By Cecile De Comarmond, AFP
LAGOS, Nigeria — At only 33, Jason Njoku is already considered one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs thanks to an online film distribution service that has tapped high demand for Nigerian movies. But the British-born Nigerian entrepreneur, whose firm iROKO has been compared to the U.S. Internet movie and TV streaming giant Netflix, is cautious about reading too much into the accolade.
“On paper, I’m a millionaire, absolutely,” he told AFP at his office in Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos.
“But it’s on paper. It’s not cash in the bank. I think we are not successful, we are not profitable, we have a long way to go.” Njoku’s caution is understandable given his background.
Soon after he was born, his father left, leaving his mother struggling to make ends meet while Njoku grew up in southeast London. Yet he managed to become the first from his family to go to university. With a chemistry degree from the University of Manchester under his belt, Njoku decided to set up his own business. But it was not all plain sailing. “I graduated in 2005 and spent a good five-and-a-half years just failing in everything I tried,” he admitted.
Though Njoku was broke, unable to open a bank account and slept on friends’ sofas, his best friend and university roommate Bastian Gotter was still persuaded to invest in his latest venture. ‘Nollywood Netflix’
That enterprise — iROKO Partners — was his 11th attempt at starting a company and born of the fact that cinema is an increasingly big business in Nigeria.
Some 1,500 to 2,000 Nollywood films are made every year and many are wildly popular both at home and abroad.
Most films, including poor quality pirated copies, are sold for a dollar or two on DVD in markets or by hawkers at traffic junctions, making them difficult to come by for the legions of fans overseas.
Njoku bought a ticket for Nigeria, where he had previously only been on a few childhood visits, and set out to meet film producers in the hope of creating a slick, modern distribution network.
“Our idea was really simple: we just wanted to take Nollywood movies and put them online. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
With producers on board, the first step in 2010 was the creation of “Nollywoodlove,” a dedicated channel on the video-sharing site YouTube, followed a year later by the iROKOtv platform.