Afrostream founder, Tonje Bakang, talks ‘Afro video-on-demand’ and what achievement means to him
Over a month after the ‘chase’ for an interview started, Afrostream’s founder and CEO, Tonje Bakang, was finally on the other end of the line. “Good evening, Mr. Bakang”, I greeted, relieved to be speaking with him, that I forgot that it was quite early in the morning over on his end. “Good morning”, he reminded with a chuckle.
The entrepreneur, who is a native of Cameroon, is making waves with Afrostream, which the media has pegged the “African Netflix”, based on the applications’ similarity to the popular on-demand streaming platform.
Afrostream, a Subscription Video on Demand (SVoD) platform, launched its products in September, in response to the limited ‘Afro presence’ in movies and TV. Bakang is finally realising his dream of making role models who look like him popular on screen. According to him, he wants to tell to tell the stories that the youth in his community can relate to and identify with.
Since July, Afrostream appears to be on a clear path to achieving its vision, with constant mention in the media, the steady growth of the company, and recent accomplishments. It was only natural that Ventures Africa wanted to have a chat with the man behind all the excitement.
Ventures Africa (VA): Afrostream is getting more popular by the second. Do you have any reservations concerning the constant reference to Netflix when your company is being discussed?
TONJE BAKANG (TB): I don’t really care that Netflix is used as reference. Until people actually use Afrostream and see the difference, and see that even if we are also a steaming platform and we distribute movies and TV shows, the essence of Afrostream shares no comparison with that of Netflix. Afrostream does not respond to the same demand, and it has a different impact on our [Black] community. Going deeper, it’s easier for journalists and also people to understand the concept of Afrostream, which is not just the internet.
It’s the same for every product or brand, at first, it helps to compare it with something that we know. However, on my market, I realised that not everybody knows about Netflix, because at some point I tried using it to explain Afrostream, but then I had to just talk about it directly.
VA: Last month Viacom partnered with Afrostream to stream BET live in France, and in October Orange Digital Ventured invested in your company. Do these events qualify as achievements, or say anything about the future of Afrostream?
TB: You know, it’s like building a house, and we’re at the stage where we have the floor, and we have some walls, and we’re planning to build a roof. It’s all a process. I don’t see these events as big achievements, in the sense that it would mean that we have accomplished the whole thing. We think that we have the best streaming platform with the best Afro content, and that’s why we have this great investors. Orange is also our commercial partner, so they distribute our service. We also have a partnership with Sony, because of which we get to distribute great Hollywood content, showcasing African-American talent.
BET’s partnership allows us to stream their content on video-on-demand (VOD), as well as stream their new TV channel live in France. We are a tech company, and this particular partnership gave us the opportunity to show the talent of our engineers, which is great, even though it’s challenging.
In terms of the future, I think what people like is that Afrostream is moving fast. We are a small team, a start-up, and we spent a summer in Silicon Valley with one of the best incubators in the world called Y Combinator, but it’s not by accident because we really think that we have to grow fast, and be on time on the market.
Today, especially in Africa, we see a lot new streaming platforms every day, and sometimes they are launched by big corporations or tech companies. At Afrostream, we appreciate that, but we prefer to listen to the users, the people on the ground. If we think that the market is not ready, we prefer to wait.
So, as far as achievements go, I think having millions of subscribers is the biggest one. You can do whatever you want, make all the partnerships that you can, but if nobody uses your products, there’s no achievement.
VA: Besides a strong sense of your Black heritage, and an obvious business acumen, is there any other factor that facilitated the birth of Afrostream?
TB: I’ve had the chance to travel, and the chance to meet people in this ‘Afro global’ world, and I saw the connection. I saw that even if we have different cultures, we are linked by the same heritage. It’s funny because, for people, it’s pretty obvious that someone in Italy would be pleased by American TV shows, but when we talk about Black people, there’s a surprise that a Senegalese man could be interested in content produced in the Caribbean Islands.
And I’m like “why do you put in so much energy to divide us? Why is it that, with people of African origins, you immediately look for the things that separate us?”. It was all a bit of nonsense for me. So, like I did in my previous business, I just started. Like, don’t ask any permission, just do what you have to do. You realise that people just want to enjoy the content, and discover other things. With Afrostream, we have collection of contents, which makes all the difference.
People were very surprised when they first heard about Afrostream. I think also because they thought it was going to be another Nollywood platform, and then they realise that “this guy is doing something totally different”. The world is big, and we don’t have access to content that represent people like us, and there’s great content produced everywhere in the world. There’s different languages, but we can use subtitles.
