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Pandemic created opportunities for African video-on-demand, streaming services

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The COVID-19 pandemic hit Africa’s film industry hard, causing cinema shutdowns and production halts, but it also created new opportunities by boosting video-on-demand and streaming, participants in the continent’s premier film festival said.

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As movie lovers gathered in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou for the biennial week-long Pan-African film festival, Alex Moussa Sawadogo, the festival’s delegate-general, said the industry can capitalise on evolving consumer behaviour.

The changes are mostly being driven by increasing access to high-speed internet, with over 40% of its around 1.3 billion people now connected, as the pandemic led to a rapid increase in demand for those services, according to a 2020 report by the International Finance Corporation and Google.

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“Only 5 years ago in the Burkinabe countryside, people would gather in makeshift cinemas in a shaded straw hut with benches or mats on the ground, a solar panel and a television set,” Sawagogo said.

“Today, a Burkinabe in a remote district in Ouagadougou has a state-of-the-art television that can be connected to the Internet to watch films,” he said, adding that many more are turning to smartphones and tablets to stream content.

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Africa’s film and audiovisual sectors have the potential to create over 20 million jobs and generate around $20 billion in revenue annually, up from the current $5 billion, according to a report released by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO earlier this month.

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Video-on-demand subscriptions are projected to grow from 3.9 billion in 2020 to 13 million in 2025, turbocharged by the arrival on the continent of Netflix (NFLX.O) in 2020, the report said, citing Digital TV research.

Netflix and other major industry players like Vivendi’s pay-TV platform Canal+, Orange and MultiChoice (MCGJ.J) are seeking out local content and signing distribution deals as they battle for market share.

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Jonathan Lett, Canal+’s director-general in Burkina Faso, said the company is buying about one African film a week and co-producing about one a month to grow its catalogue of local content.

He cautioned, however, that it would take several years for viewer habits to fully evolve as unlimited high-speed internet subscriptions become more affordable.

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Lett said Canal+ made an offer to Netflix, with whom they have partnered elsewhere, to be a distributor, particularly in areas where a lack of bank accounts limits Netflix subscriptions.

“We already have catalogues. Netflix has financial power and catalogues but they don’t have a distribution network. It could be a win-win,” he said.

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Netflix did not reply to a request for comment.

Ibrahima Kane, country manager for French web services company Digital Virgo, which is partnering with Orange to offer bundled data and video-on-demand content services, said there was limitless potential.

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“I don’t know if the advent of platforms will bring the end of classic broadcast media, but it reverses the timeline. Before movies first hit theatres. Now it’s on platforms – a timeline that adapts to the digital context,” Kane said.

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