From the Magazine: Hibuzz, Fusion Media, Iroko TV… It’s all online now

by Wilfred Okiche

Everything from our music to our television and movie content is finding expression in ways content creators can only be grateful for

In other words, it is TV on the go.

Without any form of marketing, Iroko has gone from zero to 1.4 million unique viewers in 231 countries, generating 17million streams in the month of October 2011 alone.

EARLY IN 2011, a certain 1994 video clip found its way to video sharing site YouTube and went viral immediately. It was a 1994 NBC ‘Today’ programme in which the show’s hosts Katie Couric and Brian Gumbel fumbled as they sought for words to explain the meaning of the Internet to viewers.

A clueless Gumbel then uttered the now famous lines, “What is Internet anyway?’’

That was 18 years ago! Today, no news anchor can fumble with words to describe the Internet. It has profoundly transformed the world.

The world at their fingertips

In Nigeria, a group of young Nigerians have identified a gaping market in the present media space and have made giant strides to fill this need. While YouTube and Netflix have pretty much cornered the Western market, it is not presumptuous to assume that perhaps we have found our own local equivalent.

Hibuzz is a Nigerian entertainment online portal that distributes content to people who have access to the Internet, primarily to Nigerians living abroad. The site hosts Nigerian movies, music, literature, magazines, and event tickets and deliver it to subscribers anywhere in the world.

Launched in August of 2011, Hibuzz offers visitors the comfort of logging into their website through Facebook or Twitter, search by title or artiste for a song and click to buy at par with store prices. According to Ugochukwu Chikezie, commercial manager for Hibuzz, “For the international content, we standardise, so it is the same as buying from a site like iTunes. But, for Nigerian content, prices for classics like Osadebey, Ebenezer Obey go slightly higher.’’

For movies, books and magazines, viewers need to first download the Hibuzz application on their desktop or laptop. The Hibuzz app, like that of iTunes, is entertainment in the cloud; meaning you can sign in and access your entire music collection from another device that also has the app. Sharing or ripping movies from the app though is impossible in order to protect the copyright of the owners.

“What we are doing in Hibuzz is bringing the iTunes, then Netflix models together under one platform,” Chikezie explains. “Our entertainment might be number one in Africa but we have barely scratched the surface.”

Content is acquired through series of meetings with individual copyright owners where Hibuzz is sold to them. A revenue sharing basis model is operated and the material is licensed. While it is a tedious repetitive process, it is the most effective for now as there are no major record labels or movie studios that gather a large number of artists or films under one umbrella.

Unfortunately, poor Internet access is limiting the potential of new-vista businesses like Hibuzz. A lot of Nigerians still do not have access the bandwidth required to access high volume content, power supply is also a minus, and then there is the average Nigerian’s reluctance to use their debit cards for online transactions – leaving access largely to Nigerians abroad.

Online fusion

Perhaps in a bid to side-step this arduous content-gathering process, another online media start up, Fusion Media, has gone the extra mile; creating its own content. It’s YouTube 3D mini-series The O Twins, an animated series about a Nigerian family living in Lagos got 10,000 views 24 hours after its launch and their interview series Tariere has become a web hit. It also live-streams A-list events and last year, it handled rapper Ice Prince’s debut album launch. In other words, it is TV on the go.

Founded in 2008 by Michael Akindele, who returned from the United States in 2008 and was co-executive producer for The Apprentice Africa, Fusion Media has shown that there is a different idea to for television viewing. “For young upwardly mobile Nigerians like myself who virtually live and work on their laptops, something has to give,” He says.

Akindele might be building his market brick by brick, but as legitimate statistics have shown, Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world in terms of production quantity and there is a ready market there. Nigerian movies are popular across the globe, but Nollywood sadly lacks a functional distribution network, both within the country and outside. The resulting scarcity has encouraged pirates to step in and make the most of an unfortunate, avoidable situation.

Enter Iroko Partners

Initially kick-started in 2010 as a YouTube channel called ‘Nollywood Love’, Iroko has grown steadily from a one-man, single room start-up to a large building in Anthony village, Lagos staffing well over 40 people and three more in London. It boasts of the largest collection of Nollywood movies anyone’s ever gathered in one place, at any time.

The exterior of their office complex in a gated community at Anthony Village is misleadingly quiet, but inside the buzz is staggering. A highly specialised setup exists with each unit working round the clock to make available Nollywood movies of the highest quality for live streaming online.

There is a network of teams: one of the teams has the duty of watching every Nollywood film ever produced, and a graphics team improves upon the quality of the movies and reworks the posters and trailers to make them more attractive and presentable.

Jason Njoku is the founder and has nothing but the highest regard for Nollywood and its players. “We have created a massive market for people who want to value Nollywood the way it should be. Nollywood is a premium product and should be treated as such,” he says. “We have viewers in Australia, Canada, India who want to be a part of this. The main problem with our services here in Nigeria is the bandwidth and low speed of Internet connection but it is much better over there and Nollywood is a global phenomenon so we are bringing it to the world.’’

“F****g popular”

And the world is taking note. Without any form of marketing, Iroko has gone from zero to 1.4 million unique viewers in 231 countries, generating 17 million streams in the month of October 2011 alone (the ‘play’ button was pressed 17million times). Currently YouTube’s biggest partner in Africa with over 1,600 movies licensed, they are arguably the biggest Internet and digital content storage company in Nigeria. Their largest market is in the United States and countries like Rwanda, Malawi, Chile, and Cambodia feature in their top 100 viewers.

They engage in discussions with the whole Nollywood community across the country, Njoku says. “We go out there and invite the producers,” he explains. “They come in here, we pay for the online content, something no one’s ever done before. We have licensed contracts with over 230 production houses.’’

Just at that moment, gospel music artiste, Sammie Okposo is spotted making an exit. Music? “Oh! Yes, we have a music business I have not told you about,’’ he smiles. “We have paired with some of the biggest names in the Nigerian music scene: Timaya, 2face,Flavour, 9ice, P-Square, Sunny Neji to manage their music distribution. Matter of fact, the music business is slightly bigger than the movies.’’

But how secure are their services and how do they guard against copyright infringement from pirates? “It is simple,’’ he answers, “How many people can pirate this, most sites cannot even comprehend what we do, not to mention pirate it so it is really secure.’’

So is this the long sought-for nail in the pirates’ coffin? “Yes,” Njoku says immediately. “What we are doing here is huge, before now the industry has been running tragically below its capabilities. But now they are starting to realize more. Only the Internet can do this. Look at my staff, young people who create amazing things just because they were given the chance. Look at what they are doing and tell me Nollywood is not popular? It’s f*****g popular.’’

The future is here

The potential is huge as Internet access expands for Nigerians. “The growth (of Hibuzz) has been phenomenal,” Chikere shares. “For the last three months, we have shot up on the web ranking, other sites have been asking us how we do it but the way I see it is If we can tap into the 44 million active Internet users here in Nigeria, then that is what I am talking about.’’

Akindele shares the same opinion. “More infrastructure has been put in place and even more is on the way so it is an exciting time to be in the ICT business and it can only get better,” he says. “I am excited to be here in the thick of it all.’’







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