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Interview: iROKO CEO Jason Njoku

By , IT in government editor
01 Aug 2013

Interview: iROKO CEO Jason Njoku

After struggling for some years to find his business niche, “serial” entrepreneur, Jason Njoku, decided to launch a internet television streaming service, iROKOtv.

iROKOtv enables subscribers to stream popular Nigerian movies dubbed ‘Nollywood’ films - over the internet.

However, Njoku could not have imagined that the service he launched as an online source for African entertainment would receive so much interest and take up as quickly as it did.

iROKOtv burst onto the global internet scene and notched up 500,000 subscribers in just six months after being launched. Today the service is available to millions of people around the world.

Njoku exclusively spoke to ITWeb Africa assistant editor Simnikiwe Mzekandaba about starting out, the motivation behind the launch of his successful business venture and what to look forward to in the future.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What were you doing before you decided to launch iROKOtv?

JASON NJOKU: Before I launched iROKOtv I spent my post-University years setting up businesses including a student magazine, a professional blog network and a t-shirt business. None of them saw any real success and I spent about six years struggling to find my business niche.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: So how did the idea for iROKOtv come about?

JASON NJOKU: The first seeds of iROKOtv started back in 2010, when I moved back home with my mom, penniless, and I noticed that she was no longer watching Eastenders (a long-running British soap opera) in the evening. Instead, she was watching as many hours of Nollywood films as she could get her hands on. She asked me to get her some more discs and I found that they were hard to get hold of. Instinctively, I went online to look for them – I’m an internet geek, everything starts online for me.

I couldn’t see a reliable source of Nollywood movies anywhere and was genuinely surprised that no-one had thought about streaming such a popular source of entertainment online. I visited Lagos, got a taste of the market, came home and tried to set up the business from my bedroom in London. It became evident almost immediately that this wouldn’t be possible, so I got on a plane to Lagos, headed for Alaba Market and that’s pretty much how it started.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What type of content is offered by iROKOtv?

JASON NJOKU: iROKOtv is the home of Nollywood online. We stream Nollywood (Nigerian Hollywood) movies over the internet to a global audience. We have a catalogue of around 5,000 films with the industry’s biggest artists and covering genres from family to drama, comedy and horror. 95% of www.irokotv.com is completely free, you just go onto the site, click on a movie you want to watch and go from there. It’s super-simple. For the big Nollywood fans who want to be the first to watch brand new movies, we have a subscription service called iROKOtv PLUS, which gives users access to three brand new movies every week.

On our site, we also have iROKOtv Extras, which shows behind-the-scenes interviews with celebrities and footage from movie and music video sets. We also recently added a ‘series’ section onto iROKOtv as well – we have just bought and uploaded 13 popular Nigerian TV series and they’re now showing for free. Content is absolutely critical to everything we do, so we’re always uploading new movies and shows onto the site to keep our fans happy and engaged.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Since it’s been launched how many people have signed on to use iROKOtv?

JASON NJOKU: We have around 1 million unique visitors every single month, and these people are watching from 178 countries around the world – from Nigeria to the US, UK and Canada, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and Hungary. Where there are a lot of Nigerians, they’ll be in search of some home entertainment and iROKOtv gives them a slice of home.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: And how big is the iROKO team? Who are the people that you work with on a daily basis?

JASON NJOKU: We’re a global team of over 100 people, located in Lagos, London, New York and Johannesburg. I work predominantly with the business development teams, the content guys and the tech teams to ensure the site is running smoothly and that we monetise it as best we can, but I also try and check in with all the other teams around the world periodically.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Do you have plans to expand this service? If so, how would you like to expand your business further?

JASON NJOKU: This year, we’re looking at how we can solve the ‘African problem’ of access. By that, I mean how can we bring Nollywood to Africa via iROKOtv. Internet on the continent is still expensive and out of the reach of the majority of sub-Saharan Africa, which poses a problem for us, a video-streaming company. Therefore, this year we moved into the DVD publishing business. Starting in Johannesburg, South Africa we’re now publishing our biggest movies on DVD and selling them throughout the city.

