s pulled-from-the-headlines drama “Oloture” was one of Nigeria’s most buzzed-about films for its portrayal of a female journalist who goes undercover to expose the human-trafficking trade. And Ghanaian creator Nicole Amarteifio’s hit web series “An African City” became a viral sensation for its “Sex and the City”-style celebration of the sex lives of four career women in Accra.

Amarteifio has since partnered with Essence Studios to produce the show’s third season, a reminder that the greatest push for gender parity in the African screen industries might ultimately come down to women’s growing track record of success. “Oloture” was the most-watched Nigerian movie on Netflix when it was released in 2020; Showmax’s biggest hit to date, “The Wife,” is led by showrunner Gugu Zuma-Ncube and a team of female writers. The five highest-grossing Nigerian films of all time were produced by women. “What if you give us more?” says Inkblot’s Oyibo. “What more do we have to offer?”

However empowered, the women leading the way recognize there’s more work to be done. “I do not feel that I have power,” says Phahle. “I feel I have a responsibility … to show other women that it’s absolutely possible, and to make sure that I live up to that and I create those opportunities for others.”

If this moment has been a long time coming for African women, Ghettuba says the future is now for a generation of female creators who were “born ready.”

“The time has come, and they have stepped up,” she says. “They have said, ‘We will take our rightful place, and we will tell stories. Our voices won’t be silenced anymore.’”