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The Fortune And Fury Behind Nollywood

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There is a slight nip in the air as the sun rises on the horizon and workers join the frenzied rush-hour traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge to Victoria Island. Crawling along the Falomo Bridge towards the mainland, I am joined by Kunle (not their real name), a former ringleader in Nigeria’s lucrative piracy industry. We are on our way to Alaba International Market, the largest electronics market in Nigeria and, incidentally, where it all began for Kunle.

“This is big business. At the top of the food chain is the Igbo movie producers and marketers who control the distribution of all the movies,” says Kunle.

Alaba is typical of most Nigerian markets. The place is heaving with sellers vying for every inch of space available on the streets, forcing people to walk in a straight line, like soldiers going to battle. The ‘area boys’, who are the unofficial tour guides of the market, expertly maneuver through teems of people, shouting frantically to get the attention of potential customers. We stop at Alake Enterprises, a rundown shack selling the latest Nollywood movies and gospel CDs.

“Madam, we get brand new movies, I beg [you to] come inside,” says one of the vendors.

As we enter the dilapidated building, a wall appears out of nowhere adorned with the latest cinema releases.

“There are two types of movies here. Those at the front of the shop are the legal ones, which have been released in the cinema and have now made their way to DVD. What you are seeing at the back are the ones that are currently in the cinema and some that are yet to show,” says Kunle.

Alaba Market (Photo by Andrew Esiebo/Aljazeera America)

Hiring more than a million people, Nollywood is the country’s second largest employer, according to a United Nations report. The ability of film crews, using guerilla filmmaking, to shoot a full-length feature in a week, has made Nollywood a powerhouse in the world of movies.

The National Bureau for Statistics (NBS) estimates that the Nigerian film industry contributed about 1.4% to the GDP in 2013 and 2014, and employed over 250,000 people directly. According to the World Bank, Nollywood produces up to 50 films a week, surpassing Hollywood in volume. Subsequently, the rise in copyright crimes in the country grows alongside the Nollywood industry.

“A couple of years ago Kunle Afolayan’s movie, October 1, was pirated and sold on the streets for less than $3 before the movie’s premiere in the cinema. He spent $2 million producing that movie. Now tell me, how was he going to make his money back? How many cinemas do we have in the country to help him recoup that amount?” says Bose Oshin, Head of Productions at GAME Productions.

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The incident almost led to the writer and director boycotting Nigeria for good. In 2014, a week after the release of Half of a Yellow Sun, a film adaptation of the award-winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, film vendors were hawking pirated copies of the film in Lagos. According to Oshin, you can’t fix the problem without understanding why there is a leak in the supply chain cycle.

“Before a movie shows, they need to send a copy to the cinemas where it will make its debut. The pirates pay the workers in the cinema a lump sum of N1 million ($2,790) to steal the copy. For these culprits, this is more money than they would earn in a year, so the temptation is quite high,” says Oshin.

Kofi Ansah, an emerging Ghanaian movie producer looking to have a piece of the lucrative Nollywood pie, experienced this in what he calls his worst day in business.

“I literally used all my savings to shoot this movie and managed to secure some top stars from Nigeria. We were two weeks away from the movie premiere when I got a call from someone saying they had a copy of my movie and I should pay N5 million ($13,950) to prevent its release on the streets for one month. It was as if someone had just shot me in the stomach. We barely had enough to do our promotion and now we were being blackmailed by these thugs,” says Ansah.

He believes the leak was orchestrated by competing producers who do not want any new names to enter the hugely competitive, and often fickle, world of Nigerian cinema.

“We all use the same production crews so it is easy to get your hands on footage. I couldn’t afford to make the payment, so the movie was on the street before we could even do the premier and we lost all our investment. I ended up having to take the movie to other parts of Africa to try to recoup some of the money,” says Ansah.

Nollywood movies for sale in a market (Photo by Andrew Esiebo/Aljazeera America)

In the belly of the beast lies an ongoing war between the ‘New Nollywood’ producers and traditional ‘Asaba’ producers.

