Africa is home to a billion people, but less than 20 million are paid TV subscribers. It also has under 120 million TV households across the continent. That's a very low penetration rate compared to most other parts of the world, but it reflects some of the economic and social challenges faced by the TV industry in Africa.
But this didn't stop African telco Econet from launching a new pay-TV service earlier this year. Econet is a major regional player with 20 million mobile subscribers across Africa as well as 50,000 plus connections to its pan-African fiber network, Liquid, which stretches thousands of miles across the continent. It has also developed its own mobile payments service, Ecocash, and Cassava, a platform which supports multiple mobile payment systems and is integrated with a wide range of mobile operators serving customers in multiple African countries. (See Liquid Telecom Wins Approval for $470M Neotel Deal and “Africa is now at the inflection point of Mobile Money 2.0” Interview of Srinivas Nidugondi, Mahindra Comviva for AfricaCom.)
Following our initial meeting at TV Connect, Telco Transformation followed up with Econet Media's CEO, Joseph Hundah. Hundah is the man tasked with driving adoption of Econet's TV offering, Kwesé, taking on not only the unique challenges of the African market but also established competitors in the form of South African Multichoice and French Canal Plus (who currently dominate the English and French-language TV services in Africa.) (See Kwesé Takes New Approach to African TV.)
Hundah is also a member of our VTAB, adding a new perspective from a different kind of market to our advisory board's activities. In Part I of this two-part interview, he talked about the thinking behind the Kwesé service and unique differentiators. In Part II (to be posted next week) he will address the advantages of the Econet portfolio and local knowledge, and how that helped Kwesé gain marquee global partnerships and content.
Telco Transformation: Why offer a TV service in Africa?
Joseph Hundah: Well, I think initially our view was that in our telco business, the revenue from voice was decreasing like other telcos worldwide. We needed to stimulate growth from data services. So we set up the media business initially to understand how we could derive and grow content services to drive data revenue for the telco side of the business. But we realized as we investigated, that the way content is acquired in the African market made it tough to license content just within the countries where we had telco presence.
Sports and other premium content is often sold at a pan-African level. Maybe you can get rights for South Africa, maybe Nigeria sometimes ... but otherwise, you would have to get rights at least for sub-Saharan Africa. As we looked at this, we found that no telco has successfully launched a media business. There had been many attempts, but no one had succeeded.
So we hired media executives, people who had experience of the media business in Africa, the best in the business. Some had even worked with incumbents in the past. And had them develop this service.
TT: Why the focus on mobile for Kwesé?
JH:There are basically two groups relevant to a media business in Africa. Things like language, gender etc., don't really make a difference. What matters is age. The first group is older, between 25 and 75-80 years. These consumers connect the usual way and that group will not change for two, maybe three decades. Some will migrate to digital behaviors because there will be some who are more tech savvy -- but most will want much the same experience.
TV penetration is still low in Africa, so more people will get TVs, and will also migrate from free-to-air (FTA) services to pay-TV. And we are catering to this demographic -- we have a FTA offering for sports and we offer pay-TV via satellite.
But there's also the second demographic -- those below 25. They don't watch TV. Instead, they mostly consume content via their phones. This could be TV, it could be social media. In Africa, kids leave home late. It's expensive to live on your own -- to have a house, a car. So both demographics can live in the same house. The parents might be watching TV while the young man or lady is watching on the mobile phone. It might even be the same content. And no one was catering to this usage.
The young consumer is dominant in Africa: 50% of the population is under 18 years of age. And it's a growing population, and tendency to consume content on mobile phone is also growing. But premium content on the phone is not there, so we felt there was an opportunity.
But data charges can be a challenge. In fact, data cost is the highest challenge -- that is why we approached and started making agreements to give this content to almost all the mobile operators in Africa [and get discounted data rates for consumers]. We see massive potential for this service.
TT: What kind of content is most popular?
JH: I think Africa is no different from anywhere else. Local content is always King. So our strategy is to cater to local content. But it has to be very local. For example, soccer leagues don't travel well -- the Ghanaian league will not be of interest in Nigeria and the Nigerian league will not be of interest to Ghana, or Kenya for that matter.
But premium soccer -- the English Premier League, the Champions League -- that's very popular. So we need premium content to drive value. Local sports are good for FTA, but people won’t subscribe [to pay-TV packages] for it. For that, you need top flight content, to get people to pay.
TT: How about original content, is that a big push for Kwesé?
JH:We're not commissioning a huge amount of original content right now, but the intention is there for the future. It's a chicken and egg kind of debate: Should you first build your subscriber base and then get produce local content, or should you first produce the content and use it to get some momentum on your subscriber base?
I kind of take the middle ground on this. We have commissioned some dramas, reality and lifestyle shows, but we expect that in three-to-five years we will commission some major productions. Right now it's a mix between entertainment content but we are also in high-level discussions about local sports. Sports that don't get a lot of carriage like sevens rugby, local golf, volleyball in local countries where we operate. We'll look at FTA first and then, as popularity grows, maybe on the pay platform across Africa.
Our goal with these sports is to increase exposure to these sports, increase their popularity and drive desire for more sports in general. In time we also hope this will drive desire for more adoption or demand for pay-TV sports. In a sense, the FTA channels work almost as barker channels for the premium sports channels on the pay tiers.
TT: How long has the service been in operation?
JH: Launched with our website in October 2015, so the brand has been around for a while. We have 2.5 million unique users, and with a high level of engagement. We launched the 1.0 version of our app, and we're about to launch an update next week. The FTA service launched in Q1 2016, it's now present in nine countries where we have TV licenses. So yes, the brand has been around for a while.
But the direct-to-home (DTH) satellite service was launched very recently, in February 2017. That's a pay service, and it's available now in Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia. And we'll extend it to more countries in coming months. We're not really pushing it at the moment; our focus is on getting the systems right and making sure they can scale right and then in time we'll ramp up the marketing as well.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation