With a vernacular peppered with swearing and a touch of South London charm, Jason Njoku, 31, made headlines in April when Tiger Global, a $9 billion private equity fund, led an $8 million funding round backing his latest venture, Iroko Partners. It was one of the largest, early-stage deals ever announced by an Africa-focused tech company and catapulted the London-born wunderkind businessmen into wonderland.
Further venture capital funding followed and Njoku is now at the helm of a company that is redefining how Nigerian films are distributed and paid for. This is changing the economics of the industry and tapping a massive latent demand for African content around the world. It may sound easy, but it wasn’t.
“Before Iroko Partners there were at least 10 projects: Some multi-year projects; some lasting a mere few months; many more never left my mind. I think I’ve always been somewhat non-linear in what I do,” he says over lunch near the company’s London offices in Clerkenwell.
“I’ve always liked working on interesting things.”
Growing up in South London shaped him.
“I grew up in Lewisham Deptford: solidly working class, a council estate kid if there ever was one,” he says.
A defining moment in his life was when he moved north to study chemistry in Manchester.
“I had just kind of hung around with other young, black kids, so it was kind of peculiar when I went to university, launched from one community, which had its own dress code, ideals.”
In this university, he saw an opportunity. Graduating in 2005, he threw himself into launching a magazine for students called Brash—backed by loans from friends, goodwill and youthful enthusiasm. This was, he recalls, on the cusp of the transition from print to digital, when so many of the United Kingdom’s larger media groups were struggling to understand new distribution channels and new revenue models. It was also before Facebook had hit Britain, in earnest, offering vast potential in the student market.
“I spent a good three years making every mistake there was to make about how to run a business,” Njoku says.
“We were very popular, but we just never figured out how to make money. Most normal people would have just given up a year in. I’m pretty persistent, so I kept going for three years until it gave up on me. I ran out of money, I ran out of friends who would lend me money. I was forced to stop.”
What this taught him, however, was his pain threshold.
“I got a feel for what kind of person I am,” he says.
A short hiatus in formal employment, as a recruitment consultant, followed, but soon Njoku was back for another round, co-founding Roll On Friday, a blog network and news site for young professionals in banking, law and consultancy. The thesis was that these individuals had disposable income, time on their hands and, crucially, they defined themselves according to their professions. This shared identity creates a powerful sense of community and a well-defined market opportunity.
“The only problem was that we launched the same week that Lehman [Brothers] decided to wreak havoc upon the world,” Njoku laughs.
“A big driver of our traffic at the time was redundancy watch… That was driving us traffic, and then we would try to sell that traffic to the law firms. I called the recruitment department of every legal department in the UK and started pitching to them, and they said: ‘Hey, you should read your own site. No-one’s hiring.’ I spent two years trying to figure out that.”
In 2008, he went to Nigeria.
“I have never been part of the Nigerian community as such. The Nigerian community is nothing like the black [British] community. It’s completely different in every way, shape and form. So when I went to Nigeria I thought, ‘Wow, there’s lots of music.’ The first inkling I had that something interesting was going on in Nigeria was the music because the music is everywhere. When I went into clubs, I was expecting to hear American hip-hop and R&B, but I was hearing local music. I bought 100 CDs, never listened to them, sort of sat on the idea,” he says.
After his return, it was clear the blog network was defunct. Once again, the project had been popular, but Njoku and his colleagues had not worked out how to turn popularity into cash flow—the eternal problem for digital media businesses. “Distracted”, he turned to other ventures—a T-shirt company and a web design venture—to pay the bills.
“At that stage, I moved back in with my mum. From 2002, to leaving [home], to being an aspiring student, in 2009-10, moving back in with my mum was kind of humiliating. I guess it’s kind of the hero’s journey. Delusions of grandeur.”
It was there that the idea for Iroko Partners was seeded. His mother, who he remembers mainly watching British soap operas on the TV, was now watching Nollywood films on DVD. His Nigerian friends were raving about D-Banj, who was selling out venues in London.
“I figured there was something going on with this Nigerian community,” says Njoku.
He went looking for more Nollywood films, which have a thriving secondary market in London’s Brixton Market.
“I tried to buy them online, but couldn’t find any. So I went to the store. But to try to identify a Nollywood movie was impossible. There was no identification on the movie sleeves. There seemed to be no kind of formalized, organized distribution. I thought hang on, this thing seems to be very popular, but there seems to be no distribution around it,” he says.
