How your movie watching habits set station agenda


Players in the industry say entertainment service providers make their investment decisions depending on what you prefer watching.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The Kenyan audience has long been subjected to films and series from foreign sources.
  • In Nigeria, Netflix has so far pumped over 23 million dollars (Sh3.5 billion) in local production.

In a quiet village of Majani, surrounded by a lush canvas of tea fields, dogmatic tea lord Cornelius Majani sips hot tea on a chilly morning when he learns of some disturbing news.

Suleiman, another of his workers on the vast tea fields he owns, has passed on succumbing to a mysterious disease.

Mr Majani is immediately disoriented, frustrated by his diminishing workforce. The short clip trailer cut to static.

I watched the short footage of Siri, the Kenyan drama series a day before its official premier two weeks ago on American giant video on demand streaming platform Netflix.

Filmed 14 years ago, by Alison Ngibuini, brains behind the one-time famous Shuga (2009) that starred Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o and Mali (2011), Siri debuted as the second original Kenyan series on Netflix after Country Queen that premiered last years.

Since the entry of Netflix into the Kenyan market in January 2016 one of its three biggest markets in Africa alongside South Africa and Nigeria, there has been a growing concern from film producers in the country as to why the service provider appears to be investing more in adaptation films especially from South Africa to feed the Kenyan market instead of originals – Kenyan stories.

As she throws her hands in gestures at a restaurant in the Nairobi CBD, Mrs Ngibuini informs Saturday Nation that it took her 18 months to conceive Netflix to pick up Siri for a second rerun.

The dramatic series which follows the intriguing lives of the village workers on the tea fields owned by Mr Majani, first aired on Citizen TV in 2009.

“Netflix having been around for a while now in Kenya it begged a lot of question as to why they were spending a lot of money in South Africa and not in Kenya. Eventually they came to Kenya and had a sit down with key producers to try and understand what exactly is the Kenyan model because according to them, it’s been difficult to really grasp what Kenyan audience really want as far as local content is concerned,” What Mrs Alison picked from the conclave, backed by Netflix’ data, is that Kenyans are streaming more foreign content on the platform.

“If you ask Netflix to give you a demographic of what Kenyans are watching it’s all about the algorithm. Kenyans are watching a lot of foreign stuff and a bit of local stuff but the issue is you can’t study them long enough because there is no consistent Kenyan content on Netflix. If you are to do a study, it takes time. You have to create and watch pattern develop in people and that’s what Netflix feels needs to happen first in Kenya before they can commit to investing more money in the Kenyan marke,” she says.

It’s from this understanding that Mrs Ngibuini says she offered her Siri project as yet another case study for Netflix.

“Our problem has been lack of consistent in production of our local content. Not much is being consistently produced as Nigerians or South Africa do where there is a new film every other day. In Kenya there is huge gaps as it takes time before a new project is dropped and I understand it’s because film is expensive,” Alison explains.

The Al Is On Production, Executive Producer, disagrees with the popular opinion that Kenyans do fancy foreign content. “What if those gaps were not there? Then you would develop a love for Kenyan content, a viewing culture like is the case with Nigeria or South Africa. So it’s a façade to say Kenyans don’t love their content, they do love their content but the problem is that to build that loyalty then we as story tellers have to guarantee that content is readily available and is churning out. We need to have co-current shows coming out at any given time” Mrs Ngibuini reiterates.

In an attempt to address this challenge, Mrs Ngibuini says Netflix has been busy making inroads to try clean up the market, commissioning a number of 90 seconds films like Click Click Bang by Phil Karanja and Abel Mutua as well as pre-license new shows that are already sitting with producers.

“That’s what everybody does when they start a new station, you always mop up so that you can get a feel and build your own portfolio of a regions content ” But the Mali producer denies Netflix picking her 14 year old series is a desperate measure in their new bid considering times have changed and with it technology.

