LAGOS, Nigeria — In the crowded streets of Lagos, Nigeria’s capital and the largest city in Africa, one ubiquitous sight is hard to ignore. Movie posters, advertising titles like “Sinful Soul” and “Facebook Babes,” tempt passersby to stop by one of the many local video merchants, where for just a dollar they can purchase the latest hit.
This is Nollywood. In a country best known for the violent insurgency ripping apart its northeastern territories, the Nigerian film industry offers comparatively less fodder for international media coverage. But this thriving business has taken the country by storm since the 1990s, when a series of Western-mandated structural adjustments to the economy put many entertainers out of work, and prompted a stubborn emergence of poorly funded, yet highly lucrative, mass entertainment. Nigeria now boasts the third highest-grossing film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood.
Nigeria has distinguished itself as Africa’s largest economy, averaging a 7.5 percent yearly growth rate. So far this impressive number has not been matched by improving social or development indicators. The country is still plagued by high inequality, a 24 percent official unemployment rate (estimated by some to be much higher), and urban bias with peripheral regions suffering from a severe lack of development.
The country’s economy is structured around oil sales, which “generate about 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings and close to 80 percent of government income.” But in recent years, declining crude oil prices have drained Nigeria’s export revenue.
President Goodluck Jonathan has expressed the need for diversifying Nigeria’s economy away from oil, an opinion echoed by the country’s leading economists. With its growing popularity, the Nigerian film industry may be the perfect solution.
Employing more than a million people, Nollywood is the country’s second largest employer after agriculture and the fourth largest sector of the economy. With a gross revenue of 590 million dollars, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss the vibrant industry.
Films typically take less than 70,000 dollars and one month to produce. Shoestring budgets and fast turnouts (about 50 straight-to-disc films are ready for purchase each week) have helped ensure high profits for film producers. But despite the low budgets and competition from abroad, Nollywood has garnered popularity across the continent. The storylines and themes present in Nigerian cinema are more relevant to a wider African audience than those found in Hollywood. The films generate not just internal revenue, but are also exported for consumption by diasporic audiences.
In the way that India’s Bollywood films have bolstered the tourism industry, and heightened middle-class aspirations through glossy depictions of locations and lifestyles, Nollywood is projected to do the same for Nigeria. President Jonathan has referred to the industry as a “shining light,” stressing its potential for encouraging tourism to and within Nigeria. Meanwhile, films like “Blackberry Babes” glorify the role that material possessions (like phones) play in determining social status. While a social shift toward consumerist values may have mixed implications, the prospects for economic development are positive.
Development experts are beginning to realize the importance of harnessing Nollywood’s latent economic potential to create more jobs and increase earnings. To do so, the government will need to bring the production and consumption of Nigerian films under stricter regulations.
The greatest challenge facing the industry lies in addressing piracy, which siphons off a great deal of potential revenue. The hectic, unregulated nature of Nigerian film distribution means that local merchants are rarely held accountable for profit-maximizing strategies—like selling bootlegged discs. To address this challenge, the World Bank is collaborating with the Nigerian government to enact stricter regulations for content distribution.
Capitalizing on Nollywood’s immense popularity will also require investments in infrastructure and technology. While many Africans already gravitate toward Nigerian cinema because of its relatability, a little improvement in production quality could go a long way. The government is beginning to answer the call for more investments in the arts and entertainment—last year President Jonathan pledged to commit 200 million dollars to the development of the film industry. Private investors will only follow if they know that their investments will be met with high returns. This will require stricter piracy laws, as well as a more sophisticated marketing apparatus.
With increased support from international organizations, the Nigerian government and local investors, Nollywood is poised for an upward trajectory in coming years. Already a powerful economic force and a medium for defining African identity and values, Nollywood’s prospects for growth and development are undeniable.
– Janie Ryan
Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Nigerian Observer, Trading Economics, U.N.