Jason Njoku is building one of Africa’s splashiest tech start-ups. iROKOtv, dubbed the Netflix of Africa, is a streaming video service built around the cinematic offerings of Nollywood, Nigeria’s fast-growing movie industry. It’s not easy being an African online media startup. Because of extremely low broadband penetration on the continent, most of iROKOtv’s movies are consumed in the US and UK by immigrants who have more reliable Internet access than most Africans—including, until recently, iROKOtv’s own Lagos office. (As Njoku puts it, “an internet company that can’t get on to the internet is just plain embarrassing.”) Still, he insists that his business’s future lies with African consumers. Here the British-born Njoku talks about his plans for unlocking the continent as a market for streaming movies, and explains why he could never manage to hold down a regular job.
You studied chemistry: What work did you do before pursuing entrepreneurship?
Even while I was studying chemistry at the University of Manchester, I was still pursuing entrepreneurial activities. I used to run club nights, trying to earn extra cash to pay for my student life, standing outside bars until 3 a.m. handing out fliers to students, urging them to come to my nights. Sometimes people came in their droves, other times it was me, one or two mates and the bar staff and I came home broke, wondering what went wrong. It was an awesome microcosm of real-life business for big boys.
I’m a hustler at heart and it wasn’t a conscious decision to be an entrepreneur. It was just something I had always done and expected to continue doing after my degree. I knew I didn’t want to work for “the man.” In fact, in all honesty, I genuinely don’t think I could keep down a regular job. I’m brutally honest about the sort of person I am—curt, belligerent, intense, egotistical—I could go on. But I’m also astute, hard working (stupidly so), creative and have no fear of failure. Add up my personality traits and business skills and they don’t lead to a 9-5 job, they lead to a life as an entrepreneur.
If the growth of iROKOtv lies in Africa (even just Nigeria) how crucial is better and affordable internet connectivity to your business?
Internet connectivity in Africa is critical to the future of iROKO, in terms of attracting more viewers and from a day-to-day business perspective too. For example, very early on in iROKO’s history, we were showing a CNN TV crew around our Festac office and we couldn’t show them the website as the Internet was down. An internet company that can’t get on to the Internet is just plain embarrassing.
Since then, we’ve spent a lot of money and time to ensure we can upload the huge amounts of content we have, as well as ensure the website is working at its best at all times. Broadband connections are, for the majority of Africans, a luxury and this is why iROKOtv has and will continue to be for the near future, a diaspora-focused company. Over 50% of our traffic comes from the US and UK alone and more people watch iROKOtv in London than they do in the whole of Nigeria. But when Africa comes online and Internet is not only faster but less prohibitive financially, the iROKOtv business will look completely different. We know the thirst for African content is there, it’s just a matter of ensuring as many people as possible can access it.
What is your mobile business strategy, seeing as this is the preferred way viewers in the continent prefer to access content?
The mobile phone in Africa is king, so naturally we’ve spent time looking at how we can make our content available on mobile phones. In January of this year, we launched an iROKOtv mobile App in exclusive partnership with Nokia, who worked closely with our tech team to help us develop a product that is optimized for Nigeria’s networks and a lot was done technically to make it feasible on 3G networks. Our sister company is a music platform, iROKING, and it has a loyal mobile gathering thanks to the fact we provide free music downloads on the vast majority of our 35,000 tracks. iROKING also works with some of Africa’s biggest SMS mobile platforms, including 2Go and Eskimi, pushing out our songs to their millions of users who use their mobiles to chat and socialize.
Is trademark infringement still a problem for your business; and how much of your time do you spend fighting this?
Piracy in the entertainment industry is rife and yes, it continues to be a problem for the company. But it isn’t insurmountable and we have a killer team of legal representatives in Lagos and New York who are totally dedicated to fighting copyright infringement making sure we, as a company, can live up to our promise to the producers we work with that their content will only be found on iROKOtv and nowhere else.
What has been the success of your subscription service since its launch; have viewers who were accustomed to getting content for free come around? What percentage of your business does it form?
When iROKOtv launched in December 2011, users could access all content for free—all they had to do was register with us. In July 2012, we shifted to a freemium model, iROKOtv PLUS, where we started charging $5 a month for fans to access the more expensive, brand new Nollywood movies. 95% of our site remained free [supported by ads] and we also removed the registration process, The introduction of the subscription service brutalized our traffic and growth by roughly 50%, but increased our revenue prospects considerably. The sharp decline in user numbers was tough to take at the time and I agonized over whether or not we’d made the right decision to start charging for the top quality content. It turns out that it definitely was the right decision to make, in order to continue monetizing our site and providing the best possible service to our viewers around the world. It took around 8 months but we are now back to the same level of users we were before iROKOtv PLUS was launched.