“New Nollywood does not make any money. They have the fame, the glitz and the glamour, and they do lavish launches in cinemas, but nobody goes to the cinema to watch a Nollywood production when Captain America is showing. Asaba, or old Nollywood, is where the money is made. Movies are shot on tight production schedules, usually about a week, and then the same movie is broken down into several sequels from part one to sometimes part 16,” says Kunle.

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Asaba movies are for the masses. Storylines are simple, humorous, and movies are mostly shot in the local dialect. The top actors in this sector are in such high demand that they sometimes shoot up to 10 movies a week, jumping from one set to the other.

“As soon as the marketers hear that a New Nollywood movie is about to hit the cinema, the whole gang is on high alert. Once the inside person is paid, and we get a copy of the video, we begin mass-production. Sometimes as many as 20 million copies are created and immediately moved by trucks to Onitsha, Aba, Alaba and Idumota, where agents are there to pick up and distribute to a network of street hawkers and shops in those areas,” says Kunle.

The mass production provides economies of scale, with DVDs as cheap as N100 ($0.30). Contrast this with the N3,000 ($8.30) for a cinema screening and it’s obvious why piracy thrives in Nigeria.

“This is simply a case of supply and demand. The demand is there because people want to watch the same movies that are shown in the cinema for a fraction of the cost, and so long as that demand exists, these pirates will always be in business and that is the unfortunate truth,” says Oshin.
To combat piracy, the Nigerian government established Project ACT Nollywood, with a N3 billion ($8 million) grant. In a press statement, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, says the proper distribution of movies is important if Nigeria is to win the fight.

But Ansah says it’s not that simple.

“Like any criminal organization, there are those at the top who make the real money and make all the moves. These people have a strong network and they work with the copyright owners or those who have been officially contracted to produce the legitimate DVDs of the new movies, so they have direct access to the source thereby hijacking the market,” he says.

“Piracy works with informal networks and to be honest, there is really no fear of punishment because you hardly hear of anybody who has been arrested on the grounds of video piracy. That is where the law needs to act. Instill a fear of imprisonment and people will behave accordingly.”

But this suggestion may be flawed.

“We have informants in the law enforcement agencies that give us a heads-up so we know all the plans they are making, which means we have enough time to react,” says Kunle.

For now, the clandestine networks continue to grow and as long as they have an insatiable audience looking for the lowest prices for the latest cinematic releases, it is unlikely that piracy in Africa’s largest movie industry will end.

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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“The best view comes after the hardest climb.”

– Unknown

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Covid-19 In Kenya: ‘We Are No Longer Dreaming’

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Kamweti wa Mutu with his two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, with their Golden Retriever, Nalia, pictured at their home in Nairobi; image supplied

Kenya is perhaps one of the quieter domains of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, as its hold intensifies across the country, Kenyans, from all walks of life, have found themselves not only preparing for the worst but also taking stock of the impact it has already had on their lives.

By his own admission, Musa Esevwe, a 49-year-old sculptor and entrepreneur, had never, in his life, experienced trouble with his sleep. That is until Covid-19 arrived in his hometown, Nairobi, in mid-March.

Within the space of a week, a national curfew was announced via Presidential address. Not long after, as confirmed cases jumped to 91, a partial lockdown was imposed around the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, restricting the movement of people in to, and out of, the city.

Travel was tightly regulated and international flights temporarily suspended. The few who do manage to make it to the country, by road or sea, must endure a mandatory two-week quarantine, at the border, before they can obtain official approval to proceed to their final destination.

Meanwhile, inside Kenya’s borders, lives changed overnight. Intensive lockdown measures severely hampered trading for both informal vendors and businesses, causing upheaval in some areas. In April, small business owners clashed with police over the forced closure of their establishments, in Nyeri, a busy provincial hub in Central Kenya.

Schools have been shut since March and, while official numbers are yet to be published, thousands have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Those, still fortunate to be in employment, have had to transform their homes into offices.

“It is like a very bad dream that we are living in now. The happiness and security we once had has gone… we are no longer dreaming, even for those who can still sleep,” says Esevwe whose own business, which was heavily dependent on the disposable income of the middle class and occasional tourists, has been destroyed by the pandemic.

