Netflix’s Head of African Originals Lays Out Streamer’s Plans for the Continent (EXCLUSIVE)

Christopher Vourlias

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Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and a team of high-level executives have spent the week crisscrossing the African continent, wooing local creators and touting plans to thrust the continent center-stage as the streaming giant’s first African original series, “Queen Sono,” drops worldwide on Friday.

Sarandos took the mic at a splashy event in Lagos Tuesday night, where the crowd was serenaded by traditional drums before the Netflix topper affirmed the streamer’s commitment to bringing African stories to a global audience.

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“I’ve learned so much in the very short time we’ve been here…(and) I’ve just been thrilled to be surrounded by some of the most creative and successful creators in the world here in Nigeria, telling your stories to the world,” he said. “And that’s the thing that’s most exciting about…what we’re doing in Africa, and what we’re doing in Nigeria.”

On Tuesday, the company shared details of its first original series from Nigeria, created by Akin Omotoso, while also launching the Netflix Naija Twitter account.

Days later, Sarandos and company arrived in Johannesburg to celebrate the launch of “Queen Sono,” a spy drama created by South African multi-hyphenate Kagiso Lediga and starring Pearl Thusi (“Quantico”).

The company’s head of African Originals, Dorothy Ghettuba, tells Variety: “It’s been an exciting week to crisscross the continent and be reaffirmed that we really have stories to tell.”

The Los Gatos-based streaming service seems to have only just scratched the surface of the African market’s potential.

Along with previously announced projects, including the forthcoming South African teen drama “Blood & Water,” and the animated series “Mama K’s Team 4,” Ghettuba said the company had “some projects coming up in South Africa and Nigeria,” though she declined to give details. The company has also expressed interest in Kenya, where Ghettuba said she sees “promise,” although discussions there are in the early stages.

“We know that Africa is a wide region…but we really have to be very deliberate in our approach,” she said. “We are trying to find the best way to work, and we are learning along the way. Can we do better? Can we better? That’s really the objective for our company, and we are learning from our partners (and) taking it one step at a time.”

The veteran Kenyan producer was tapped to head the streamer’s African Originals team last year, after a decade at the helm of the Nairobi-based Spielworks Media. While mindful of the practical challenges facing producers on the continent, she noted that African creatives are famous for their adaptability, and are well positioned to capitalize on a rapidly changing global market where demand for diverse content is greater than ever before.

“The challenges are not unique to Africa,” she said. “We have come across great creatives and great producers who have, for the longest while, been working with what they have, and now we give them the opportunity with this platform and this backing from this company to really do their best.”

She continued: “The value we can bring is giving them access to 190 countries. We give them access to over 167 million people. That is groundbreaking. It’s how do we shepherd them across the finish line?”

Ghettuba and her team work out of Netflix’s Amsterdam office, with no immediate plans to establish a physical footprint on the continent, although she said that the company is “always exploring.”

For the time being, Ghettuba is identifying “great partners on the ground” who can deliver content for the global marketplace. “I trust my creators. They know what they’re doing, and how they’re going to produce. They know the market,” she said. “We really have fantastic stories, and we’re telling them from the inside out. And it’s about time.”

For its first Nigerian original, Netflix tapped the veteran director Omotoso (“Vaya”). The untitled project is a sci-fi drama series set in modern-day Lagos that tells the story of a goddess who is reincarnated as a human being to avenge her sister’s death, but must first learn how to harness her superpowers for good. The series stars Kate Henshaw and Ade Laoye and is produced by Rififi Pictures and co-produced by Kemi Lala Akindoju. Omotoso will direct, alongside Daniel Oriahi and C.J. Obasi.

“It’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell since I was growing up in Nigeria,” said Omotoso, describing it as “a real opportunity because of Netflix for it to reach a global audience.”

Omotoso said he was inspired by the stories of African gods he heard as a child, and pointed to a “rich cultural bed” on the continent waiting to be explored. “That’s what I’ve always said to the team, and what Netflix recognizes,” he said. “It’s so rich, and the opportunity to mine it is immense.”

Obasi called the series a “game-changer” for a prolific Nigerian industry that has in recent years begun to boost its profile on the global stage. “It’s something that we’ve all been dreaming of, hoping that it would happen, and now it’s finally here,” he said. “I just want to get cracking. I really just want to get to work.”

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