Ben Amadasun: ‘Shows made in Africa, by Africans, get watched around the world’

How are streaming media faring in Africa? Ben Amadasun, director of content for Netflix in the Middle East and Africa, fills us in.

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Image : Ben Amadasun

Entering a new market is never easy, even for a company such as Netflix that has the financial clout of a small country. And Ben Amadasun, the streaming giant’s director of content for the Middle East and Africa (MEA), is candid about the learning curve the company experienced as it set about growing its Africa business.

“We are still at the beginning of our long-term journey on the African continent, he says, “but what we have come to learn very quickly is that Africans like to watch African content – and we’ve seen that shows and films which are made in Africa, by Africans, get watched around the world,” he tells African Business in an exclusive interview.

Seven years on from Netflix’s initial launch in South Africa, Amadasun has plenty of reasons to be cheery about the company’s growth on the continent. That is underpinned by a slate of original series and movies and a rumoured 2.6m subscribers at the end of 2021. Netflix does not comment on subscriber numbers in individual markets, but had 231m subscribers globally in the fourth quarter of 2022.

“While I can’t share specific figures, what I can say is that viewing of African content has grown considerably and African content is more popular than ever with our members across the continent and around the world,” says Amadasun.

Africa has 1.2bn people and is in the throes of a digital revolution which, alongside the lasting impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, is loosening the grip of traditional media. The continent is becoming a battleground for streaming companies – just as established Western markets start to saturate their markets. 

African creators say this has not come a moment too soon. Netflix is competing against Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV and South African streaming platform Showmax for Africa’s discerning customer-base.

“As more competition comes through across Europe and America, those audience numbers start to stagnate,” says Sipho Fakela, a leading Africa media specialist. “And either you go east to India and China to find new audiences, or you go to Africa – and I think Africa is still more open in terms of what you can introduce.” But, Fakela warns, “If you really want to get support from Africans, you’ve got to give them what they want.”

‘The more local a story, the better’

That is where Amadasun comes in. “Netflix believes that great stories come from anywhere and that the more local a story, the better,” he says. “That’s why myself and my colleagues on the Netflix Africa content team constantly scour the continent to find the greatest stories and the greatest African storytellers and enable them with the tools that they need to tell the best version of their stories.” 

The strategy is two-fold, he says: first to give African creators the opportunity to reach audiences around the world and bring African storytelling to new audiences; and second to produce and licence content that African customers themselves will enjoy.

With a large number of African films and shows already available, the strategy appears to be working. South African series Blood & Water reached the famous Netflix “top 10” in 19 countries, including the US.

Nigerian series Blood Sisters did so in 11 countries, with over 11m hours viewed in its first week. Nigerian film Anikulapo reached the global top 10 for non-English films, as well as the top 10 in 24 countries, as did Amina, another Nigerian film. South African film Silverton Siege reached the top 10 in an impressive 88 countries.

The plan moving forward, Amadasun says, is to offer “a diverse collection of stories that are entertaining, intriguing, challenging, across genres, formats and languages”. The variety afforded by African creators allows Netflix to explore numerous genres, from drama, romance, comedy, thrillers, horror, family, documentaries and reality television, he says.

Expanding beyond the major markets

Naturally, Netflix’s primary focus is on the two major markets. South Africa is where the company commissions most of its titles. Nigeria is Africa’s entertainment superpower, with “Nollywood” an established and booming domestic film industry.

However, the platform now boasts films and shows from across the continent, including Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola, with more countries in the pipeline. “As a global business that spans the world, it’s incredibly important for us to make sure our slate reflects the diverse cultures and experiences of our members, especially in the different African countries,” Amadasun says.

“In the past 15 years, the rise of global streaming platforms has shown us that every country and every culture wants to see themselves represented on screen,” says Marie Lora-Mungai, founder of Restless Global, a strategic advisory firm specialised in the African Creative and Sport sectors.

Penetrating new African markets, particularly those in less developed economies, comes with significant challenges, including limited credit card penetration, low average revenue per user and the predominance of mobile over other devices. Different countries have different mobile payment platforms, including M-Pesa in Kenya and Wave in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. 

As a result, Netflix has been forced to build local partnerships, Amadasun says, including arrangements with mobile operators, internet service providers and payment firms. According to GSMA, a mobile network industry organisation, only 28% of sub-Saharan Africans were connected to the internet by the end of 2020. While connectivity remains a perennial challenge, and data streaming is still too expensive in some countries, infrastructure improvements and increased internet access has a direct impact on streaming growth, Amadasun says.

“Africa is very mobile-centric, with a substantial amount of people accessing the internet on their mobile phones,” he adds. “This was one of the reasons why Netflix extensively tested and ultimately launched a mobile-only plan in countries across the continent at an affordable monthly price.”

A tide that could lift all boats

With global streaming companies finally taking Africa seriously, local companies in the creative industry are experiencing a wave of investment, figures show. “Each production supports local businesses,” says Amadasun. For example, when a new title is commissioned, there is opportunity for directors, actors, stylists, and make-up artists. There’s a multiplier effect in the industry.”

Experts say there is still plenty of work to do. Streaming platforms “are commercial companies, not charities, so they have to match their investment to their expected return from each market over a specific period of time,” says Lora-Mungai. “This can sometimes lead African creatives to feel that budgets are still too low compared to the rest of the world, or that there are not enough winners.”

So far, she says, “the continent has not had its Casa de Papel or Squid Game moment yet,” referencing the hugely popular Spanish and South Korean shows that were widely watched around the world.

Still, most feel bullish about the prospects for Africa’s entertainment and media industry with the involvement of major platforms such as Netflix. “In the next five to ten years you are likely to see African stories making it big organically in Europe and in America because those markets are probably hungry for new voices and new content they haven’t seen before,” says Fakela.

It is a tide that, if successful, could lift all boats, from African creators and production companies to advertisers and streaming platforms themselves. For Netflix, investment in Africa today could pay huge dividends tomorrow.

“Netflix has always regarded Africa as a very important region,” says Amadasun, “and the company’s vision for the continent is the same as its vision globally – to reach as many members as possible.”

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Charlie Mitchell

Award-winning journalist covering West Africa for African Business, The Sunday Times and others.