Nigeria—with its booming growth, and its nearly 300 missing girls—has been all over the news lately. I’ve been here for the last 7 days, first reporting on the Africa meeting of the World Economic Forum in Abuja, and now in Lagos, to report a piece on the country’s burgeoning film industry, Nollywood. In some ways, the story of this industry is the story of the entire Nigerian and even African economy. It's about sheer entrepreneurial will overcoming any number of obstacles, from inept governance, to corruption and crime, to the lack of basics like power, roads, and infrastructure.
The chirpy David Brook's piece in the New York Times the other day certainly put forward the optimistic story—7% growth, a GDP that recently jumped by 89% thanks to a recalculation by the World Bank, huge consumer spending potential, a growing middle class, etc., etc. But what I have taken away from my reporting here is that this growth is happening in spite of incredible governmental roadblocks, and that much of the money is still flowing out of the country, or up to a small group of elites. If things got even a little bit better, Nigeria, already the largest economy in Africa, could truly boom in a more inclusive way.
Consider electrical power, or the lack of power, which everyone from Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, to the small producers of Nollywood says is the biggest obstacle to doing business here. The power setup in Nigeria is similar to the water setup in India. The government controls a grid, which runs haphazardly—sometimes because of poor infrastructure, other times because power gets pulled to choice areas. Either way, it means people have to buy generators and diesel to keep the lights on. (BTW, the lights just literally went off in my hotel, supposedly one of the nicest in Lagos, as I wrote this post.)
I spoke today with a filmmaker who was in the middle of making movie when his generator blew out. He bought a new one the next day, but it was stolen by one of the neighbors. (He hired the local vigilante police to find it; the real ones never come because they don't get paid off.) Lack of power is one big reason production values in Nollywood, which churns out more movies than Hollywood and is second only to Bollywood in terms of number of films produced, have remained low for so long. But this kind of crime is just the tip of the iceberg.
The same producer released 50,000 copies of a movie to local distributors in Alaba Market, which is the birthplace and heart of Nollywood, and the largest consumer electronics market in West Africa. The next day, he got a call from Greece, from someone who'd seen his movie via a black market tape. It turned out that 100,000 copies had already been pirated (he believes by his own distributors in Alaba). The $5,000 in profit he'd hoped to make on his $5,000 investment was gone.
In fact, Alaba embodies all that is good and bad about the Nigerian economy. It is vast, chaotic, rough, entrepreneurial, and lawless. To get there from Lagos' main business district, you drive hours in standstill traffic, on roads that are half pavement and half dirt. Once at the perimeter, I had to hitch a ride with a boy who had a motorbike, speeding along through the narrow market streets to get to where the Nollywood section was because the market itself is so big. (I felt like an extra in the Bourne Identity.)
Inside, you feel its possible to get lost and never emerge. It was a sea of bodies all selling everything you can image: extension cords, plantain chips, porn, cassava, washing machines, black market DVDs. Everyone everywhere is looking for money-making angles. One woman was selling empty plastic bags, and another was buying them and filling them with grain, to sell again. There was an open sewer with a 6 foot long board over it and a couple of guys had commandeered it and were making people pay a 25 naira toll to walk across.
Once inside, you see the different layers of the Nollywood economy—I followed a young man who'd come 80 minutes to buy DVDs for 50-85 naira that he would sell in a stall at home for 100 naira (about 75 cents). Interestingly, the foreign pirated movies, like 12 Year A Slave, sell for 35 naira—less than the local stuff, which is more popular. Distributors take the movies given to them by filmmakers and make copies of them (sometimes making extras for themselves), which they keep in warehouses and sell in the market to people from all over—Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, the Caribbean.
Once, I was told, four of the biggest filmmakers in Lagos got upset about the distributors pirating stuff and skimming too much off the top, and decided to go into the market with armed military police. They all came out a little while later, running, and being shot at by the distributors. Some of the larger filmmakers have since started their own stalls in Alaba and many now do their own distribution.
Despite all this, the industry thrives. The recent World Bank rebasing of GDP numbers has found that Nollywood contributes 1.4 % of the country's yearly GDP (entertainment is 3 % in the US, so 1.4 % is really very good for a county like Nigeria). There is an entire ecosystem of stars, minders, and hangers-on here on Victoria Island. I went to a Nollywood party last night and saw them all getting dressed for the red carpet at an event sponsored by MTV and Absolut Vodka. They are already huge in Nigeria, obviously, but are also big in Africa and are increasingly grabbing the diaspora market in the UK, Caribbean, Germany, etc, in part because the industry is finally starting to digitize; expats are coming home and building out digital video on demand platforms, which is bolstering demand and helping production budgets and quality to grow.
I met a young woman who is the star of "Lekki Wives," a take off on the real housewives theme. Lekki is like New Jersey—a part of Lagos where strivers live. Her character, Lovette, is a lens into the various socioeconomic issues that Nigerians now face—inequality, corruption, wealth than can be taken away in minutes, etc, etc. While there are plenty of sensational Nollywood films—thrillers, horror pics, religious ones—an increasing number show the way the country is changing and the challenges its facing.
I have another day of reporting to do, but so far, I’ve come away feeling that Nollywood, like the Nigerian economy itself, could be much bigger, but only if the government actually gets its act together and supplies basic business infrastructure needs (or the industry gets big enough to build it all out themselves, as rich business men like Dangote have done). Of course, the former would require a sea change in the political economy. It can’t come soon enough.