Technological advancement which has impacted every sector in Nigeria brought dynamism in ways people are exposed to media contents. This also changed movie content consumption in Nigeria, especially how people watch Nollywood movies not just in the country but across the world. The Nollywood industry is among the biggest movie industries in the world (only behind Hollywood and Bollywood as number three in the world). One of the disruptive changes brought about in the Nollywood industry by technological development is the emergence of Video On-Demand (VOD) services in Nigeria with growing acceptance among audiences. This is a system in which viewers choose their own filmed entertainment from a wide available selection without a traditional video playback device. The VOD services are online streaming platforms that provide alternative entertainment and other contents to subscribers. These are also described as Over The Top (OTT) streaming services because they bypass cable, terrestrial, and satellite TV channels to reach the audiences. The giants in the VOD industry across the world are Netflix, Direct TV Now, HBO Now, Crackle, tubi tv, Hulu, View Star, YouTube TV, among others.
Nigeria has since joined the VOD services market and there are giants in the Nigerian market already. They include iROKO TV, Ibaka TV, Realnolly TV, Nollywood pictures, among others. Gone are the days when Nollywood movies were mostly sold on the streets and to idling motorists caught in traffic as pirated copies. Movie lovers in Nigeria today can have multiple VOD apps installed on their devices and enjoy local and foreign video content once they can afford the cost of data, as well as a monthly subscription charge.
The market leader in the VOD industry in Nigeria is iROKO TV. It was founded by one of Nigeria’s most passionately creative brains, Jason Njoku. The story of his journey from the streets of London to the towers of the iROKO in Nigeria will excite and inspire you.
Who is Jason Njoku?
Jason Njoku is the pioneering British-Nigerian founder and CEO of iROKO tv, one of the early video-on-demand platforms for Nigerian movies. He was born on 11th December, 1980 in Deptford, South-East London. He lived in Nigeria for some years while growing up. His mother raised him and his four brothers and sisters by herself as a single parent who was a full time employee at National Health Service. Jason is a serial entrepreneur who experienced difficult times before arriving at a successful start-up that announced him to the world.
Jason had his university education at the University of Manchester, where he bagged a degree in Chemistry in 2004.
He started his education in London before moving to a village in Nigeria at the age of 12. He then moved back to London at the age of 15 and completed his A’levels before heading to University of Manchester.
The birth of iRokoTv
Jason is an experienced entrepreneur who took time to combine his past mistakes and successes into a huge platform which now provides on-demand services to the world. According to Jason, iROKO was his 10th shot at entrepreneurship and all previous ventures had failed. This is one fact about Jason that should encourage upcoming entrepreneurs to keep working hard and believing always.
Among the businesses Jason ventured into before investing in Nollywood, were a party promotion venture in nightclubs and a magazine called Brash, which claimed itself to be “Manchester’s quintessential guide to frolicking and fashion.” This was a colossal failure. “It was largely acknowledged that I was an absolute, complete failure,” he told Fast Company.
Jason was then forced to move back into his mother’s apartment because he could no longer fend for himself, especially following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. That move back to his mother’s apartment changed his life. He noticed an interesting thing about how his mother consumed television and that observation facilitated his achieving his entrepreneurship dream. Jason said when he was growing up his mother mainly watched British soaps. On moving back to London, she was consuming more entertainment from her own country – Nollywood movies. This interesting observation began to give life to the idea of having a dream company that will end up one of the leading companies in the movie industry in Africa.
So how did Jason start iRoko Tv? The idea to start iRokoTv came after his mother sent him to buy some Nollywood movies in London. He searched and searched through several stores in the streets of London but could not find any movie to either buy or stream online. That was when the idea first struck him. He saw a huge gap and opportunity which was the need for a global desire for content, but no easy means of accessing it. What he then did was to move back to Lagos and start research on the Nollywood industry. He started acquiring hundreds of online licenses for Nollywood movies, to upload onto YouTube. According to him: “What informed my decision to move into the digitisation of Nollywood was the fact that there was a global desire for content. Everything was super informal and based on geography. Bringing the content online erased those borders in an instant.” As they say, the rest is history. Today, iRokoTv brand has grown to become one of the largest platforms for Nollywood movies and TV series.
“I built the business from scratch – just me, a computer and three screens in a small room in east London,” he once said in an interview. Since its launch in 2010, the business has grown and attracted up to $40 million in investment funding from foreign investors and venture capital investors. The company serves as one of Africa’s largest internet TV providers, with a dedicated mobile app and iROKOtv channels on Sky in the UK and across Africa. iROKOtv also produces its own original TV series and movies, according to Face 2 Face Africa.
No business is without challenges. Jason faced challenges as a start-up and even now he still faces challenges as the leading VOD service provider in Nigeria and one of the biggest in Africa. Familiar challenges such as the cost of data, low internet penetration and poor level of infrastructure in the Nigeria popped up when he began this business. One of the biggest challenges faced by the firm at the initial stage was that of uploading the video content onto the internet. According to Jason, there was a time, when it was easier for him to purchase the online licenses of movies on hard drives, and then fly back to the UK, in order to upload them onto iROKO tv site. As was the case for most other start-ups in the country, logistics was a major challenge for Jason while starting. He once said in an interview: “We were also doing something that no one else on the continent had tried to do, which is to build an online community around and monetise Nollywood. So we had no blueprint for this, and finding people with the right experience to help us execute on our vision was also a major issue.” Jason was able to overcome these challenges and move on to become one of the best in the industry.
