Will Netflix Succeed in Africa?

As video-on-demand platforms multiply, the conversion of Western consumers into VOD subscribers is nearing saturation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, focus is therefore shifting to other markets, like the African continent, where consumers are (perhaps) not yet experiencing subscription fatigue. But what do we know about their expectations?

Since February 2020, Netflix has been wooing African audiences with ‘Queen Sono,’ its first original African series. The strategy aims to position the company outside of markets where competition is already fierce by offering locally flavoured products with international potential.

“Netflix understood very quickly that local content is an important differentiating factor, especially in an environment that has become hyper-competitive,” observes Destiny Tchéhouali, professor at Université du Québec à Montréal’s department of social and public communication and director of the Observatoire des réseaux et interconnexions de la société numérique (ORISON).

An opportunity for African creators

The secret ingredient of ‘Queen Sono’ is a strong, inspiring South African heroine who fights crime while juggling with her own crises. It’s all about offering viewers an inspiring reflection of African identity.

“What’s important for Africa is to be able to see itself in order to exist,” says Tonjé Bakang, an entrepreneur and founder of Afrostream, the first French subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service dedicated to African productions. The platform ceased its operations in 2017, but that does not stop Mr. Bakang from sharing his story in various forums, as he did at the Journées d’étude internationales sur la découvrabilité in October 2019.

There are several reasons for Afrostream’s failure — lack of funding in the first place. However, its vision was perfectly in line with the changing cultural consumption trends and habits in various African countries.

“We are currently witnessing a kind of cultural revolution or, at the very least, a cultural consensus around African-ness, embodied in a veritable movement of identity pride and the desire to go out and conquer the world, to show the world the talents and rich cultural diversity that Africa abounds in,” explains Destiny Tchéhouali.

The issues surrounding the expression of cultural and linguistic diversity in the digital age are at the heart of the professor’s research. Being himself of African origin, he says that he is a witness to cultural manifestations on the continent, particularly in Francophone Africa.

“As far as TV is concerned, many are still fond of Latin American telenovelas and Indian dramas [Bollywood],” he adds. “But more and more African viewers are demanding local content, as evidenced by the success of the African adaptations of Western series and programs such as ‘Parents mode d’emploi,’ ‘L’Afrique a un incroyable talent,’ ‘Qui veut gagner des millions,’ ‘Survivor’ and ‘Big Brother Africa’.”

Who better than the creators of the African audiovisual sector to meet this need? The appetite of consumers is unlikely to diminish, thus opening up great opportunities for African producers.

While Africa is attractive to SVOD players, the content battle cannot only be fought over pan-African productions aimed at penetrating national markets. It seems imperative to focus on specific cultural, social and economic realities.

Tonjé Bakang learned that the hard way by wanting to introduce Afrostream simultaneously in several French-speaking countries instead of aiming first at the development of a national market.

“In hindsight, I think it would have been better to have targeted fewer countries, to have focused on one region rather than trying to acquire the catalogue of several countries. For example, by developing an offer of 50 Ivorian films.”

Linear television still ahead ― by far

Often criticized for its soft power ambitions (the company negotiates directly with African leaders to finance telecommunications infrastructure), China-based StarTimes ON could be one step ahead of Netflix in the race for VOD on the African continent: more than 180 channels, 2,500 free films and live football.

Still, Africans prefer to watch television in their living rooms.

Kantar’s 'Africascope 2019' study of media consumption in eight sub-Saharan African countries shows that 92 percent of those surveyed watched television daily for an average of 3 hours 56 minutes a day, about 20 minutes more than Canadians.

On the other hand, only 28 percent connect to the internet every day or almost every day, with an average of 43 minutes per day, in contrast — and the gap is glaring — to the 4 hours and 35 minutes that the average Canadian spends on the internet per day.

Among the factors explaining this situation is the relatively high cost of broadband internet, which is “increasingly expensive in a large number of countries,” states the report titled ‘Connecting Africa Through Broadband,’ which calls to achieve “universal, affordable, and good quality broadband connectivity by 2030”.

“In Africa, mobile services subscriber penetration is only 76 percent, households with internet access at home 22 percent, individuals using the internet 24.4 percent ― as opposed to 107 percent, 57.8 percent, and 51.2 percent, respectively, globally.” – ‘Connecting Africa Through Broadband’ (October 2019, p. 25)

It is then understandable that the binge-watching phenomenon is not a widespread practice ― at least for the time being.

New prospects for collaboration with Francophone Africa

The market of French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, which comprises 22 countries, is destined to play a major role as a representative of the French language in the international audiovisual sector. This is what DISCOP’s president, Patrick Zuckowicki, believes. His company specializes in exporting cultural content to the 54 countries of the African continent.

“[French-speaking Africa] remains a little-known area, but in the last five years we have seen an increase in the number of channels aimed at Francophone audiences. There is a better appreciation of this content,” he notes, while pointing out that it is not easy to work there.

Unlike in English-speaking countries (such as Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa), cultural and creative industries in French-speaking African countries still face major structural problems, says Destiny Tchéhouali. Piracy of cultural products, lack of professionalization and the absence of measures and policies to support the development of these industries are some examples.

That does not prevent Patrick Zuchowicki from getting involved by multiplying round tables with local actors in order to develop content adapted to their needs.

These days it is mostly about educational programs.

“There is a strong unmet demand for educational content, which has a very captive audience. Knowing that a very large proportion of young people under the age of 15 are not in school, there is a political will to position ourselves in this market,” he argues.

In his view, the development of youth content is a fertile ground for co-production between Canada and certain French-speaking African countries ― word to the wise!

At the same time, DISCOP’s president argues that what African audiovisual players really want is to take their place in an increasingly global market so that they can tell their stories in their own way. To do so, they will have to gradually free themselves from their dependence on international broadcasters or the imperative of co-productions, although these contributions remain fundamentally necessary.

In the meantime, no matter what anyone says, Netflix and StarTimes ON will work to relay them in their own way.

Claudia Beaumont
Digital content coordinator, music programmer, radio producer, research assistant, community manager, columnist: Claudia Beaumont played many roles in the field of music broadcasting at Société Radio-Canada over a 10-year period. She then went on to work in the audiovisual industry, as a product manager for TV5 and Unis TV’s digital platforms. Over the past several years, she also developed an interest in the impact of digital technologies on artistic creation and its marketability. Her master’s thesis focused on crowdfunding and its role in cultural intermediation in Quebec.
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