When Netflix dropped its first African Original, “Queen Sono,” in 2020, it was widely heralded as a gamechanger for African filmmakers expecting a wave of investment from global streaming giants in their cash-strapped creative industries.
While that prediction has largely panned out, with the Los Gatos-based streamer and Amazon Prime Video in particular inking top African talents to output deals, perhaps the bigger shift has been in how local and regional SVODs are shaking up the African market.
That trend was on display in Johannesburg on Wednesday, where reps from several leading streaming services took the stage during the JBX Content Market, a newly launched industry conclave running parallel to the Joburg Film Festival.
“The global players have global reach, they’ve got global muscle. However, I do think that they can’t regionalize as quickly as we can, and that becomes our unique [advantage] in terms of our content offering,” said Lala Tuku, head of local productions at South African pubcaster SABC, which launched its SABC+ streaming platform last November. “For us, our focus is making sure that we are telling our own stories in our own languages for people to see themselves.”
Jeanne van Zyl, senior manager of content at pan-African streaming service Showmax and DStv Now, agreed. “Our biggest strength is the fact that Africa is our home,” she said.
Showmax, which is owned by South African media giant MultiChoice, operates in all 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with regional offices in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana. Its parent company has been the biggest commissioner of content in Africa over the past 30 years, according to van Zyl, and the company continues to invest heavily in local product.
This week at the Joburg Film Festival, the streamer launched its first pan-African call for feature films, announcing an open commissioning brief for a slate of 10 films from first-time filmmakers from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria or South Africa.
For the fast-growing streamer, which is said to rival Netflix for subscriber numbers in South Africa, the importance of local content for African audiences is clear. Last year, seven out of the 10 most-watched shows on the streamer in South Africa were homegrown hits, while that number was eight in Kenya and Nigeria and nine out of 10 in Ghana — with Nigerian format “The Real Housewives of Lagos” (pictured) cracking the top 10 in all four markets. “Local is where it’s all happening,” said van Zyl.
Though it only entered the African market in 2019, PCCW’s Asian regional OTT platform, Viu, brought with it years of experience in emerging markets like Indonesia, Malaysia and India. “We understand how to bring a local offering to local markets,” said Solovei, noting that in many of those territories, Viu beats out Netflix and other larger competitors.
It’s more than just a content play. One of the keys to success in Africa and other emerging markets is offering flexible payment plans, particularly for low-income consumers and those outside the formal banking system. That typically requires platforms to think outside the box.
Showmax was the first streaming platform on the continent to offer mobile-only subscription plans and download options for offline viewing, illustrating how the service was “designed…with Africa in mind,” according to van Zyl. Viu customers have the option to buy a daily subscription or pay with cellular airtime, while the company works with telecom operators to offer affordable data bundles. “These things may not be important to Netflix in the U.S., but they certainly are very important to emerging-market countries,” said Solovei.
For local customers, physical infrastructure remains a challenge across the continent. In South Africa, the rolling blackouts that have crippled the country for months “have a direct impact on platforms,” said Solovei. Meanwhile, van Zyl noted that internet connectivity throughout Africa is estimated to be just 26%.
That’s a clear impediment to growth of streaming services in the short term. However, as more and more Africans come online each year, the upside is obvious. “The potential is massive,” said van Zyl.
The Joburg Film Festival runs Jan. 31 – Feb. 5.