As American streaming giants scale back their costly global expansion plans in favor of balance-sheet profitability, one region is still managing to draw their investment: sub-Saharan Africa.
A recent report from Ampere Analysis, a media analysis firm, forecasts that global streaming giants could drive 75 percent growth in sub-Saharan Africa’s subscription video on demand (SVOD) market, up to 3.4 million subscribers generating $220 million in annual revenues by the end of 2027, or almost double 2022 figures.
“Commissions in sub-Saharan Africa saw the largest year-on-year increase of any global region last year, an 85 percent increase, while commissions from other regions like North America, Asia-Pacific, and Central Eastern Europe declined,” Sam Young, analyst at Ampere Analysis, tells The Current.
The sub-Saharan Africa opportunity might be the last bastion of untapped growth for subscriber and revenue-hungry streaming giants. Gaining share in the market, however, will be anything but straightforward, with challenges like low spending power and infrastructure inadequacies standing in the way.
In parallel, streamers’ increasing production of original African content could supercharge the advance of African cultural exports across the globe. Nigeria’s film industry, known as Nollywood, is already the second largest in the world, trailing only India’s Bollywood when it comes to yearly output.
Nollywood and more
Unlike in Western Europe and Southeast Asia, where a roster of strong local streamers like ITVX, Viu, and Vidio jostle for viewers with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, American streaming giants’ only real pan-African competition is Showmax, owned by South African entertainment giant MultiChoice and present in 46 African countries.
Showmax, however, is facing a potential acquisition by French media company Vivendi, which now owns 31.7 percent of its parent company and is close to the 35 percent ownership stake that would require it to make a takeover offer for MultiChoice under South African law. Should this happen, Africa’s streaming landscape would effectively be dominated by non-African firms.
There are, however, a few smaller, local streamers that have built loyal fan bases by investing in local programming. This is particularly evident in Nigeria, where companies like iBAKATV, Afrinolly, and NollyLand have tapped in to Nollywood’s film output.
To survive, some local services are getting creative. iBAKATV, for example, partnered with two telecommunications companies to provide free data to customers, with CEO Blessed Idornigie saying, “The issue isn’t the cost of the subscription, but the cost of the data.”
The tenacity shown by the likes of iBAKATV is why streaming giants shouldn’t expect a smooth ride into Africa. “The only thing [Netflix] is afraid of are the local players,” said Oliver Berben, deputy CEO of German production house Constantin Film, in Canon’s recent Future of Filmmaking report.
The reality of competing for market share in sub-Saharan Africa means a need to focus on attainable price points, says Ampere Analysis’ Young, and a willingness to get creative when it comes to addressing inadequacies in infrastructure.
Netflix lowered the price of its plans across more than 100 countries at the start of 2023. In many sub-Saharan Africa countries, this cut meant that Netflix’s basic tier became cheaper than what Showmax offered. A similar strategy introduced in India in 2021 resulted in increased revenue growth despite lower average revenue per unit (ARPU), Netflix said.
Still, local players like IROKOTV and iBAKATV currently charge significantly less, and offer packages that come bundled with data, in a continent where the majority access internet on mobile. Amazon launched Prime Video Naija in 2022 in partnership with local Nigerian telco MTN, and its price point at the time undercut both Netflix and Showmax.
Leaning into partnerships with telcos might be a smart way forward for global streamers, says Young, as it would allow users to add subscriptions to their existing mobile bills. However, streamers might face telcos’ competition, too, with Kenya’s Safaricom and Nigeria’s Glo both sporting their own streaming divisions. Pay TV is also a popular content channel across the continent. “The [streaming giants] might not be competing amongst themselves, but competing against different forms of media,” Young says.
Global giants close in
Netflix, present in the region since 2016, started seeing the fruits of its investments in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020, thanks to South African original Blood and Water, which topped the streamer’s U.S. charts.
Last year, the streamer announced it would invest another $63 million in South Africa’s film and TV industry, a sizable investment in a region where the streamer has cumulatively invested $175 million over the past nine years between South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya.
“It is probably a bit too early to see the impact of that investment right now, but as a more general trend, we’ve definitely seen a shift in attention from Netflix and other global streamers towards the region,” says Young. Prime Video, for its part, unveiled its first two Nigerian originals in 2022, Gangs of Lagos and LOL: Last One Laughing Naija.
Netflix’s recent deal with HBO to distribute some of the latter’s top shows will likely prove a significant blow for Showmax, which had been the exclusive distributor of HBO content in Africa together with sister company DStv. But Showmax might not be done quite yet: In March, parent company MultiChoice announced a partnership with Comcast’s NBCUniversal and Sky, in a bid to relaunch its streaming service as Showmax 2.0, powered by Peacock’s technology and featuring a range of internationally licensed content.
“For NBCUniversal […] it’s a strategic move to capture one of the last emerging markets still up for the taking,” Marie Lora-Mungai, founder of Restless Global, a strategic advisory firm that specializes in the African creative and sports sectors, told Variety.
It makes sense: In the context of slowing worldwide growth, the sub-Saharan Africa opportunity might just be too big to ignore. “Only 1 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of last year had a subscription to an OTT [over-the-top] service, whereas it was 71 percent in North America and 52 percent in Western Europe,” says Young. “Obviously there’s a lot of room to expand, but it’s a question of successfully adapting their strategies.”