“Can you see my screen?” he asks a second time. 

I still cannot see his screen, and I say so. It’s taking a while for the slides Olawale Adetula needs to present to show. When they do pop up, a corner of my screen is blocked by text and images melted into an oxblood background, the theme colour of Adetula’s film and TV production company, TNC Africa.

We are having this interview—our second since February—in April, 3 months after the company earned a grant from the YouTubeBlack Voices Fund, an initiative aimed at spotlighting and supporting black creators around the world. 

In a tone barely able to suppress his excitement about untapped opportunities in Nollywood, Adetula talks about the infamous “streaming wars” of the last couple of years.

The wars are about video streaming platforms pumping money into content production to feed viewers’ seemingly insatiable streaming appetites and retain subscriptions. Last year, Disney+ spent $25 billion on content (and expects to spend $33 billion on same this year); Netflix spent $17 billion; and Amazon Prime spent $13 billion (up from $11 billion the previous year). Most of this spend is being made by US and UK media groups.

That kind of global takeover of the content-consuming mind is yet to happen with Nollywood productions,  Adetula says. He believes that’s because many creators still make content based on intuition and not data. “It’s all art, there is no science behind it,” he tells me. 

Knowing what audiences want to watch is hard business, and researchers and studios continue to tinker with consumer insights and AI to predict box office results pre-production. 

Inspired by the experimentation done in this area, Adetula’s team has built its own audience engagement prediction tool, Foresight Stack. The product uses advanced data analytics and predictive modelling to develop hyper-engaging scripted original series for the web. Predictive modelling uses machine learning and data mining to predict and forecast likely future outcomes from a project with the aid of historical and existing data. The technique was used to develop the company’s flagship YouTube series, Little Black Book, adapted from the novel by Sally Kenneth Dadzie. 

Adetula has extensive experience in marketing, having worked at Jumia, DHL Africa, and Diageo, and is thus constantly asking: Who is the audience? What and whom do they like? What do they talk about? The answers to these questions are his ways-in towards creating content that viewers would love. Little Black Book was in production during the lockdown. At the time, a trending issue among young Nigerians was “abortion pills”, as it would seem that, for partnered people, the lockdown increased their risk of unplanned pregnancies. With this insight, the series’s writers worked in an abortion subplot into the story, which had not been in the original novel. This settled the question of what audiences were talking about. 

Another way-in happened with the actors hired for the series. Two members of its leading cast, Teniola Aladese and Anee Icha, were garnering critical acclaim with audiences for recent TV work—Aladese for Jemeji and Lara of Lagos, and Icha for Castle & Castle. There was particular clamour for Aladese to be handed more lead roles. This, with the said actors’ talents a given, factored into casting, answering the question, “Whom do audiences like?”

An accidental filmmaker

Adetula didn’t always make films. He does not, in fact, consider himself a filmmaker in the conventional sense. He styles himself a creator. In this mode, his artistic impulse flows wherever the spirit leads, unrestricted by form or medium. As a teenager, he’d drawn animations, painted, and written poetry, but chose to study systems engineering at the University of Lagos; he felt the rigour of that programme would bring balance to his more fluid, creative side. 

While in school, he established a web development company and blogged, which at the time (it was the 2000s) was a new sport on the Nigerian internet,  hurtling towards its golden age. Through blogging, Adetula noticed young Nigerians didn’t have many safe spaces to hold sensitive conversations. He converted his blog into a community site where members could air out their angst on issues—ranging from religion, to sexuality, to their careers—as articles and post for others to comment and offer advice. Some contributors wrote anonymously; others contrived their real-life problems as fiction. The blog, called TheNakedConvos (TNC), would be the ancestor of today’s TNC Africa.

The blog’s income came mainly from ads and content marketing, but Adetula knew this business model was unsustainable in the long run, thanks to social media’s rise in importance as a platform for conversations. He experimented with more content-business ideas. He published 2 literary anthologies; a stage play; and a few podcasts. In 2017, he partnered with RedTV to produce Our Best Friend’s Wedding, a romantic dramedy about a young bachelor who recruits  his friends  to help find him a wife. The series, now in its second season, is adapted from a fiction series written by Adetula and Christopher Ogbuehi in 2011, and previously published on the TNC blog. Its outing was successful, doing a million views in 2 months, Adetula claims. He had found his new inspiration. “We knew that we had a lot of great stories, great content [on the TNC blog]. If we could transition them into video, people could connect with it more,” he says.

In April 2020, TNC Africa, the TV production company, soft-launched. Over the next year and half, the company would produce 2 audio dramas and 2 web series.

“Too good for YouTube”

The past year has been good for us,” Adetula tells me, his voice bright and satisfied. Last year, TNC Africa was active in the film festival circuit, with stops at—the Black Web Fest, Nollywood Week Paris, and Copenhagen Web Fest. The company has already produced 2 shows and expects to produce 4 more by the end of the year.

Adetula’s vision is buoyed up by his admiration for 50 Cent and HBO, the former for being a film industry outsider like himself yet going on to become a successful TV producer; and the latter for understanding how to create “iconic content that permeates culture”.

Although he is keeping an open mind about this, he is not in a hurry to create for cinema. He understands creating and optimising content for digital channels better, and intends to stick with that for now. He tells me that, sometimes, people say TNC’s shows are “too good for YouTube”. He believes they are wrong, and insists that quality content can be made for the platform, and other digital channels.

My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a biweekly column that profiles innovators, leaders, and shapers in the African tech ecosystem, with the intention of putting a human face to the startups and innovations they build. A new episode drops every other Wednesday at 3 PM (WAT). If you think your story will interest MLIT readers, please fill out this form.

Kelechi Njoku Deputy Newsroom Editor

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