He called his friend Bastian Gotter—now Iroko’s chief operating officer, but then working as a trader at BP—and, after an abortive attempt to sell a few DVDs online, his friend told him to stop talking and head to Nigeria.
“I had no money. But he said, ‘Fly out to Lagos, see what’s going on out there.’ So I jumped on a plane and spent a month going to the markets, see what people are doing working out how is this thing structured? Who are the production houses, where are they? How do you speak to them? What language do they speak? I was expecting to find Viacom, and I didn’t find anything. I thought, how can something so popular have no distribution infrastructure?”
Moved by hand through traders in the chaos of Idumota Market on Lagos Island, the production, distribution and marketing of Nollywood films is run on grounds so ruthlessly commercial they make Hollywood studios look like arthouse independents. Around 200 movies are made per month, all on a miniscule budget, shot on location in houses, offices and streets. In sheer volume terms, Nigeria produces more movies than any other country except for India. Estimates of the industry’s value range from $200 million to $500 million, and its structures have baffled economists and executives for years.
Whereas stripped-down cinema is, in the West, an artistic decision, in Nollywood it is simple economics. The movies sell for a dollar or two on DVDs, so volume of production, volume of sales and trimmed-down costs are essential. The average film is made for less than $20,000, with bankability assured by big name actors and stories of disaster and redemption.
It is this sheer ruthlessness that fuels the industry’s creation myth—that opportunistic traders acquired a large stash of blank VHS tapes just as the national broadcaster was being dismantled. With an oversupply of filmmaking skills suddenly in the market, and a realization that the tapes were worth considerably more with content on them, an industry was born. The films have developed artistic merit, but that was the industry’s afterthought.
As the Nigerian diaspora spread across the world, the films have followed, brought in bulk or pirated, turning up on market stalls in the US and Europe. But they have also become disseminated across Africa. As Africa’s most populous country, few others have had the demographics needed to support a film industry for domestic consumption. Nollywood has filled the gap. It has even begun to take hold in the Caribbean. Its global audience is big—very big—but as Njoku found, there are few formal mechanisms to exploit that audience. Having been offered hundreds of films on a hard disk in London, he knew that the films were getting out, but the original producers were not benefiting.
“I did some research into Nollywood, and all anyone talks about is piracy. When you go into the main market, you have to go through the pirates to get to the actual real producers, or people who sell them. I thought it didn’t make any sense. So I started talking to people about licenses. I said, ‘I’m thinking of licensing for the internet.’ Some of them were trying to sell me the whole license forever for $1,000. I was like: ‘That’s madness, and I honestly don’t think you know what you’re selling me,’” he says.
In an approach he has maintained since, Njoku decided there was no benefit in starting out by exploiting the relative ignorance of the market. Even so, it had started to clarify exactly what he could bring to the industry. He flew back to the UK with an idea forming.
“I told Bastian, this is the steal of the century. I can’t think of anything else that is as popular in the world without some kind of systematic marketing machine pushing it. Hollywood, Bollywood, there are systematic marketing machines that push these things. Nollywood doesn’t have these things. So I was like, there’s this massive dislocation in the value. Something needs to fill that gap, and we’ve got a decent shot at figuring it out.”
The approach was to use YouTube’s brand new partnership program for content providers. After banging on the door in the UK, Gotter’s family connections in Germany got them a shot at pitching to YouTube Germany.
“At first, they thought, this crazy Nigerian movies thing?,” Njoku says. “I said that’s fine. Look at what’s on YouTube.”
Fans of Nollywood movies had been uploading them for years, slicing them into 15-minute chunks and watching them by the millions.
“They gave me the partnership on a Tuesday, the following Sunday I was in Nigeria. I flew back to Lagos, said ‘Hey, let’s try and license some movies.’ We licensed about 50 movies in September 2010, and we put them up on YouTube. And nothing really happened. It was like $20, $30 a day, just nothing was really happening. So I went back to Lagos, licensed some movies, came back again.”
“About November, Bastian said, ‘Look, for this to work we need to go all-in, get on a plane, just live in Nigeria, figure this thing out from top to bottom.’ He liquidated all his life savings, sold his stocks and shares, borrowed money from his dad, gave me everything, which was about £60,000. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly. All in!”
In hindsight, it is difficult not to see this as a sound investment. In early December 2010, they launched the NollywoodLove Channel. Within four months they were Africa’s biggest content partner on YouTube, they were cash flow positive and had 25 staff.
The piracy problems they mitigated was an ingenious and rigorous system of proof. First they took the full title, cast list and executive producer credits for each film, added the film classification board’s censorship certificate and then, finally, filmed a ‘confession’ from the producer stating that the film is his or hers to sell.
