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The Streaming Wars in Africa

We survey the streaming landscape and its efforts to win over more audiences across Africa.

With the streaming wars all but ended in the U.S., Africa seems to be the next destination for the major players to hone in on their efforts to win over audiences. Over the past half-decade, the continent has witnessed an entry push from global streaming platforms looking to change the ways Africans view movies and television. The results have been varied for the different companies, but nonetheless, a unifying takeaway is how strongly streaming has been imprinted on the consciousness of many across Africa, highlighting just how important the next five years will be.

In 2016, Netflix established ties with South Africa and Nigeria as they both became the first countries in Africa to host the platform. Establishing its focus early on, the apartheid-evoking thriller Queen Sono was the former’s first original series, while Lionheartwas the latter’s, released in 2019 and 2020 respectively. That same period, Showmax collapsed its presence in some parts of Europe to set up localized Videos-On-Demand (VOD) in Kenya and Nigeria, although South Africa had the service five years prior.

Similarly, Amazon’s Prime Video entered Africa circa 2020, with international shows while accumulating crucial relationships that saw more local filmmakers create for the platform. Aside from these three major platforms, a number of local ones had attempted to crack the space years before, among them being IROKOTv, MyCanal, StarNews Mobile and Cell C Black. Most of these platforms tinkered with broadcasting forms, due to the established viewing patterns but also to financial restrictions, with Africa’s purchasing power visibly low.

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What the numbers say

Streaming is a game of numbers – anyone will tell you this. In the years since the establishment of streaming platforms, the journey has been tipsy-turvy but mostly beneficial for these companies. With the continent’s rising demography of young people, along with declining levels of interest in traditional cinema, the numbers have been on a steady incline. A report by Dataxis projects the market will rise up to 15 million users by 2026, a threefold increase over five years.

This would be achieved through concerted efforts by streamers to accommodate the economic realities of Africans. Through market-competitive prices, anything from $3 to $12 is considered fair game, depending on the user’s number of accessible devices and features. The internet is also another consideration, as in Africa connectivity is costly. Even with these fees, the connection is usually below world standards, and thus limits people from getting on streaming platforms as they would like.

The peculiarities of major platforms

Some platforms have tried to work around these regional barriers. Most platforms allow for low motion picture quality, depending on the strength of the internet connection. Showmax, through its Max Data Saving Mode, allows users to limit their data consumption to 50MB while viewing movies. Capitalism can only bend so much, however. The larger part of Africa remains unconnected to streaming platforms, either through the aforementioned socio-economic factors or feeling estranged from its content. Platforms cannot control the former, thus the reason for their acquisition and creative plans.

Of them all, Netflix has most attempted to bridge the old and the new. By acquiring classic movies for their audience, the subtle message has been: we understand your history. Nigeria has especially witnessed a number of classic remakes, from Nneka The Pretty Snake to Glamour Girls, Rattlesnake: The Ahanna Story, and Living in Bondage 2. These films, released from 1992 down to the next decade, formed part of what was considered the Golden Age of Nollywood. The didactic storytelling was spiced with characteristic elements most espoused in Jonathan Haynes’ Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres (2016).

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With its new films, Netflix has largely been driven by the belief that Nigerians know what they want to watch. Thus, some of the most popular films on the platform have been thrillers, romantic comedies and wedding dramas. Owned by Mo Abudu, in 2021 EbonyLife became the first African company to sign a multi-title deal with Netflix, after shutting down its television channel the previous year. Through dramas like Death & The King’s Horseman, Òlòtūré and Blood Sisters, it has aligned with broad topical issues within Nigerian culture, ranging from traditional customs to sex and murder.

To their credit, local landscapes and realities are represented, even though there’s a polished edge to their presentation. Netflix’s oeuvre in South Africa has gritty films like Tsotsi, Amandla and Silverton Siege revealing the after-effects of apartheid on the ‘rainbow nation.’ Considering that the classic war narrative Beasts of No Nation was one of the early Netflix films centered on Africa, the platform’s push into the hot-button trajectory has been anything but surprising. These choices have reflected well in their viewership, with their strong promotional push often spurring conversations on social media after release.

By contrast, Amazon’s MO through Prime Video has been to cater to artistic sensibilities that aren’t necessarily African, while drawing from local stories. Simply put, their movies tend to have more appreciation for an experimental approach. This has contributed to their array of critically acclaimed films such as Eyimofe, Rafiki, La Femme Anjola, Mully, and The Milkmaid. Such movies beautifully depict what it means to be on the lower and middle-aspect spectrum of economic living, as opposed to Netflix, which has been criticized for its insistence on grand stories. Earlier this month, Gideon Khobane was announced as the Director of Prime Video Africa, his role description including the “implementation of programming and marketing plans,” a natural extension of the quality of movies they currently have on the platform.

