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Nollywood: A Secret Weapon for African Social and Behavior Change

By Wayan Vota on July 11, 2019

nollywood social behavior change

Years ago, I remember debating the design of an intervention meant to increase the role of women in Africa society. The budget was relatively small, but the donor wanted big, multi-country impact. The debate focused on the usual social and behavior change methodologies, but none would have the scale needed within our available budget.

Then I mentioned Nigeria’s secret weapon in African cultural conversations: Nollywood!

Nollywood: World’s Second Largest Movie Industry

While all the glamour is focused on Hollywood, the Nigerian (and to an extent, Ghanaian) movie industry is the second largest movie industry in the world. With over 2,500 films a year, Nollywood is only second to India’s Bollywood and far outpaces America’s Hollywood.

Nollywood movies are created in English, Yoruba, Hausa, and other Nigerian languages. These movies are shown all across the continent – I remember watching them in East Africa in 2004, and every year since in every country I’ve visited. And its not just me.

Since the 2000s, Nigerian movies are dominating television screens across the African continent and by extension, the diaspora. The film actors have also become household names and the movies significantly influence cultures in many African nations; from ways of dressing to speech and use of Nigerian slang.

By the end of 2013, the film industry reportedly had revenues of US$11 billion with budgets averaging between US$250,000-750,000 and production periods taking months to complete. You can now watch Nollywood on Netflix or go direct to iROKOtv – the Netflix of Nollywood.

Using Nollywood to Change African Cultural Norms

I am not the fist person to think we could use Nollywood to change African cultural norms. Previously, researchers from Princeton University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaborated to commission a feature film to test local habits on reporting corruption.

They commissioned iROKOtv to produce Water of Gold, starring popular Nollywood actors Yemi Blaq, Clem Ohameze and Mike Ezuruonye. The movie plot focused on corrupt government officials in the oil-rich Niger-Delta and depicted actors playing activist roles, encouraging people to report corrupt actions through a prominently advertised SMS short-code.

Upon its release, 31,000 copies film were then distributed in four states (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers) in the Niger-Delta region where the study was focused. The researchers received texts from 1,181 unique senders from over 120 communities discussing corruption or the study’s campaigns with 241 unique individuals sending in concrete corruption reports explicitly mentioning a specific act, person, or institution that were shared with local civil society organizations.

The results contrasted with the local expectations at the start of the project when Nigerian activists didn’t think anyone would participate, and previous efforts that only generated less than 140 reports in a full year.

Using African Musicians to Promote Family Planning

To go beyond Nollywood and into music, we can see a different experiment. The JHCCP Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative (NURHI) sought to increase the use of modern contraceptive methods by engaging top Nigerian musicians.

Tiwa Savage and Paul Okoye became the ambassadors for NURHI and the singers joined a host of other top Nigerian celebrities to promote family planning. Here is their music video, “Get It Together” that encourages listeners to become “the people wey sabi” (or “cool people”) who know about the importance of planning and spacing pregnancy. The video was viewed over 5.6 million times!

Soap Operas for Family Planning in South America

While Nollywood does more than soap operas, let’s not discount the power of a good story told with drama. In South America, researchers looked at the effect of television on fertility in Brazil, where soap operas portray small families.

The researchers exploited differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the main novela producer. They found that women living in areas covered by Rede Globo have significantly lower fertility and the effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and in the central and late phases of fertility, consistent with stopping behavior.

In fact, Rede Globo can account for about 7 percent of the reduction in the probability of giving birth from 1980 to 1991, with decreases in fertility stronger in years immediately following novelas that portrayed messages of upward social mobility.

Senegalese Soap Operas for Social Change

Senegal loves soap operas and Maitresse d’un homme marié (Mistress of a Married Man) is wildly popular with new episodes are averaging 1.2 million views on YouTube – the first episode was viewed 2.4 million times.

Thematically, is tackles many issues ranging from sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abduction, parental irresponsibility, substance abuse, adultery, and polygamy, among others. While such issues are not necessarily new to Senegalese TV dramas, having these stories told by a female producer and scriptwriter, from the women’s perspective is new.

Its views on women and their ability to be leaders in their own sexuality sparked controversy and made national news recently when there were there were calls by some religious clerics to ban the show.

How We Can Use Nollywood for Behavior Change?

Do you know where most Americans first saw an interracial couple, or discussed divorce or abortion on a national scale? On soap operas (USA) or telenovelas (Latin America). While many of us might scoff at them as low-brow entertainment, they were, and still are, cultural trailblazers, able to talk about taboo topics in a way that’s changed more minds than any development intervention.

We need to talk about infotainment for development, centered on Nollywood when thinking about African behaviour change.  Imagine if we could permeate Nollywood movies with gender-positive role models, real debates about contraception and HIV, and the need for girls’ education.

It might not feel as “real” as supplementing direct service delivery activities, but it could have much longer lasting social change at a national level.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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3 Comments to “Nollywood: A Secret Weapon for African Social and Behavior Change”

  1. Good summary, discounts successes in financial literacy in South African media:

    Harnessing Emotional Connections to Improve Financial Decisions: Evaluating the Impact of Financial Education in Mainstream Media

    Responsible financial habits are important for economic welfare, yet it remains unclear whether they can be effectively taught. Entertainment media offers a unique and cost- effective channel of reaching millions of viewers with financial education messages that resonate. This paper uses random and symmetric encouragement methodology to study the economic impact of targeted messages on debt management and gambling scripted in a popular television soap opera in South Africa. The results show treated viewers score significantly higher on financial knowledge, are more likely to borrow from formal sources and for productive purposes, and are less likely to enter into retail credit or gamble. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of mechanisms show strong recall of messages conveyed by the lead character, which supports theories of psychological and emotional influences on decision-making.

  2. Chi Okorie says:

    How I love love this article, I wish I could triple like this. Now the question is can we play mini series of plays here to educate folks on this side of the world? I think it will be fun from ICT!

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    Oh check it out! Nollywood Studio ROK Gets Acquired By Canal+ who are looking “to strengthen its content production reach in Nigeria and across Africa.” ROK studio created to make original content for IROKOtv and has gone on to reach over 15 million subscribers on DStv and GOtv