Jason Njoku is one of Nigeria’s hottest tech entrepreneurs right now, written up in every business publication from “The Wall Street Journal” to “Forbes” to “Fast Company.”
He is CEO and co-founder of iROKO Partners, an online media distribution company centered around the Nigerian entertainment industry. Njoku and Bastian Gotter started iROKO along with major investor Nazar Yasin in September 2010, with headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria and a branch in London.
Under the iROKO umbrella are various companies including a movie streaming website iROKOtv, which is focused on Nollywood Film productions; and iROKING, a Nigerian music streaming platform. There’s also NollywoodLove and YorubaLove, which operate on the YouTube video platform.
IROKO is the world’s largest leading distributor of Nollywood movies online and in 2012 Njoku made more history when he received a record $8-million investment from the Tiger Global hedge fund. The investment made iROKO the fastest-growing Internet company in Nigeria.
Recently iROKO branched off again with the introduction of SPARK, under which the partners hope to help fund other Nigerian companies. AFKInsider interviewed Njoku to find out what else he’s up to.
AFK Insider: How many companies are under the SPARK umbrella?
AFK: How do you manage every project you have in the works?
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Jason Njoku: Alongside my business partner, Bastian Gotter, and my wife, Mary Remmy-Njoku, I oversee what the companies do, but I don’t manage them on a day-to-day basis. Once we’ve decided that we want to work with a start-up, we cut them a check, welcome them into the SPARK family and from there, they manage the day-to-day business themselves. Bastian, Mary and I are here to make introductions where necessary, sense-check business ideas and the SPARK team is there to help with back-end and admin issues. But apart from that, the companies must forge their own futures.
AFK: What are your five-year goals with SPARK?
Jason Njoku: We want SPARK-network companies to be at the forefront of Nigeria’s dotcom (or dotNG, I guess) boom. Billions of dollars of value has been ascribed to Internet companies in Europe, North America, South America and Asia, but not Africa. Yet, the Nigerian Internet industry is currently worth around $200 million. In the next three to five years, we estimate it will be a $1-billion industry, and we want our SPARK companies to be the market leaders.
AFK: Why is it important to assist other entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
Jason Njoku: I know better than anyone else that fundraising for a start-up in Nigeria is not easy. In the early days, none of my Nigerian connections was even willing to listen to my ideas on streaming Nollywood movies online, let alone invest their money. I had my best friend, Bastian Gotter, help me fund the early days of iROKOtv. But most Nigerians don’t have a friend in the West who is willing to liquidate their life savings, and they certainly don’t have access to funds elsewhere. Banks here tend not to lend to young entrepreneurs and even if they did, no-one can afford the 30 percent interest rates. But there are so many talented young Nigerians hungry to start their own business – they are ready to disrupt the Internet sector and play their part in its million-dollar future. SPARK is here to make sure that the cream, the very best, those who work the hardest and live for closing the next massive deal, have a helping hand.
AFK: What is your typical day like?
Jason Njoku: No two days are the same, but I get up, go to the office and try not to leave it if at all possible. The traffic in Lagos is crippling and I hate wasting time traveling. In 2012, I pretty much lived on a plane and it was tiring. It was totally necessary to get the business to where it is today, but now, I’m happier spending as much time as I can with my wife in Lagos.
I have to oversee teams in London, Lagos, Johannesburg and New York, so I spend a massive amount of my time coordinating what the teams are working on. I work closely with Nollywood stars and producers, sourcing new content – they come to the office regularly and we discuss movies in the pipeline that will come onto iROKOtv. Since January, I’ve spent a lot of time working with the SPARK companies, located in a building near the iROKO offices. Everything is close by as my time is precious.
AFK: How do you unwind when not working?
Jason Njoku: I go to the cinema with my wife, Mary. I know, more movies – you’d think I’d have enough of them at work all day long, but I’ve always loved films. It’s my form of escapism.
AFK: Any new developments with NollywoodLove?
Jason Njoku: NollywoodLove is where we started and still exists, but our platform for streaming Nollywood movies online is www.irokotv.com – it has been going for over a year and we have close to one million unique hits each month. We recently added an “Extras” section, which includes exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as movie trailers. This is really popular with our viewers. We also launched iROKOtv PLUS last year -a subscription service where Nollywood fans can get brand new movies for only $5 a month. We release 12 new movies a month and this is on top of the thousands of movies we have online, totally free for everyone.
AFK: Many outside of Nigeria sometimes see a mix of great potential but lots of strife and corruption. How does this affect entrepreneurs?
Jason Njoku: It certainly does have an adverse affect. You can imagine the reactions I received from people when I first started out. I was going to set-up a Nigerian Internet company – I almost found myself pausing for people to make a joke. But I’d like to think that the success of iROKOtv, as well as the high profile media coverage we’ve received, has helped to improve the reputation of Nigeria. And the same is happening with other big successful Nigerian Internet companies such as Jumia, Konga and Cheki, coming to the fore and making a difference to the rest of the world’s perceptions of us.
How do negative perceptions affect entrepreneurs? It’s yet another barrier we have to smash. The ones who will succeed and make millions will put perceptions to one side and prove the critics wrong. The ones who become distracted by the negativity will wallow in it and won’t succeed.
AFK: Why do you feel so many tech innovators come out of Nigeria?
Jason Njoku: Life in Nigeria is tough, where even the easiest of tasks are five times harder to complete than they should be. The Internet presents us with ways of making life easier. Combine the two and you can see why Nigeria is breeding the next generation of Internet innovators.
AFK: Any dreams you have not pursued yet?
Jason Njoku: I don’t think too far into the future. Success brings money and in turn, that brings material goods; something I’m not too fussed about. My dream is to build an African entertainment empire – that can take a lifetime, but it will be worth it.