Nollywood has written the script for African development

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Oct 31, 2019

Malika: Warrior Queen, a new animated short film, is charting new territory for Nigeria’s film industry, known as Nollywood. The film has garnered international recognition—it recently won best animated short at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, and it marks one of Africa’s first major forays into animated production.  

The film tells a story based on the legend of Queen Amina, a 16th-century ruler in northern Nigeria. Roye Okupe, whose YouNeek Studios produced the film, championed the project because he felt that the story would be meaningful for young audiences in Africa and beyond. But the movie itself is also a meaningful milestone on Nollywood’s path toward global prominence. 

Using animation, a slow and expensive way to make movies, represents a sea change for a Nigerian film scene that has traditionally been dominated by low-budget dramas and comedies typically produced in the period of a few weeks. Malika, by contrast, took over a year to make and required funding from a Kickstarter and other investors. The process reflects a broader change in African cinema, where filmmakers have begun seeing bigger box office returns, fueling an increase in the quality of the films they produce. Nollywood is arriving on the global stage, but how has it managed it in an industry dominated by big-budget Hollywood productions?

The secret to Nollywood’s success

Nollywood got off the ground by targeting nonconsumption—when people are unable to “consume” a product from which they would otherwise benefit because it has hitherto been inaccessible. In the case of Nollywood, its earliest filmmakers aimed to fill a gap in entertainment by making films for Africans by Africans. The problem wasn’t due to a lack of supply; Both Hollywood and India’s Bollywood made plenty of movies, but their characters and storylines weren’t very relatable to the daily lives of many in African audiences. There was a latent demand for African cinematic storytelling. 

That all changed in 1992, when electronics salesman Kenneth Nnebue received a shipment of blank VHS tapes. Sales were low, so he decided to record his own film on the tapes and sell them to customers. The result, a film titled Living in Bondage, sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the continent and jump-started the Nigerian film industry. Nnebue’s film was low-budget and relatively poor in quality, but it did something Hollywood’s box-office blockbusters could not: provide relatable entertainment for African viewers. 

Targeting nonconsumption armed its filmmakers with several advantages. First, it enabled them to avoid competing with entrenched industry leaders in a fight for market share—a fight they’d likely lose. It also ensured that their films weren’t held to the same qualitative standards; since they filled a gap in customer demand, viewers didn’t mind that the films weren’t as good as Hollywood’s by conventional metrics, allowing filmmakers to produce films cheaply and quickly. Lastly, by creating a new market for cinema in Africa, Nollywood filmmakers gained a first-mover advantage, earning the loyalty of African audiences and cementing Nigeria’s role as the leader in African cinema through the present day.

Showtime for African prosperity

Few might have guessed that a movie industry would flourish in a country where only 40% of households own a television, but Nollywood’s formula of targeting nonconsumption has enabled it to develop into a massive success. Releasing a remarkable 50 movies per week, Nollywood outpaces Hollywood in film production. The industry’s activities now account for 5% of Nigeria’s GDP, and it’s the second-largest employer in the country behind the agriculture sector, having created nearly two million new jobs. Its success has led to the creation of training institutions for acting, directing, and cinematography, in addition to spurring the government to begin creating better laws against copyright infringement and piracy. Significantly, it’s also contributed to building a culture of artistry and entrepreneurship in Nigeria and beyond. And as internationally-acclaimed productions like Malika become more common, Nollywood—along with its positive effect on African prosperity—will only grow more prominent in the future. 

It’s not difficult to imagine how Nollywood’s model for success might be replicated in other African industries like healthcare, education, agriculture and food production, transportation, and tech, where vast nonconsumption continues to exist. As Nollywood demonstrated, the key for aspiring African companies in these sectors is not necessarily to compete directly with foreign heavyweights for market share at first, but rather to identify the nonconsumption within Africa that competitors ignore, then create simple, affordable products that are more accessible than what’s currently available. If a strategy of targeting nonconsumption just within the film industry has created so much prosperity for Nigeria, imagine what might happen when Africa’s other developing industries followed suit.

Nollywood’s entrepreneurs and artists have written the script. Now it’s up to Africa’s other industries to play their parts. 

Lincoln Wilcox is a research associate at the Christensen Institute, where he researches ways in which individuals, businesses, governments, and development organizations can create prosperity in low-income countries and communities.