“Right away, we built a $1 million business on YouTube. The idea was: it’s the deal of the century, we’ll get this content—we won’t buy it forever, we’ll buy it for a short time, we get one-year licenses—we’ll put it online and we’ll take it from there. We weren’t too interested in writing reports or business plans, we just thought this is valuable, we’ll get as much of it as we can. In the first six months, we had bought 800 movies, and we were like, we just need more content. Content is king,” says Njoku.
If Viacom could exist in almost any content marketplace in the world, they figured, it could work in Nigeria—so they set out to become Viacom.
After a year of struggling, suddenly there were six months of money. Njoku thought about cashing in his chips.
“I can now go and do whatever I want to do. But at the same time, it was always like, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’ve got to go hard and fast. So we bunkered down in Lagos and focused on building as big a company as possible as fast as possible.”
Then the venture capitalists started emailing. For all its great potential and size, few people have really made money in the Nigerian tech scene.
One of those asking for a meeting was Kinnevik, a Swedish investment fund that was an early stage investor in Groupon. The company has been investing in Africa since the 1990s, including in the early stages of the mobile phone market, and saw potential in Iroko’s ability to package content in an exciting frontier market.
“I think the challenge in Africa is not the demand,” Henrik Persson, the company’s head of investments says. “I think Africans want to consume the same things as people in the rest of the world. I think there’s a lot of activity on the retail side, but the challenge is to find the packaging of the product and the distribution of the product so that you can reach the consumer and get paid by the consumer in a seamless way. I think the companies that are successful at doing that are successful in Africa.
“I think you need to find strong entrepreneurs who can work in this environment, and you need strong characters to do that. I found that in Jason and his team,” adds Persson
For all the rough-and-ready attitude, the company has clearly matured, adding 30 people internationally in offices in New York and London.
“We’ve got four guys from Harvard, MBAs, in New York. We’ve got Wharton, we’ve got Stanford. We’ve got the smartest young people trying to figure out how to maximize the value for this humongous market,” Njoku says.
The audience is still growing. Users have to register before they view any content, which adds value for advertisers, but deters casual viewers. More than 620,000 people have now signed up to the service and it is on course to hit a million sign-ups by the end of its first full year of operation. It has moved into music with the Iroking Service and added a premium, paid-for content stream. More importantly, it is making money. This has allowed Njoku’s team to keep investing and price potential competitors out of the market by paying well above the going rate for licenses.
Today, film producers are coming straight to Iroko, in the knowledge that they will be paid quickly and reliably, creating a revenue stream for the industry that previously never existed. Iroko has also showed that it is willing to take on pirates, initiating legal action against Afrinolly, a rival streaming service that, it claims, is using unlicensed content.
The temptation to cash in seems to have subsided and Njoku seems to be enjoying the role of mogul.
“I had a company which I could personally have made a lot of money for myself. I could have bled the company and focused on monetizing it for me—making sure I drove whatever car I wanted, lived where I wanted. I could have done that. The original business on YouTube didn’t need 30-40 people. It needed five. You buy the movie, you put it on YouTube, you sit back and you make money. And that business, as long as the competition isn’t too fierce, will basically run itself forever. Bastian and I were of the opinion that it could and should be much bigger than this.”
And still it might be. Eighty five percent of the current audience is in the diaspora, which helps the company tick over, “because we can sit in Lagos and make global money”. But there is still the rest of Africa to look at, something Njoku calls an “800 million person gorilla on your back”.
Gradual improvements in broadband availability and affordability are bringing the service into the reach of more and more Nigerians and more Africans.
From The Arab World To Africa
In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.
Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.
She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.
In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.
As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.
The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.
In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.
She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.
In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes.
Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty
In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.
The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.
Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing.
“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”
The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”
Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.
Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.
“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”
Covid-19: Restaurants, Beauty Salons, Cinemas Among Businesses That Will Operate Again In South Africa As Ramaphosa Announces Eased Lockdown Restrictions
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation announcing that the government will further ease the country’s lockdown restrictions.
Restaurants, beauty salons, cinemas are among the businesses that will be allowed to operate again in South Africa.
The country is still on lockdown ‘Level 3’ of the government’s “risk adjusted strategy”.
President Ramaphosa also spoke on the gender based violence in the country.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and the girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country. The killing of women and children by the men of our country. As a man, as a husband, and as a father to daughters, I am appalled at what is no less than a war that is being waged against the women and the children of our country,” says Ramaphosa.
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