So, lets’ use technology to fill the gap. That’s what Afrostream is about. Some other platforms are dedicated to feature films, whereas on Afrostream you find various content areas, proving that the approach is totally different. This is because we serve normal people, who are interested in other things than just movies. It’s about connection. At first, people would connect through the content, then they will connect between and around them.
VA: Speaking of Nollywood, are there any plans for Afrostream to collaborate with the industry in any specific capacity?
TB: Yes. We’re in December now, and this month we have four Nollywood movies coming up by the 15th. With Nollywood, I’m picky because, I know that it produces a lot of content, but we have an issue with their substandard nature. The four movies we chose are on the top ten list for us, in Nollywood. We’ll take our time and see if there’s a huge demand on Nollywood content. Right now, there’s no such demand, so we’ll just showcase what we feel the best are from the industry. That what we care about.
VA: Using Nollywood as an example, there is a lot of conversation about how westernisation of movies is a popular thing, and thus these movies end up lacking a true cultural factor. Is that also something that you would be focusing on in Afrostream, or are you fine with the current state of the movies?
TB: The thing is, you need to keep in mind the people that produced those movies. Some of them lived and studied abroad, so their products reflect their lifestyle. Then, think about the audience. Nollywood is popular in Africa, but those producers make their money abroad, mainly because the diaspora is ready to pay a certain amount of money to have access to those contents. Also, they want to relate more with those stories. Sometimes it’s a mix because you don’t talk to just one audience.
And then, yes, I think you’re right. We need a diversity of content, as some of them would reflect another lifestyle, although not necessarily European or Occidental. We are in evolving societies. Sometimes, people really want to stay the same, and they are like, “why do you want us to act like people in another country?”. Okay, I’m not asking you to act like the other people, but there are some things that need to evolve, if we want to grow as a community.
Think about the U.S. and the role that TV and movies play in the change of the society. At one point, I think that governments need to use those stories to change the mentalities. So I really think that, some stories have to be specific, but others can inspire and guide the society, and sometimes, having people who are more open-minded helps.
I’m travelling a lot, and there are people that have the same opportunity, and so their mentality evolves because they are in contact with different people. Most of the people in Africa don’t travel, because it is difficult to do so. When you stay in the same city all your life, how do you become open-minded? How do you see the world? How do you change?
VA: You don’t, I guess
VA: Internet provision on the African continent, right? Yes, we are among the groups that make up the majority of internet users in the world, but, on a larger scale, it is not easy to get access to internet. Do you think that this would affect Afrostream in the long run?
TB: This is what I was saying about Afrostream waiting till it’s the perfect time. We are not in a rush. If people don’t have access to the internet, then there’s no market for us. So, in as much as we really want to do this, we have to wait in instances like this.
VA: What regions in the world is Afrostream currently focusing its energy?
TB: Right now, my focus is in French-speaking Europe, in the Caribbean, French-speaking Africa, and soon in the UK. My primary focus, however, is building the best service. Which means every day we’re looking for new things, and every day we upgrade the platform. That’s my job every day.
VA: So, as time goes on, and the platform expands its reach, the website would have language options other than French?
TB: Of course. It came as a surprise for a lot of people because the site is in French, because they are used to such things being in English. This is so because there’s a huge need in France. Even for the French world, it’s difficult to access products in English sometimes. That’s why I started with this audience.
VA: Piracy and hacking is a big issue with internet businesses such as Afrostream’s. What’s your game plan?
TB: It’s to provide convenient service. If it’s easier to go to Afrostream than to pirate the contents, you go to Afrostream. If you want a brand gives you the feeling of being important, and you feel like it’s a previous service, then you would use Afrostream. Affordable is subjective. For some people, affordable means a product should be free. Of course, in our case, it’s not possible.
VA: In the nearest future, Afrostream is obviously going to be bigger than it is now. Will you be one of those people that go, “oh, I never anticipated the level of attention and success that I – or my company – is getting”?
TB: If you spend a day with me, and you see how much I work, and how much my team works, you’ll know that we really, really hope that this thing is going to be huge. Like you saw, you’ve tried to do this interview for months now… it’s early in the morning here… it’s not a holiday, it’s work. So, we hope that the work pays off. It’s like I’m a singer, and I went to The Voice, and I’m now at the final stage. (Laughs)
VA: Well, I hope that Afrostream quickly gets to the point where people like myself can read what’s on the website.
TB: (Laughs) The French we used is basic French. But our content would be mostly English with French subtitles, so it’s alright.
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