Funding for iRoko TV as a start-up
Jason initially had support for IROKO tv from his friend Bastian Gotter, a pal in their university days. Bastian was the company’s angel investor and, together with a couple of his colleagues, supported iROKO until it was in a position to attract institutional investors and in 2011, the company was approached by Tiger Global after an article came out about the platform in TechCrunch. Tiger Global took the platform through the first institutional investment round. According to Jason, the platform was well received from its earliest days. He noted that the early metrics gave him the confidence to keep building and investing in the concept of bringing Nollywood online. But Jason emphasized the fact that building the platform itself came from top level investment which was led by Tiger Global. These investments helped the company grow.
Jason made sure that he recruited a team of like minds to further build the platform as a huge brand. He realized that building the right team is important to the success of any organisation. Jason revealed that recruitment was primarily through his personal networks and friends from the University. “I still look to personal networks to find the best people, although we also go through recommendations, we advertise across social platforms and through recruiters –we don’t have just one approach to sourcing talent.” IROKO tv is now a huge brand with customers spread across the continent with customers from Africa representing 67% of the platform’s total subscriber base. With Nigeria accounting for 41.9%, French-speaking African countries account for 18.3% and English-speaking Africa accounts for 6.6%. The brand is truly huge and second to none in Nigeria.
Apart from iRoko tv, Jason has also recorded success in other business ventures either as co-founder or as an inspiration to a team of founders and builders. Jason is the Executive Chairman of Blackbet is a sports betting firm based in Lagos and Kampala. He has been the company’s Executive Chairman since 2017. He is also the Executive Chairman of Betty Bingo since 2018. This is a Nigerian community of fun loving bingo, slots and online gaming enthusiasts. Betty Bingo has a team 70 people in Accra and Lagos. Jason is the co-founder of ROK Studios. This emerging media giant was launched in 2013. It was acquired by French Media giant Canal+ in July 2019 in the largest media acquisition in West Africa history.
About Mary Njoku, Jason’s wife
Jason married an entertainment entrepreneur, Mary, on August 18, 2012. The wedding took place in Festac, Lagos. Mary is a famous Nollywood actress, producer, and TV personality. She was born on March 30, 1985 in Mile 2 Estate, Amuwo Odofin, Lagos State, where she had her primary school education. Mary attended Amuwo Odofin High School, National College Gbagada, and Navy Town Secondary School, all in Lagos. She hails from Nsukka, Enugu State. She studied English Language at Lagos State University (LASU). She also attended London Film Academy in the United Kingdom (UK), where she took a course in ‘Movie Magic Budgeting & Schedule.’
Mary began her acting career in 2004, when she featured in a Nollywood movie ‘Home Sickness’, alongside Chioma Chukwuka Akpotha. She came to the limelight after featuring in a Nollywood blockbuster, ‘Blackberry Babes’ in 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, Mary produced iROKtv, a YouTube platform that featured interviews with Nigerian celebrities. The channel also featured coverages of Afrobeats and Nollywood events. In 2015, she became Chief Content Officer at IROKO Partners. In the same year, she held the first world premiere for her film, ‘Thy Will Be Done’ at the BFI IMAX London, the first-ever Nollywood film premiere in IMAX. In August 2013, Mary Njoku co-founded ROK Studios. The company has produced Nollywood movies and TV series, that include Festac Town, Single Ladies, Body language, Losing Control, Husbands of Lagos, amongst others. In 2016, the movie entrepreneur launched ROK on Sky, a network airing across the UK at the Nigerian High Commission in the UK. Mary is among the very few media personalities and Nollywood actresses whose marriage has not been made a focus of controversies on social media as she has been able to manage her personality and family life decently and successfully.
Jason’s story is very interesting and inspirational too. His movement from the streets of London to the towers of the IROKO in Nigeria reflect the life of a passionate entrepreneur whose failures never stopped from dreaming about huge success and achieving it. Jason is happily married to Mary Njoku, a film actress, and producer, and together they have three children. When he is not focusing on his video on-demand business he makes out time to read a lot of business-focused books and do a great deal of swimming too, while also spending time with his kids. Jason is a role model to several young Nigerians who have the dream of becoming entrepreneurs in a competitive business world.
Here’s a piece of insight on what you might face on your way to the top of any business you want to venture into, coming from the master himself: “Starting a business, and getting some traction, is tough. Brutal. No doubt about that. But scaling and building, and seeing off incumbents, while juggling a team, investors, all the while trying to grow, it’s tougher still,” Jason told Africa Business Insight. So if you really want to end up at the top of the food chain just like Jason did, you’re expected to remain steadfast if you come across these challenges. What an interesting story of a wonderful journey to the top.