IT ISN’T easy doing business in Sub-Saharan Africa, with its 52 countries, mishmash of cultures and population of nearly one billion, the majority of whom do not even have electricity, yet alone television sets.
“You have to be ‘Africa-proof’ to succeed,” admits Frank Bierens, executive producer of Tanzania-based Made In Africa TV, which develops and produces mass-marketing programming with “a genuine African essence” for the Sub-Saharan region.
The central challenge, Bierens says, is how to produce industrial quantities of quality local content on relatively small budgets. “Basically, there is a lack of funds and abundance of airtime,” he adds. But things are changing. With the region’s economies growing at warp speed and TV penetration booming thanks to cheap imported sets from China, the multinationals are allocating ever larger budgets to Sub-Saharan broadcasters. And Bierens, for one, is intending to make the most of this gathering momentum.
“We aim to produce programmes with social impact,” he says. “The countries in which we launch — Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia — are often young and struggling democracies. Television allows people to get better information more quickly, cheaply and reliably. In this respect, TV plays a pivotal role in the development process of these countries.”
Minibuzz, a daily 30-minute current-affairs format, epitomises Made In Africa TV’s determination to make programming that reflects the views and voices of ordinary Africans. Recorded every morning on a minibus that has been transformed into a mobile TV studio, the show’s participants are random passengers who discuss and debate the issues that inform their lives, from soccer to maternity leave; from corruption to street beggars.
“It’s really rock ‘n’ roll TV — a moving minibus packed with people passionately discussing their issues,” Bierens says. “It’s fun, informal and full of energy.”
And it’s also proving to be a primetime hit. Launched in June 2010 on Tanzanian Broadcasting Corporation (it now airs on ITV), Minibuzz quickly became the most-viewed programme in Tanzania, pulling in a viewership of more than 2.7 million people a day. Last month, it launched in Kenya and is set to debut in Uganda, followed by West Africa.
According to Bierens, Minibuzz’s success can be measured in more than ratings. “Research shows that the programme is having a significant impact on the political, economic and social issues that affect the ordinary Tanzanian’s life and wellbeing,” he says. “Another success factor is that we offer multinationals the opportunity to discuss issues from their corporate responsibility [CPR] programmes on the bus. Companies find this a killer app — and it also fits in with Minibuzz’s editorial focus.”
But where there’s a successful format, there is always the risk of IP theft — especially in a continent where, as Bierens observes, “copycatting is more the rule than the exception”. He is not, however, overly concerned. “Minibuzz looks like a pretty simple programme to produce, but the minibus contains some genuinely cutting-edge technology. I’m sure, though, there are people out there who could copy it if they wanted. But even if they did, it would be unlikely to result in a great programme. It’s my impression that copycats are not generally that quality conscious — especially here in Africa.”