The starting budget was $8,000 in a country where retrieving that kind of cash from a bank is all but impossible and the shooting schedule had to work around constant power cuts and other shortages.
Three years later, Cook Off, a feel-good Zimbabwean romantic comedy, is on the Netflix carousels of millions — a powerful illustration of how the US online streaming giant is expanding in Africa by licensing or producing content that challenges regional stereotypes.
“No water on set, no electricity . . . If anyone was trying to do it who didn’t live here, they would have stopped on day two or on day three,” said Joe Njagu, the producer of Cook Off, describing how it was made in 2017, just before the military coup that toppled Robert Mugabe as dictator.
But with its faithful representation of Harare’s suburbs, homegrown Zimbabwean soundtrack and narrative constructed around a reality-TV cooking show, the film offers Netflix viewers a different side of the southern African nation than the political crisis and financial turmoil for which it is often known.
“A lot of Zimbabweans feel that is not the sum total of who we are — we have so much more in our lives to speak about,” said Tomas Brickhill, Cook Off’s writer and director. “Whatever you might think of Zimbabwe, we also have reality TV.”
The show’s acquisition by Netflix reflects the streaming giant’s emphasis on African-made stories as it tries to become an increasingly big player in the continent’s film and TV industries. “Have you ever had someone tell your story, take your voice and replace your face, until no one else can see or hear you?” a TV spot promoting Netflix’s African content, entitled “Made by Africans, watched by the world”, asked viewers last month.
“Stories from Africa have been told from outside. Now it’s Africans telling stories,” said Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix’s head of African originals or tailor-made productions. “We are out there and we are scouring the continent for the best stories.”
Recent South African original productions in particular have included Queen Sono, a spy thriller, and Blood and Water, a Cape Town high-school drama that made Netflix’s US top-10 on its debut in May. “We are seeing that they are resonating all around the world already,” said Ben Amadasun, Netflix’s head of licensing and co-production in Africa, which was responsible for acquiring Cook Off.
The rise of original African programming on Netflix reflects how it has been shifting the majority of its content budget, which analysts estimate will be about $17bn this year, to self-produced or third-party originals in order to outpace producers such as Disney that are launching their own streaming services.
At the same time, Africa is emerging as a streaming market in its own right. Netflix, which began to disclose regional subscriber growth numbers only last year, does not specify the sub-Saharan portion of its 58m customers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which together comprise its second-biggest market.
But African streaming will reach $1.2bn in revenues by 2025, a sixfold increase on 2019, according to Digital TV Research, an industry forecaster. Netflix alone will have around 5.7m African subscribers by the middle of the decade, it forecasts.
Netflix’s bet on African content shows that “they also want to be seen to be offering local productions in their key growth markets”, said Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research.
Most of Netflix’s big international streaming rivals do not yet operate in Africa.
The strongest local streaming service is Showmax, operated by South Africa’s MultiChoice pay-TV empire. More than half of Showmax’s content is locally made and MultiChoice runs a yearly “talent factory” looking for creatives across Africa. It is also increasing investment in local content. A standalone Showmax subscription in South Africa costs R99 ($5.80) a month, the same as a basic Netflix plan in the country.
One reason for the dominance of traditional pay TV is that all streaming platforms have to deal with severe disparities on the continent in the speed and cost of data as well as a lack of fixed broadband.
According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, downloading a five-gigabyte film in Ethiopia or the Democratic Republic of Congo can take between 12 and 14 hours, versus just over 11 minutes in Singapore.
As streaming takes off in Africa, “a lot of that growth will be on mobile broadband” and Netflix will probably sell mobile subscriptions, as it has in India and some Asian markets, said Mr Murray.
“Eventually in Africa a lot of these platforms will have to form partnerships with mobile operators,” he added — not only to offer mobile plans but to secure distribution and payment systems.
It also means that the streaming race to acquire African-made series and films has only just begun. “Diversity of genre is critical to us. There are so many genres we want to test out and try,” said Mr Amadasun.
Meanwhile, Mr Njagu and Mr Brickhill are thinking about where Zimbabwe filmmaking will go next, after Cook Off’s Netflix boost showed what was possible. “The next one is going to be bigger and better than Cook Off,” said Mr Njagu. “The only way is up.”