an #OpenAfrica Q&A. In any conversation about entrepreneurship in Africa, the name Jason Njoku is bound to come up. The UK-born son of a Nigerian expat has all but reinvented Nollywood, making millions for himself and his investors while reigniting an industry almost levelled by piracy.
Nostalgia and entertainment
As a young man living in London, Njoku saw how his Nigerian relatives valued and shared all VHS tapes of the Nollywood movies they loved. A source of nostalgia and entertainment, the tapes represented the height of the Nigerian film industry, or “Nollywood”.
Nollywood is one of the most-prolific film sectors in the world. Fortune Magazine reports that, in 2014, the Nigerian government released data for the first time showing Nollywood to be a US$3.3bn sector which produced 1844 movies in 2013 alone. In the early days, films would be made in a week and some 50 000 copies of the movie would be sold locally and abroad. But piracy has wreaked havoc with the industry. True Africa reports that for every copy of a Nollywood movie sold, nine counterfeit copies are made. “Legit filmmakers were distributing their films on vanishing VHS, while pirates had fast-forwarded to the (video) CD, which had just started gaining popularity,” True Africa says about the industry.
Thankfully, the Nigerian film industry is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, thanks to digital reach and people like Njoku who pioneered taking Nollywood online. Over six years ago, after a series of failed businesses, Njoku bought a ticket for Nigeria, where he had previously only been on a few childhood visits.
“Our idea was really simple: we just wanted to take Nollywood movies and put them online. It’s as simple as that,” says Njoku, who founded iROKO Partners with his friend (and first investor) Bastian Gotter in 2010.
Since then, iROKO has attracted a few more rounds of venture capital. The first big tranche came in 2013 when the company received an US$8m investment from American hedge fund Tiger Global, Swedish-based Kinnevik and Rise Capital. The latest financial boost is US$19m from Canal+.
What kind of impact have Njoku and iROKO had on Nollywood? Well, when Nigeria rebased its GDP in April 2014, the homegrown film sector was included for the first time — contributing 1.3% to help boost the country’s GDP to US$510bn. And, for the first time in history, Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy.
Open Africa speaks to Njoku about life, business and the secret to a good life.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As the guy who turned chance into a multimillion dollar empire. I want to leave a legacy for Nollywood and African content — giving the continent’s most-popular form of content a platform it both needed and deserved.
Q: What don’t people know about you?
A: That I’m really just a nerd at heart. Because I operate in the entertainment industry, people assume that my life is champagne, red carpets and schmoozing stars. The reality is that I spend 75% and more of my life in front of a computer, co-ordinating teams, doing deals and the admin that comes with heading up an international company. I kick back with and get buried in the detail of conglomerates’ annual reports and the life stories of business leaders.
Q: What’s your advice to startups?
A: Get your product to market quickly and figure it out from there. Don’t obsess about securing investment or a seed round in order to even start your business. Start it, get it out there, grow it through whatever means you can and then look for investment.
Q: What virtue do you most admire in other humans?
A: A hunger to succeed.
Q: What virtue do you most admire in yourself?
A: Resilience. Very little phases me — I’ve seen more failure than success in my life, so far, which has made me extremely resilient. I don’t fear failure; I know what it’s like to fail. I know I don’t want it to happen again, but I also know that I can cope with it.
Q: Have you cracked the secret to a good life?
A: Not yet — I’m working on all of those, all of which can only be achieved by hard work. My wife and my children are an amazing distraction from my work and their overall happiness is what is important to me.
Q: How do you measure your success?
A: Your P&L [profits and losses] sheet is usually a key indicator of how your business is functioning. I also look at deals that have been closed, as well as those in the pipeline. In terms of progress, I just reflect on 12 months previously and make a mental note of how far the company has come. I look at product launches, investments, new business / customers — all sorts of areas.
Q: What do you read?
A: I read books by international businessmen and women whom I admire. They’re my mentors. In terms of content I consume, I go to the cinema a lot with my wife — I find it’s my time to switch off from business and just enjoy being entertained.
Q: How do you describe the way that you think?
A: Rightly or wrongly, at 1 000 miles per hour.
Q: Any apps or technology you can’t live without? [Why?]
A: In Africa, it’s Android-first, without a doubt. Like most people, I use a variety of messaging services to keep in touch with my teams around the world — WhatsApp and Slack are my go-to apps — I probably couldn’t live without them. That being said, a couple of years ago, BBM was the primary messaging service in Africa, and that’s now been swallowed up by WhatsApp — the tech marketplace is brutal. No-one is safe. Companies have to keep inventing to meet the changing needs of their audiences (as well as building new ones). I’m an avid consumer of Netflix (yes — even me, even though the media pits us against one another).
Q: Any life hacks or thoughts or ideas you’d like to share?
A: I’m not sure about life hacks — I’m an intense kind of guy, I have previously worked so hard that I’ve made myself ill, but I wouldn’t have the business I have today if that hadn’t been the case. I wouldn’t recommend this approach to everyone but, then again, I wouldn’t recommend the life of an entrepreneur to everyone. It’s a lonely life, juxtaposed with the fact that you’re never alone — you always have a thousand people trying to get some of your time.
Find Jason Njoku on Twitter: @JasonNjoku
This feature first ran in Open Africa, the definitive guide to business, branding and marketing in Africa, brought to you by Ornico in partnership with GIBS Business School, with MarkLives.com as its official media partner. Download the entire publication (22MB) free of charge.
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