Nollywood is Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood, Bollywood and all the woods of this world. Thanks to rare ‘native intelligence’ combined with common sense.
The fact that doing any type of business in an emerging economy such as Nigeria is a daunting task needs not to be over emphasized. Apart from lack of basic infrastructure – reliable power supply, good roads and transport facilities etc; there is wide spread corruption and bureaucratic incompetence. Although Nigeria with its over 150 million people could be the largest market in Sub-Saharan and indeed the biggest economy with the recent rebasing of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the vast majority (over 60%) of this population is said to live at the bottom of the income pyramid. So, how do you create and grow an industry for home movies in such a difficult environment?
This was the sort of ‘stupid question’ asked by Nigerian artists, directors, financiers and other supporters two decades ago. At some point, the French Cultural Centre in Nigeria actually brought French movie makers to study their methods – and they asked similar ‘foolish questions’: How on earth can you make a movie in seven days, at low cost, enjoyed by over half the population of your continent and still get noticed by the world? And Yes at a huge profit too.
Knowing that fixing all the socioeconomic problems to create an environment conducive for film making may never happen – those who insisted on making a living from this way of life have to ‘re-think’ how things are done in this industry. More over there was demand for home (local) content films that could tell stories viewers can relate to. And since making films was their core focus, they set out to combine ‘raw talent’ with ‘amateur technology’ and improvised all the way. They borrowed, begged but they did not steal. Instead of building studios they used people’s homes that were already ‘in set’. Most of the productions were financed by individuals, families and friends – there were no institutional investors or government guarantees. They latched onto the already existing commercial distribution system for everything, to distribute and market their products. Films that were already released carried the advertisements of those in the pipeline. And several other innovative approaches that were used to by-pass critical constraints.
From the perspective of individual film makers or film production, the major challenges they faced were centered on the cost of production and project management. The lack of adequate financial backing meant that individual film makers had to rely heavily on ‘bootstrapping’ all along the way, as well as employing plenty of ‘sweat equity’. These were apart from using up all personal savings and all they could borrow from friends and relatives. In addition, there was plenty of ‘asset parsimony’ – begging for things they should borrow; borrowing what they should buy; buying old equipment rather than new; use of assets in return for acknowledgement of the owners; and other creative means of acquiring the use of assets. As much as possible, the financial burden of the cost of fixed assets was kept to the barest minimum.
Similarly, because no single organisation had the capacity to pull all the resources required to fund and manage a complex project such as film making – production management was organised as ‘collaborative networks’ or ‘strategic alliances’. This on its own presented another level of complexity in an environment where managerial culture was poor. Nonetheless, ‘social capital’ – specific forms of social relationships, which act as individual or group resources (actual or virtual) that facilitate collective action for mutual benefit – said to be entrenched in African settings proved useful in getting participants to work together towards a common purpose. Key elements of social capital, such as mutual trust, knowledge of each other’s values and discipline, and a sense of belonging were noted to be critical in holding such networks together to produce results.
Initially, the quality of the films were not very good, compared to what people were already used to – mainly due to the level of technology applied. But the artistry skills displayed by the actors and actresses were remarkable – and thus provided increase patronage. By learning from their mistakes; listening to audience reviews; and an expanded market across Sub-Saharan Africa and Africans in the diaspora, which help to generate more revenues – major improvements were made. This led to an increase in business confidence of both participants and supporters, as demonstrated by the high content of Nigerian films carried by major cable satellite networks.
Although figures are hard to come by, there is strong indication to conclude that the Nigerian home movie industry is profitable and has created several thousands of sustainable jobs. There is now a ‘celebrity culture’, where popular actors and actresses can be seen mixing with the high and mighty of society. Gone are the days when artists reign on TV shows and then fade away – and sometimes live hungry for the later part of their lives. There are also national and regional awards that encourage competition, as well as influence young and talented persons to consider this industry as a worthwhile career or business.
The lesson from this story is that irrespective of the business environment in Nigeria: it is feasible to grow and prosper, by creatively re-writing the institutional rules that govern any industry. The fact that the home movie industry in Nigeria has grown to be one of the bright spots in the nation’s economy, is a demonstration that it is possible to make progress even in the face of non-existent economic opportunities. But is this a replicable model?
Many commentators have noted that the Nigerian music industry, although a related creative sector, has achieved huge success by adopting similar approaches. Apart from this, on the basis of the concept of ‘jumping fences’ or ‘leap frogging’ – creatively re-engineering how things are done in difficult situations, while remaining profitable – one could identify several other examples of what one could call ‘nollywood paradigm moments’. Here are two examples to illustrate this point.
First is sachet water – popularly known as ‘pure water’ – commercially produced and distributed can be found everywhere in Nigeria – from the Atlantic shores of Lagos to the fringes of the Sahara desert in Sokoto. With no marketing or branding, just an essential commodity made available in a form that is acceptable to consumers. And significantly, sachet water is said to have helped to reduce diarrheal diseases; more than all the bore holes that have been sunk by both government and donors in the past 20 years.
And second, multi-national companies ranging from manufacturers of beverages, soap and toothpaste to mobile telephone operators – have converted the millions at the bottom of the income pyramid into effective consumers. By offering their products and services packaged in smaller and affordable sizes, many low earners now have access to a wide range of consumer goods and services that hitherto were only available to the upper classes.
Therefore for wider application to all sectors in Nigeria and indeed Africa: the message is simple – look for ‘nollywood paradigm moments’ that are taking place or create some, and scale them up to achieve and even surpass the results of the Nigeria film industry.