Along with Esevwe, among the hardest hit are the nation’s families, who, for months now, have been confined to their houses.

The lockdown period has been particularly difficult for Kamweti wa Mutu, an international development professional and amateur nature photographer, living in Nairobi. Currently out of work, and with his wife, now the family’s sole breadwinner, stationed in Tanzania, he’s had to play multiple roles to keep his household afloat.

“The quarantine order [on March 13] was sudden, but commendably prompt, meaning it was a somewhat tough transition getting our two children; Charlie, 11, and Adia, 8, settled into home-schooling routines. After a week, we [had to] put our house-help on leave, with some pay, so as not to place [any] undue risk on either her or us,” he says.

Prior to the pandemic, Mutu was actively looking for work. However, the economic turmoil set off by the virus is now a cause for concern.

“I have struggled to find full-time employment for a while [now] but my family has been very supportive with understanding and prayers. The kids have a good grasp of this, in light of the pandemic, but it’s not [yet] getting them anxious. As a household currently on one income, this aspect is a grave one. Most worrisome is my wife losing her post [because of the pandemic], or worse, one of our family members falling ill,” he continues.

Perhaps the most traumatic impact of Covid-19 on the family is their separation. With travel into Kenya currently restricted, Mutu’s wife won’t be able to return until her consultancy with an environmental organization in Tanzania concludes.

When she does, it will probably have to be by road as international flights are suspended. After crossing the border, she’ll have to spend 14 days at a quarantine center, receiving a special permit to enter Nairobi only once she tests negative for the virus.

While this has added an extra layer of anxiety to their situation, the family is choosing to focus on the bigger picture, insists Mutu.

“We have talked a bit about this, and what it would mean for a normal life, even beyond the current situation. However, we have not delved deeply into worst-case scenarios other than how Covid-19 is devastating other families and societies. We have stocked up on enough essentials including non-perishable foodstuffs, water, face-masks, and power to last us a while.”

Elsewhere in the city, Sophie O, who asked that we change her name for this report, is also finding life under lockdown a challenge. The 30-year-old Marketing Manager works for a major multinational in Nairobi and is doing her best to adapt to the ‘new normal’ of being based from home.

“It’s been quite difficult especially because I have three children; a nine-month old, a two-year-old and a six-year-old. It’s been hard for the two-year-old to understand that I am ‘at work’, he keeps barging into [work] calls and expecting us to play. Now, I have to keep my camera off during conference calls although ideally, as a standard, it would have to be on,” she says.

With schools now closed, and most students across the country taking classes virtually, many parents, especially those with younger children, are burdened with the added responsibility of home-schooling. In this, Ms O admits that she is struggling.

“Personally, I’ve really done my best just keeping track with all the lessons they have to do. I think probably if I didn’t have to be ‘at work’, I could have done a better job in terms of being there for my daughter but it’s quite a challenge. You have to work because work pays the bills and work also pays the school fees,” she says.

Factors, firmly out of her control, are also impacting her productivity.

“The practicalities of working from home, like having a workstation, I have had to figure out. But with the internet… some days it’s good, some days it’s bad, and some days you have a blackout and there’s nothing you can do!” she laments.

The experience of both these families hints at the wider setbacks being faced by businesses and the Kenyan economy, as a whole. From Nairobi, Edwin Macharia, Global Managing Partner at multinational advisory firm, Dalberg Advisors, has been leading a fortnightly webinar series advising African leaders and policymakers on how best to respond to the ongoing crisis. He insists that they must appreciate the severity of the pandemic’s impact and act accordingly.

“Our job [on the webinar] is to make sure that [leaders] are sufficiently shaken and begin acting appropriately. China bought the world a couple of weeks to prepare and get ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of intervention but, unfortunately, that jolt wasn’t hard enough in some places. This is very quickly moving from being a health concern to actually being an economic concern,” Macharia warned attendees in early April.

At the time, despite relatively low levels of confirmed cases, African economies were already feeling the pinch with stock markets plummeting and currencies devalued. A few weeks later, as the threat escalated, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) declared that a funding gap of $100 billion needed to be filled in order for governments to battle the pandemic, and its consequences, across the continent.