Siri is a country village drama which I shot in HD (High definition) while other were on SD (Standard definition) back then. It still meets the production value in terms of relevance of story, technical specifications and performances. The idea was to bring back the show which most people haven’t viewed yet. You can re-watch Casablanca (1943) or The Godfather trilogy (1972, 74, 90, 2020) that’s the power of a beautiful story,” she says.

But even then, Alison does confess that Siri is an experiment hence why it will only first air two seasons instead of all the four.

“Let’s hear what Kenyans have to say about seeing themselves and in the long run as we strive to create a viewing culture, then we all can start to understand the viewing patterns and what are the audiences looking out. The good thing is that after Siri a new Kenyan original film Volume by Tosh Gitonga will follow in December. Going to January they will be releasing new content, this way we are then building audiences and careers for people” she says.

In her world, this is enough reason to explain Netflix reluctances to committing more investments into Kenyan content as is with South Africa.

“It’s the algorithm, for you to spend money you have to prove there is an audience. How do you rate an audience when there is no consistency or pattern? How do you justify that, that’s what they are trying to do now? She poses.

However it would be wrong for anyone to concur with Mrs Ngibuini assertions as to why the Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Hulu competitor launched in Kenya in January 2016 isn’t yet heavily investing in more Kenyan originals but seemingly growing fond of local films that aren’t virgin (already had a run) which many experts say are less expensive to acquire.

However word is that there are two additional original Kenyan Netflix tittles currently under production, one of those being Volume by the Nairobi Half Life producer Tosh Gitonga. Netflix names South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya as its major markets in Africa since its entry into the continent.

To date, except for Country Queen, first Kenyan Netflix original series which was reported to have cost Sh150 million in production, there hasn’t been another original as is the case in South Africa where Netflix disclosed it has invested over 125 million dollars (Sh19 bilion) in local productions which includes 16 South African Netflix original series such as Blood & Water and Queen Sono.

In Nigeria, Netflix has so far pumped over 23 million dollars (Sh3.5 billion) in local production which includes five Nigerian originals tittles (both movies and series) But the same cannot be said of Showmax, Netflix’s main competitor in Kenya, which launched in the country on October 2016, 10 months after Netflix entry.

Over the last two years, the South African owned company, a subsidiary of DStv all owned by MultiChoice invested heavily on Kenyan originals and adaptations content.

From 2021, Showmax has since commissioned six Kenyan original tittles namely Crime and Justice series (Season 1&2) starring Sarah Hassan, Igiza an original thriller series that delved on the Kenyan money laundry menace starring Serah Ndanu, Pepeta a story based crime drama series on the life of a promising footballer in Kibera turned robber, County 49 a high stake political thriller series set in a fictional county as well as feature films Baba Twins and A Familiar Christmas. 

The subscription video on demand platform also commissioned local reality show Kyallo Kulture which ranked amongst the top 10 most watched tittles on Showmax last year. In a past interview, MultiChoice senior Executive Yolisa Phahle revealed to Reuters that Showmax major investment in its own local content in its biggest African markets of Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, was a deliberate strategic move to ward off competition from Netflix, a strategy that seems to be working.

Kenya Vs South Africa film markets While reflecting on the major differences in the South African and Kenyan film markets, producer Alison argues that Kenya’s films industry is ahead in so many ways but… “While I love the South African model, we are ahead in so many ways. South Africa’s industry is very vibrant and this is because they used storytelling as a tool to fight for their independence.

That became a culture. They also had the first shows like Generations which was a first African telenovela and run for years, Scandal and many others. This culture created an audience and hence demand for their own shows, this is something we never built in Kenya.

They also invested in big time film studios like what you will have Paramount, we don’t have those in Kenya. But in terms of stories we have fantastic fresh stories as well as locations of where to film. I mean it’s only in Kenya where you will find a game park in the middle of a city.”

Alison also argues that not so many high net worth Kenyans are will to invest in films because they fail to detect return on investment.

“It’s not to say that people don’t understand film but it’s just that many feel most producer can’t justify why. Even Netflix themselves are scared to pump so much money here so they would rather first build a following and once they have that, then throw in the big chunks for production,” she says.