For about a month now, Ubers branded with Netflix’s logo have been zipping through Nairobi’s streets. An Uber driver pulls up, blasting early-2000s hip-hop, ready to take on his next ride. 

When asked why his car is decked out in Netflix decals, he says that he and a group of other drivers were approached by a marketing company offering $90 to anyone willing to ride around the city with the Netflix promotion plastered on the side of their cars. “Easy money,” he says. 

Streaming Gets Serious 

Netflix is more serious than ever about capturing Kenyan viewers. Since September, Netflix has been offering freemium services and running targeted Twitter campaigns.  But, in a move that displays a real willingness to solidify themselves in the hearts and minds of the East African nation’s growing viewers, the streaming giant is now offering Swahili-language programming. 

To roll out this project, the $25 billion company enlisted the help of celebrated Kenyan comic, Eddie Butita.

Over a period of months, Butita translated and oversaw the dubbing for the Swahili language version of Wanda Sykes and Regina Y. Hicks’ Netflix sitcom, The Upshaws

At 28 years old, Butita has contributed to iconic series like Churchill Show and the work of other famous Kenyan comedians like Eric Omondi. 

But it’s clear that he was not approached by Netflix based on comedic talent alone. Butita is skilled at wielding digital technology in a market that’s grown so big that Netflix can’t ignore it. 

Comedy Meets Digital Media

Comedy is big in Kenya, but digital media made it bigger. 

Kenya’s mobile penetration rate grew by 11% from 2020 to 2021 alone, making it one of the most connected countries in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and South Africa. On top of higher-than-average mobile phone usage, the country is also home to some of the fastest mobile broadband speeds in Africa. 

Mobile phone adoption in Kenya opened access to on-demand content via platforms like Youtube and Facebook. Before this, the nation’s airwaves were more competitive than ever, forcing users to prioritise watch time.

“[It] has made it easier for people to access content anytime, anywhere. They don’t have to be at home to watch certain TV shows. They can come back and watch. And if it’s live, you can post it later,” said Butita in an interview with TechCabal. 

The flexibility viewers have to watch what they want when they want has the ability to extend the shelf life of content, opening the door for brand deals and collaborations for Kenyan comics—an income stream that didn’t always exist. 

“Previously you had to wait to perform or be featured in a movie. But now, you get a brand deal that gives you $10,000, $20,000 or $5,000 just to shoot content and do product placement,” Butita said. 

But Butita’s collaboration with Netflix wasn’t as simple as product placement. The process of translating and recording a dub from English to Swahili, for a US comedy show, was one that involved new levels of creativity and innovation, forcing Butita to ask himself “Sanifu or Sheng?” 

Localising Swahili 

Swahili is a regional language spoken throughout East Africa and it takes on different forms in each country. 

Sanifu Swahili or “proper Swahili” is a term used to describe Swahili spoken in the standard form. Standard Swahili is spoken widely in Tanzania and on Kenya’s coast, but in Nairobi, the language has taken on a new life. In the multicultural environment that is the Kenyan capital, a Swahili- and English-based slang called Sheng is spoken among the youth. The urban language has become popular enough for Butita to consider its use in his translations.  

But Butita wanted to make sure that the comedy translated in his dubs could be felt by Swahili speakers across the world. 

“I did some lines more than five or 10 times because you rewrite the sentence, it becomes funny, but now you feel like it’s funny to just you because there’s something you understand that other people might not understand. So you change the line. When you’re recording again, you get a different feeling because of the cultural diversity that’s there.” 

ROI on Local Content

Butita’s dubbing and development of The Upshaws is nothing short of revolutionary, but one has to wonder if Netflix’s Kenya-play will be the one that wins the game. 

Although Netflix is offering a free, limited mobile plan for Kenyan users in the short term, the viewer is still responsible for footing the data cost required to use the streaming service. 

Mobile broadband speed in Kenya may be high, but the cost of data is high as well. According to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing (2021) report from Cable, a British technology research firm, Kenya takes the lead as the most expensive country for mobile data in East Africa. Viewing one hour of Netflix content on low resolution (480p) uses 300 MB of data per hour; in high resolution (1080p), Netflix uses 3 GB per hour. At an average cost of $1.05 per GB of data, Netflix viewers in Kenya stand to pay anywhere from $0.32 to $3.15 to watch a one-hour show. 

On top of high data costs, Netflix will, in order to retain Kenyans’ attention, eventually have to pivot to local content instead of dubs alone. The streaming giant has already done this with some success in South Africa, with shows like the teen drama, Blood and Water

But in Kenya, content creation has been somewhat hampered by the low return on investment on original content due, in part, to the difficulty creators face finding fair-priced outlets to screen their content allowing them to recoup funds.

Globally Competitive Content

Maybe this is where Netflix plans to make an intervention with streaming services. Netflix is a global platform that allows viewers to tap into content from any country at any time. The overnight success of the South Korean film, Squid Game, showed us just how successful well-made local content, that does not come from the West, can be. But, Korea’s success in film and television has been hard-won through more than 40 years of carefully mobilized political and financial resources. It’s paid off, in 2020 the nation’s film industry was valued at around $884,229,150

In markets like Kenya, where the culture of content creation is still growing, Netflix will have to spend more time and money developing local content that pops. 

“If we have platforms willing to purchase the content and make the returns be meaningful to creators, that means more content can come out and more people [can] get opportunities,” Butita said. 

There are signs that Netflix is already taking steps to make this happen. Netflix teamed up with UNESCO to fund six young creators in sub-Saharan Africa to develop six short films that reimagine folktales, set to be released in 2022. 

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Alexandria Williams Author

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