“The long-term economic effects will become more apparent in the coming months. Inputs not available locally will be inaccessible due to tighter border controls, while markets, for producers serving several industries, will be diminished, leaving many households without a sustainable income,” predicts Macharia.

If they are to have any hope of success, Macharia emphasizes that responses to Covid-19 in Africa will have to be a collaborative effort.

“Flattening the curve demands that governments, institutions, and business leaders are intentional in how they implement their response strategies. Organizations will need to go beyond [their] usual business continuity planning while the public sector needs to re-model institutions in order to slow down the current trajectory of infections while ensuring long-term resilience.”

An example of these wider response strategies are already at work in a number of Kenyan hospitals. Dr Michael Mwachiro, Secretary-General at the Surgical Society of Kenya, is currently stationed at Tenwek Hospital, a faith-based teaching and referral hospital in Bomet County, 230 kilometers west of Nairobi. On May 13, the county recorded its first Covid-19 fatality, at Longisa Hospital, the only public referral hospital in the area.

“We’re now seeing more community-transferred cases in Kenya. I think the advantage that we may have had [compared to] other parts of the world is that we were watching as things were unfolding and, because of that, we had a bit more time to prepare [as a country], and put some measures in place. But if you read the news, or listen to the radio, you’ll hear people complaining that we should have intervened earlier but that’s a difficult thing [to do] if you look at how many stakeholders are involved along with the nature of our economy and public health system,” he says.

Part of these preparations, Mwachiro says, included immediately training the country’s health workers on Covid-19 procedures along with introducing measures preventing the movement of people from hotspots in major cities into rural Kenya, where a bulk of the population lives.

“Nairobi and Mombasa already have containment measures in place. The bigger concern is that, if Covid-19 moves out of the cities to other parts of the country, the effects would be much scarier. These [rural] areas are where the older people are, who are much more vulnerable.”

In addition to the supplementary training for medical personnel, some elective procedures and non-essential surgeries have been put on hold so that all available resources can be committed to fighting the virus at hospitals. However, besides preparedness, maintaining the morale of doctors and nurses will continue to be an ongoing concern throughout the crisis.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well,” he says.

Some medical professionals responding to the crisis, in parts of the country, have had to make the difficult decision to live apart from their families as they work to contain the virus. But the taxing nature of their work, coupled with extended periods of isolation, means that counseling and support services will need to be made available to them as the cases continue to rise.

“We’ll have to deal with the levels of anxiety and motivation experienced by healthcare workers and first responders taking care of these patients. Doctors and nurses are human, too, and they are experiencing the same emotions as everyone else. You can imagine that, in as much as [their] families are worried about them, they, too, are also worried about their families, and themselves, as well.”

As it stands, Kenya, like most of the continent, has not been as badly hit when compared to epicenters in Europe or North America. However, this may be due to the fact that the worst is still on its way. In May, the World Health Organization estimated that up to 190,000 Africans may be killed by the pandemic, at its peak.

With Covid-19 due to exert immense pressure on our public health systems, it does offer some important lessons for the future, explains Mwachiro.

“What this outbreak has brought about, for us in Africa, is [the fact] that we need to invest more in our healthcare systems. This has been said so many times… there have even been a number of strikes [in Kenya] by various stakeholders, all of them trying to highlight these issues. This is a good wake up call. I honestly believe that, if we had spent more on health [before the crisis], it would have gone a long way in helping us to be better prepared. Hopefully, once this [pandemic] resolves, we can keep the momentum going and we can continue looking inwardly for solutions.”

Naturally, Covid-19, with its grim predictions and disruption of lives, has many Kenyans worried about the future. Nevertheless, the challenges of the moment are being met in stride. Families have quickly adjusted to new ways of living while their leaders seek sage advice on how best to address the crisis, and doctors continue to make sacrifices, day in and day out, as they brace for the worst.

Perhaps, most important of all is that, in the pandemic’s wake, hope has become an obstinate presence in all quarters of Kenyan society.

– Marie Shabaya

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