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An insatiable hunger for programming and digital technology has led to an explosion of Over-The-Top (OTT) channels. An African perspective.

By Paula Slier

Broadcasting in Africa has come a long way in the past 20 years. Before smartphones, wireless internet, small cameras and non-linear editing became mainstream, the industry relied on a somewhat messy fusion of then ground-breaking technology like satellite transmission and old-fashioned communication.

I remember working in television in Nairobi in 1998. The video editor and I were seated in front of the editing suite. At the far end of the corridor waited the cameraman; after him, the passageway turned sharply to the right and 12 meters further on stood the producer. Another sharp right turn, another corridor and in the distance was the satellite operator.

According to Digital TV Research, at the end of last year, collective OTT revenues in Africa reached $392 million and are set to rise to $1.7 billion by 2026. The bulk of the market is, and will continue to be, Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) packages

“Now” shouted the video editor from some 40 meters away as he pressed play on the machine.

“Now” repeated the cameraman from his corner.

“Now” echoed the producer.

“Now” confirmed the satellite operator as he uplinked the video.

Fast-forward two decades and the industry has completely changed. The jobs of five people have amalgamated into one. Far from being the passive consumer of media, audiences are now producers and journalists in their own right.

“Gone are the days that the nuclear family would schedule time to watch something around the TV as a family unit,” says Christina Foley, Managing Director of United Kingdom-based Marvel Media Consultancy. 

“Now you have an entire family watching different things in different rooms at the same time. We are digesting content in a very different way. We have a choice which gives us opportunity to watch when, how and what we want.”

“Now you have an entire family watching different things in different rooms at the same time. We are digesting content in a very different way. We have a choice which gives us an opportunity to watch when, how and what we want.” – Christina Foley, Managing Director of United Kingdom-based Marvel Media Consultancy

The result is an insatiable hunger for programming and digital technology. This has led to an explosion in the last few years of Over-The-Top (OTT) channels through which content is delivered via an internet connection rather than a traditional cable or broadcast provider.

According to Digital TV Research, at the end of last year, collective OTT revenues in Africa reached $392 million and are set to rise to $1.7 billion by 2026. The bulk of the market is, and will continue to be, Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) packages that allow users to consume as much content as they desire at a flat rate per month. Revenues from such services like Netflix and Disney+ will grow from a current $299 million to $1.5 billion in the next five years.

“Absolutely OTT is the future everywhere, not just Africa,” says Foley.

“News and entertainment will use OTT. A lot of the mobile companies like MTN and Cell C are putting together their own content packages so when they sign up new customers they can offer them this on top for a fee.”

“We believe that the growth of digital streaming services in Africa means that the continent is primed for the democratization of content.” – Dr Amadeo Rahmann

But the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting has been delayed in many African countries because of low internet penetration rates – the continent has a total internet penetration level of just under 40% compared with penetration in the rest of the world at 63.2% – limited WiFi and the high cost of data.

Martin Brasg, a broadcast consultant who’s worked with clients across the continent for the past three decades, blames this on internal politics.

“Traditional broadcasters hold monopolies over internet services and are not willing to let go. In South Africa, for example, for years they’ve been putting the brakes on cheap internet. Until a few years ago, Telkom, the country’s biggest provider of communication services, was the only company that could install fiber broadband connection. This was until the second network operator Neotel came on board. Since then a number of fiber-to-the-home operators started being more prolific in South Africa, enabling more consumers to have broadband at home.”

The potential for Africa is huge. According to Internet World Stats in December 2019, more Africans (526 million) accessed the internet than North Americans. But whereas Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria are ahead of the curve and have taken advantage of good quality internet and a deregulated internet industry, other African countries are lagging behind. Several are listed among those with the lowest internet speed and yet the most expensive communication and internet costs in the world.

“Things in South Africa started to change around three-to-five years ago,” reflects Brasg.

“Consumers have also been moving away to free-to-air operators like OVHD (open view HD) that offer a library of TV shows, films and original programming.”

The lack, and theft, of infrastructure in Africa has also set up OTT to expand enormously over mobile networks, points out Joanne Raphael-Katz, Managing Director of South African-based Exceptional Rights. Katz has been delivering OTT and VOD content to mobile and TV customers for the past two decades.

“Consider that in South Africa there are approximately 14 million TV households but 53 million smartphones. This makes OTT via mobile a force to be reckoned with,” she says.

“Mobile is so accessible and payment is by time, making it ideal for the underbanked. Phones are upgrading and always improving – a smart phone with a rich media screen doesn’t have to be the latest iPhone or Samsung. There are plenty of devices to suit all brackets of income and allow for OTT via mobile.” Africa is on record as having the fastest growing mobile telecommunication market but when it comes to content via mobile there’s still a long way to go.

User-generated content – content created by people rather than brands – like TikTok have become popular overnight.

“Apps and concepts like this will always change and shape the world and how we use our mobile. The spectrum is being opened and auctioned and will change the amount of content we consume. Content providers can also now supply their channels to DSTV via IPTV [internet television] to their platform, doing away with expensive satellite expenses,” says Katz.

But inevitably as more players enter the OTT market, competition is growing.

Dubai-based mobile technology company, Mondia, is one of many penetrating the market. In the last three months, it launched its time-based entertainment platform, Monsooq, in South Africa and Nigeria. Utilizing time as currency, users can buy entertainment time just as they would mobile airtime and use it to consume any content they choose. At the moment, the platform offers over 20,000 hours of entertainment.

“We believe that the growth of digital streaming services in Africa means that the continent is primed for the democratization of content,” says CEO Dr Amadeo Rahmann.

“Covid-19 has had such a dramatic impact on economies globally, deeply affecting consumers’ disposable income. We believe this model will have huge appeal in emerging markets.”

With a population set to double to 2.5 billion over the next 30 years, Africa also offers a vast and growing youth demographic for broadcasters and content producers. As the world of entertainment continuously evolves, consumers too will benefit greatly, accessing information as rapidly as they want – on demand and on the go.

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