We have big plans to be one of the foremost media and entertainment companies in Africa - we have already seen rapid expansion in our two years – we’ve opened four offices (Lagos, London, New York and Johannesburg), we’ve built a team of 100+, we’ve aggregated the world’s largest online catalogue of African movies and we’ve moved into offline movie distribution. I see us expanding into East Africa in the not too distant future. And everything else? Well, I’m sure you will read all about it when it happens.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: And what about competition, how does iROKOtv deal with competitors?

JASON NJOKU: There are other video-on-demand services cropping up – some are looking at different areas of African cinema and others are, rather shamelessly, copying iROKOtv’s format. We were very much the first to market in this niche area, we are VC-backed, which means we have big buying power for quality content, and we have a huge, global following. There is competition out there, but we haven’t noticed any significant detrimental effects.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: How has iROKOtv set itself apart from the rest?

JASON NJOKU: Our movie catalogue sets us apart from absolutely everyone else out there. We have amassed the world’s largest online catalogue of Nollywood movies - 5,000+ and counting. I’d be surprised if there were any competitors who had even a tenth of this. Also, we work with big producers and stars to ensure we have the best movies on.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Has there been interest from corporates to partner up with since the launch of iROKOtv?

JASON NJOKU: Most definitely, yes. We speak to corporate companies in Nigeria, across Africa and around the world. We’ve been lucky enough to partner with some huge global names. For example, earlier this year, we built an app for iROKOtv in partnership with Nokia, who were looking to bring Nollywood to their Nokia Lumia phone – it was an awesome collaboration with one of the world’s leading mobile phone makers. We speak to people all around the world, figuring out ways in which we can put awesome content on their platforms, making access to Nollywood as easy as possible.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What are your thoughts on Africa’s technology startup space?

JASON NJOKU: The tech startup space in Nigeria and Africa is very exciting. Millions no, billions of dollars of value has been attributed to tech and internet-based companies in Europe, North & South America and even Asia; not so in Africa. Yet. There is unprecedented economic growth on the continent and we have a growing population that will soon see the purchasing of consumer products and services online as an everyday action for all, rather than a luxury for the few. But the tech startup space in Africa, for me, means unlimited possibilities; no shackles, no restrictions.

In the next 3-5 years, Africa's tech 'scene' will easily have turned into a 'revolution'. Those who choose to take on these challenges now, not tomorrow, are the ones who will make a real difference and reap the many benefits of doing business in such an exciting frontier market.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: What would you like to see happen in the technology space in Africa?

JASON NJOKU: I’d like to see more growth, more ingenuity, more investment, more hustle. The tech space in Nigeria is currently worth around $250 million – in the next 3-5 years, it should be $1 billion. The potential is there, but without formal investment, it won’t be realized – and what a huge waste that will be.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Are you involved with any other projects besides iROKO?

JASON NJOKU: I recently launched SPARK with my business partner Bastian Gotter and my wife Mary Remmy-Njoku. SPARK is a company that builds companies – we have so far invested in 13 different companies, ranging from a hotel room booking site, to a bus ticket site and a drinks company distributor. I feel that Lagos is very much the gateway for the entire continent and the creativity, talent and the spirit of entrepreneurship is here but Nigeria’s business eco system isn’t set up to adequately support start-ups in their earliest days. Our intention with SPARK is to act as the catalyst to a period of aggressive and exciting growth in Africa’s internet sector

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: And outside the office what do you like to do?

JASON NJOKU: I work every single day, so my free time is limited, but I do like to go to the cinema with my wife and spend time with my family and friends when I can.

SIMNIKIWE MZEKANDABA: Would you encourage someone to get involved in establishing a technology start up?

JASON NJOKU: Absolutely. Setting up and running your own company is not without its challenges and it will totally consume every aspect of your life. However, being your own boss is incredibly liberating and the thrill of building an empire cannot be replicated.

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