ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
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The Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, started humbly about 20 years ago. Movies were shot as cheaply and as quickly as possible and then released straight to VHS tape. Well, those films caught on globally, and piracy has been a major factor in the industry's growth. Copies of copies of Nigerian films were sold on street corners from Lagos to Harlem.
These days, you can find Nollywood movies to stream online. And Wills Glasspiegel has the story of a company that wants to be the Netflix of Nollywood.
WILLS GLASSPIEGEL, BYLINE: Nollywood is known for melodramas and comedies about contemporary West African life. The popular film "BlackBerry Babes" tells the story of young women in Lagos who are obsessed with smartphones.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLACKBERRY BABES")
MARY REMMY: (as Keisha) Now, the whole world will know that I, Keisha, has joined the BlackBerry league.
GLASSPIEGEL: Nollywood stories riff on global trends and new technology. Behind the scenes, Nigerian entrepreneurs are interested in how these trends and technologies affect their business. One company called iROKOtv is making waves as Nollywood's largest digital distributor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)
GLASSPIEGEL: IROKOtv's office is like a Silicon Valley startup downloaded into a nondescript Lagos neighborhood. Inside, the four-story compound is buzzing. Young people work on Apple computers in every room.
SEYI YEROKUN: So this is like the operating center, the nerve center. We have around 80 people.
GLASSPIEGEL: That's Seyi Yerokun. She was the CFO of iROKO when I visited their office in Lagos. Seyi left a job in finance to work at iROKO.
YEROKUN: It started with my CEO, Jason Njoku, and he just came up with this brilliant idea to sort of stream Nollywood movies on YouTube.
GLASSPIEGEL: IROKO has raised $8 million from the U.S.-based venture capital fund, and most of their profits come from ads.
YEROKUN: So let me just play a movie here, and you would see it's coming up. Sorry. Internet in Nigeria is slow.
GLASSPIEGEL: Nigeria's Internet is slow, and most Nollywood fans don't have access to it. But iROKO is banking on the future of connectivity in Africa. And in the meantime, they keep their feet on the ground in Lagos and their marketing focus abroad.
YEROKUN: We've realized that our market is in the diaspora, Africans in the diaspora. The West is our largest market.
GLASSPIEGEL: Michael Ugwu is in charge of extending iROKO's brand into the music distribution.
MICHAEL UGWU: We can monetize the diaspora because we've learned how to monetize the diaspora. Our diaspora audience have access to credit cards. They have access to iTunes. They have access to PayPal.
GLASSPIEGEL: He's talking about Nollywood fans like Ihuoma Mambo Atanga. She's from Cameroon and Nigeria, but she lives and works in New York City.
IHUOMA MAMBO ATANGA: My relationship with iROKO is a love-love-love relationship, I have to say. Really what the public wanted, what we wanted was to go out there and find stories that will make us, you know, feel a little close to home. There's this yearning when you're far away from home. It's like you just want a taste of what you know.
GLASSPIEGEL: Today, the majority of Nollywood films are still sold offline, in outdoor markets from wheelbarrows or by the roadside from street vendors. But on the Internet, iROKO is carefully tracking the viewing patterns of its growing audience. In the future, they plan to produce original content that's customized to the likes and dislikes of Nollywood's global online fan base.
For NPR News, this is Wills Glasspiegel.