Taking on the Nollywood pirates

Dammy Krane, an emerging superstar in the Nigerian music scene, was born in 1993. This was the same year that the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled what many still believe was Nigeria’s freest and fairest elections yet. The country was thrown into chaos as a result, Babangida ‘stepped aside’, and we ended up with General Sani Abacha as head of state. He went on to lead Nigeria for five of its darkest years before passing away.

About the same time, the new movie industry in Nigeria was born. In 1992, a businessman, Kenneth Nnebue, who imported loads of videocassettes but couldn’t sell them, since CDs were becoming the vogue, decided to shoot a movie on those empty videocassettes and sell them as home videos. The movie Living in Bondage, shot in the Igbo language, took the entire country by storm regardless of tribe, and it inspired other businessmen and filmmakers to make their own movies. Nollywood was born.

The movie industry took on a life of its own, and by its 10th anniversary it was already being called the third largest movie industry in the world (based on the number of movies produced). Today it is ranked second only behind India’s Bollywood, and is the number one movie market in the world for movies made in the English language – which makes it bigger than Bollywood and Hollywood. With annual revenues of about US$600m, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the industry born just two decades ago with no structure in place.

Sometime around the late 1990s, Nigerian music also started to experience a rebirth. Cable and satellite television became popular in the country and television stations that played music videos across Africa emerged. Most videos that made the cut at the time were South African, as Nigerians paid little or no attention to quality. But the more people saw the South African videos, the more people realised the need to step up and do better. And step up they did. Today, no party anywhere on the continent is complete without a good number of Nigerian songs.

Nollywood is huge and the Nigerian music industry is the pacesetter in Africa. But something continues to hold them back: intellectual property protection. Major record labels and film studios are still not convinced enough to come (back) into the country, as piracy is still rife and distribution is a major problem.

Pirates control entertainment in Nigeria, where the situation has evolved from them being faceless figures to unofficial distributors for these artists. It’s an interesting formula. Albums and movies are produced and taken to the pirates, in exchange for a large payout and the relinquishing of the artists’ rights over their works. It seemed like a wise financial move at the start, seeing as artists initially struggled to sell units worth anything close to $5,000, while the deals with the pirates had some of them cutting cheques for between $40,000 and $150,000. But it isn’t sustainable.

Krane might have had a different story if he had grown up two decades ago, without the option of exploring his passion for entertainment, or if he had grown up in a future where piracy had undermined the business model of the entertainment industry. He, like many others in film, directing, production, styling, IT and the many extensions to the industry, is happily employed today simply because that option now exists. There are many like him who know how important the entertainment industry is, both personally and to the Nigerian economy – which is why the distribution problems must be fixed.

One of the broad themes of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 is the millennial crisis, and this is definitely a crisis that needs to be tackled. Distribution, or the lack of it, is arguably the single most important piece of the puzzle still missing in a sector that has grown beyond Nigeria into the entire continent. There is a need to make sure that we begin to find solutions before things get even more troublesome. Unemployment is already one of the biggest problems facing Africa, with militancy and terrorism on the rise. What better way is there to engage the minds of young people in Lagos and Kano and Port Harcourt, cities that already have thriving entertainment scenes?

There is no doubt that this problem needs a long term and sustainable fix, but what we must begin to do in the short term is show a commitment to start to fix it. At 21, Nollywood is now an adult and there isn’t a better time to show that it can stand on its own and be that powerful force that it should be. It can be done. We must act now.

Ebuka Obi-Uchendu is a Nigerian television presenter, columnist and IP lawyer. He is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and is taking part in the Annual Meeting 2014.

This article was first published on the World Economic Forum blog.