Balancing Act (London)

Africa: VOD Services Are Beginning to Gain Traction but Are Operators Ready for This Kind of Traffic?

analysis

London — There's a mismatch happening out there in African markets. Users have demonstrated that they want streaming video services and they want them now. However, the majority of operators do not have the networks required to deliver these services. New entrants are coming to market and the pressure to deliver streaming effectively can only intensify. Russell Southwood talks to NyashaMutsekwa, CEO, MeTVAfrica.com about how things are shaping up.

The table below shows the position of You Tube in the Alexa web site rankings:

Cameroon 5th

Cote d'Ivoire 4th

Ghana 5th

Kenya 5th

Madagascar 6th

Nigeria 5th

Senegal 4th

South Africa 4th

Sudan 3rd

Uganda 5th

These rankings are in spite of the poor bandwidth availability in many countries. Ookla Net Index reported a 5.3 mbps average speed for Ghana in March of this year. The Index listed Ghana Telecom (6.13 Mbps), Zipnet/Broadband Home Ltd (2.02 Mbps) and Scancom Limited (1.51 Mbps) as the major Internet service providers (ISPs) in the country. However, those familiar with trying to stream video there will be sceptical of these claims. The reality - even in places like Kenya where the bandwidth has massively improved - is that video streaming is something that still involves a lot of buffering. 3G and 3G+ was such a relief after things like EDGE that it seemed like the answer. But proper streaming on 3G or 3G+ crashes very quickly with any volume of users.

There are probably four places where African VOD sites will succeed: the diaspora; Nigeria; East Africa and South Africa. Nollywood Love has successfully parked its tent on the Nigerian diaspora space but MeTVAfrica.com is looking for a pan-continental audience from the more bandwidth-friendly South Africa.

VOD operator MeTVAfrica.com has been in existence for little over a year: its alpha launch was in December 2011, followed by its beta launch in April 2011. It is currently offering free content but is looking to also include premium content in 6-12 months time.

There is still the issue of bandwidth as for all but the most premium users in South Africa, streaming over a broadband connection is not easy over any length of time. There is still no-one in South Africa who is planning to offer Fibre to the Cabinet or Fibre to the home despite the fact that there are probably around 2 million households that could afford to pay for it.

As a start-up, MeTVAfrica.com went the easy route to start with and used Akamai in the USA but it has plans to set up a local server in South Africa. It is owned by WASP provider iBurst and plans to put the server in its core so that iBurst subscribers and those peering with iBurst should get a low latency service.

The current reality is that the majority of people tend to watch for 15 minutes:"Keeping users attention for more than 15 minutes is hard. We've started saying to content makers, keep it to 15 minutes." However, it's clear that buffering plays its part in keeping people's attention span short.

According to Mutsekwa:"We want to get people used to watching things on their computers. There's a lot of pirate sites out there but we want them to do it legally. All the content we stream has either been paid for or we have a revenue share with the content owners. We give them another way to monetise their content and get it seen, which is very important to them"

Whilst Nollywood Love's primary focus is the Nigerian diaspora, MeTVAfrica.com is focused on Africa:"We do stream to users in the UK and USA but we are focused on a continental audience."

So how is the service promoted?"It's frustrating because we are not funded and can't spend huge amounts on marketing. So it's largely through social media." Currently it is doing 10,000 views per month and Mutsekwa believes that with the right content it could easily be hundreds of thousands or millions of views. This increase in user volume will increase the requirement for bandwidth considerably.

"Currently it's mainly indie content, that is content not previously shown on TV. But users want to see what they've already seen. In the context of South Africa that would be Generations from 10 years ago and in the Zimbabwean context, it would be Mukadota." So he's looking to get "long tail" archive material for shows or films that were successful in local markets.

The business model is advertising with ads played in the stream at the front and back end of the clip. To be successful with this approach, he will need to hit the hundreds of thousands of views to attract advertisers:"We don't want to put a pay gateway on the site as we think this will discourage high levels of usage."

60-80% of current users come from South Africa and the next biggest country is Kenya, followed by Nigeria. MeTVAfrica.com has got Nollywood content but has taken the view that others are doing that well and is focused on content from other African countries, with a specific focus on East Africa, Zimbabwe and South Africa:"You succeed where you start. If you can succeed in South Africa, it will grow into the rest of the continent."

It has had three big hits in content terms: a reality show on SABC with Jozi hip-hop group Ghetto Rough; Isicoco; and Rocket in Flight. The Getto Rough reality show that travels across Africa airs on SABC on Tuesdays and appears on MeTVAfrica.com as a catch-up programme thereafter. Rocket in Flight is produced by digital agency Half Loaf with an actor from the UK called Humanoid. Isicoco is a short series of one minute animations about a comical Zulu Warrior who is also a superhero:"Animation and comedy are really developing on the continent. Rocket in Flight is not a show about "us" (Africans) but just something that entertains."

The attitude of content makers is also beginning to change:"Last year it was hard to get people to talk to us. They had no structure for it. One year later we're still here and there are now structures in place and people are talking to us."

The dilemma for telecoms operators is that users want more bandwidth for services like video streaming but these are over-the-top services where the operators' main contribution is selling the bandwidth to make them work. Operators' current business models are based on selling low cost, low use packages for e-mail and web browsing. Soon they will have to re-engineer these models to deliver data both at home and on the move for heavy users as a matter of course.

Read the original story, with tables and illustrations where appropriate.

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