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By proving their readiness to support unconventional movies, they are attracting a generation of African filmmakers looking forward to creating transcendental works. The most prominent of such figures has been Jade Osiberu, who inked an unprecedented three-year overall deal with Prime Video, producing TV series and feature films through her Nigeria-based Greoh Studios. With her successful features Isoken (2017) and Sugar Rush (2019), she demonstrated her love for documenting profound everyday stories.

That partnership has been in full bloom throughout this past year and a half, especially with the releases of Brotherhood and Gangs of Lagos. Not surprisingly, both Prime Video and Netflix have announced plans to expand their operations in Africa. Netflix has been considerably successful with its incursion, so it was no surprise that earlier this year they revealed intentions to expand into even more African countries, promising to “build on these milestones to grow our business while continuing to invest in supporting local creative economies.”

Through Project Fela, Amazon has chosen South Africa and Nigeria as their flagship countries, hosting local domains for viewers and setting up domestic offices (although some of these moves have been delayed). Their deals with Inkblot Studios, Anthill Studios and Known Associates show that they’re interested in both countries’ veteran players, and this subsidiary engagement would likely translate into closer interaction with the local scenes, along with bigger budgets. This demonstrates the “authentically African” vision of Prime, as earmarked by the head of African and Middle East originals Ned Mitchell.

Through these moves, Amazon has put up legitimate competition to Netflix in the region. Looking to the future, it’s likely they’ll be the top contenders for the largest share of the market, but Showmax is no slouch in that race as well. This year’s edition of the prestigious African Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA) saw five of its originals appear in the Best Television Series category, which was eventually won by Crime and Justice Lagos. Obviously paying close attention to audience tastes, The Real Housewives series has been successful, connecting millennial and Gen-Z demographics through reality TV which features cultural figures from across Africa.

Launch Trailer | The Real Housewives Of Abuja | Showmax

Allowing users access to HBO shows has also been a winning formula, portending Showmax' game as a forward-facing one. The network's purposeful combination of African Magic broadcasting channels also gives their services a feeling of home, definitely more than Amazon and Netflix have been able to. If anything, those channels represent the cosmopolitan edge of today’s popular culture, while Showmax has aimed to connect with the soul of our traditional cultures. The Forgotten Kingdom, Induku and Goodbye Gogo are some movies which showcase that quality.

“There’s been a tremendous development,” director Kunle Afolayan, whose films Citation, The Figurine and Swallow can be found on Netflix, noted when he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in 2022. “Just three to four years ago, you would have struggled to sell an African film to a big international platform, and financing was always difficult. Usually, I would make one film in two years. Last year, I made two films in a single year.”

Future prospects

Streaming movies in Africa however raises fresh concerns. As we’ve so far seen, South Africa and Nigeria are the most coveted markets, followed closely by Kenya, suggesting that these companies are merely seeking out established audiences rather than reaching out to countries like the South Sudan, Burundi and Somalia where streaming is least accessible — mostly because of financial constraints.

“I think the biggest limitation is disposable income,” says the culture journalist Dennis Ade Peter. “Around Africa especially, where economies are not particularly booming, recurrent expenditures like paying for streaming platforms every month is going to be really difficult to sustain for a lot of people.” Accessibility to mobile devices is also an influencing factor, while internet connectivity remains a pressing concern. Drawing on a recent study by Statista, a Business Insiderfeature revealed that Africa is the least connected continent in the world.

Disney+ made a solid entry into South Africa while also prioritizing North Africa, showing in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, among other countries. Its history in animation is a unique selling point, and it developed Kizazi Moto: Generation of Fire, which features short films from directors around the continent. North Africa generally has a vibrant economy and has countries that boast over seventy percent internet users, according to the Statista study. It’s therefore a popular destination for streaming platforms. This, however, brings up the need for sensitive integration of the socio-cultural realities that exist, and a recognition of the role religion plays in these areas.

So far, Africa’s music has left its footprints on the global landscape, thus setting a cultural precedent. Through the big budgets and support of these streaming platforms, more African filmmakers could similarly flourish, and see their work reach the bigger award shows and larger audiences, while telling more uniquely African stories.