Kana TV has taken Addis Ababa by storm. Wherever you go it seems there is a TV screen nearby on which South American or Korean soap stars in the throes of the latest diabolic crisis are proclaiming in impassioned Amharic. Even for non-Amharic speakers, it’s hard not to be drawn in.
Broadcast exclusively in the lingua franca of Ethiopia, Kana TV marks a breakthrough in a country where until recently the main alternatives to the drab state-owned terrestrial channels were foreign satellite broadcasters. This new free-to-air, private satellite TV channel, bringing international standard programming to Ethiopia’s estimated 4m TV households has seized a 40–50% prime time market share.
Kana translates as something between taste and flavour – the “proverbial special sauce,” according to cofounder Elias Schulze. “It’s a crazy operation,” Schulze says. “At the beginning it took up to 50 man hours to dub one hour and we had to produce 200 man hours of content every day.”
So far Kana has dubbed 1,200 hours of content since launching in April 2016, and has recently rented a 1,000-metre-square warehouse for original productions (previously, filming had to be done in places such as the front room of Schulze’s home).
Kana is also a truly Ethiopian endeavour – Schulze points out he is the only foreigner in the building – though it is powered by international partners Moby Group. The latter started out in Afghanistan, where it has established Tolo TV as the number one network.
“This is a totally underserved sector in Ethiopia,” Schulze says. “We want it to expand with more companies, as that keeps everyone, including us, moving forward. We’re not after a large slice of the pie, rather a nice slice of a large pie.”
From a half dozen individuals working from cafés and borrowed offices for the first six months formulating the business plan and strategic direction, Kana TV has grown to occupy four floors of a tower block in the centre of Addis Ababa. It has around 180 mostly young Ethiopian staff – the median age is 25, with 50% female – including a dubbing team of about 100.
A multi-phased and highly coordinated operation is required to produce all those hours of content: research and analysis to select which shows to secure, then negotiations and purchase, followed by translation, syncing, casting, acting, audio editing, video editing, quality control and then scheduling. Finally, everything is sent via internet to the playout station at Tolo TV in Kabul, Afghanistan, from where it is uplinked to satellite.
“It seems to be working well as some people say it doesn’t even look like the actors are dubbed,” says head of dubbing Girma Adame. Before Kana TV, Arab-origin satellite TV dominated Ethiopian viewing habits. “Parents were finding their children knew Arabic better than Amharic,” Schulze says.
Another problem, he adds, was those channels’ advertising airtime wasn’t benefiting Ethiopia, neither in terms of ad revenue nor exposure for businesses. Currently, about 50% of Kana’s advertising revenue comes from small and medium-sized enterprises, including toy stores, health clinics, restaurants, malls, and many more (the other 50% comes from established large brands such as Coke or Unilever and local conglomerates).
“Here you pay between $400 and $500 for a 30-second spot that reaches about 3 to 5m people – there’s nowhere else in the world that can offer that,” says Zamzam Ibrahim, Kana’s commercial director. “The cost per thousand viewers is between 10 and 20 cents, while the industry average is about $25, so there’s a large and keen market out there. And a lot of room for growth.”
Schulze says he can’t reveal the amount of investment it took to make all this possible, but it was in the double digit millions of dollars, representing one of the largest, if not the largest, private investment in the Ethiopian entertainment sector. “Kana TV’s success has proven the value of Moby’s approach to geographic expansion [in] partnering with high-quality local entrepreneurs and media professionals to bring world-class content to local audiences,” says Madiha Sattar, head of Moby Group’s strategic initiatives.
After bringing television back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban shut down the media sector, banning satellite dishes, Moby Group successfully expanded to enter markets across South and Central Asia and the Middle East. While Ethiopia’s entertainment landscape never suffered censorship on the same scale, its state monopolised television offerings left a lot to be desired.
“TV here used to be so boring, all the channels showed mainly news,” says Hamelmal Worku, a Kana employee in her 20s but also a member of Addis Ababa’s television-watching public. “But Kana is pure entertainment, and people really like it.” Certainly, when sitting in a restaurant, opposite a row of Ethiopians, all eyes glued to a Kana TV drama, one is reminded of television’s power.
“Our content is curated to entertain, engage and inspire modern-day Ethiopians,” says cofounder and head of strategy Nazrawi Ghebreselasie, adding how the company is “platform agnostic”, hence its focus on digital platforms such as the Kana TV app that enables audiences to have full access to all Kana content.
Despite the great market share, already there appears some viewer fatigue. One taxi driver says he won’t let his family watch Kana TV otherwise they’ll never talk to each other when he returns from work. Conservative commentators decry Kana’s foreign soap operas for corrupting Ethiopian culture. Furthermore, at a time of political volatility, some question why Kana hasn’t dealt with Ethiopia’s state of emergency, especially when it has a discussion panel show, #Mindin.
“As we grew the credibility of the show and audience recruitment, the aim is to gradually address hard topics,” says Hailu Teklehaimanot, in charge of the discussion panel. “When the state of emergency happened, we didn’t have any news in our programming grid. We are now expanding our content to offer news five days a week, and will be prepared to undertake significant stories such as the state of emergency.”
Kana is also introducing new family content, sports and more original production through the new warehouse studios. “Through our continued investment in training new talent, we are carving new television personalities that will transcend their skills and inspire future expansion projects,” Nazrawi says.
Whatever the merits and pitfalls, Kana’s emergence highlights how Ethiopia’s television landscape is arguably changing for the better, with the government finally realising that squeezing private media was a mistake, leaving the media field open to social-media propagandists during times of unrest. Meanwhile, Kana and its backers think its model can be taken elsewhere in Africa.
“As our first business in sub-Saharan Africa, Kana also has great potential to serve as a springboard for expansion in the continent,” Sattar says. “Our learnings from Kana will be hugely useful as we look to replicate its success in other African markets.”
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