TBI Spotlight On Africa: MultiChoice Group CEO Yolisa Phahle

Yolisa Phahle

TBI has partnered with US-based cable and streaming service The Africa Channel, which develops, produces and distributes content that reflects Africa’s influence on the world, to deliver insight from some of the key players on the continent about its place in the global market.

The Africa Channel (TAC) and its production division, TAC Studios, recently hosted the International Emmy’s semi-final judging round for the Drama Series category at a virtual event from Johannesburg, South Africa. For the first time, the company assembled a panel of industry executives and talent from major media companies across Africa and the Middle East to help adjudicate the event, some of whom will be sharing their perspectives with TBI this week.

Today, we hear from Yolisa Phahle, CEO, General Entertainment & Connected Video, at MultiChoice Group.


What has been the single biggest industry change for the drama business in Africa over the past two years? 

Demand has increased significantly. Africa has a proud film and TV history, dating back over 100 years. We have seen a steady stream of breakout successes, from hit TV series like Shaka Zulu to Emmy nominees like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Oscar-winning films like Tsotsi to Oscar nominees like Timbuktu.

MultiChoice owned and licensed content has a string of international accolades, with the likes of Is’thunzi and The River nominated for International Emmys in recent years, our ecological horror Gaia winning at SXSW earlier this year, and Moffie nominated for a 2021 BAFTA, as just four examples.

Since Black Panther proved that a megahit blockbuster could be set in Africa, there’s been a new hunger from global broadcasters and studios for stories from the continent, told authentically by insiders rather than foreign voices.

At the same time, as MultiChoice has invested heavily in local productions in local languages, local audiences have made it clear they want to see themselves in the content they’re watching. This makes sense as in China, audiences prefer Chinese programming, and in England viewers gravitate to British programming.

The MultiChoice video entertainment footprint spans more than 50 markets – we have more than 20 million customers across the continent, making us one of the Top 10 pay-TV companies outside China and we have successfully differentiated what we do through local content leadership.

The demand for hyperlocal content is strong in all countries, which is why we deliver content in 17 African languages, through several dedicated local channels across our four key entertainment platforms, i.e. DStv, GOtv, Showmax and the DStv app. Similarly, despite strong international competition, our three most popular shows on streaming service Showmax in the first half of 2021 were all African.

Streaming is also making pan-African distribution easier than ever before, so on Showmax we’re increasingly seeing Kenyans watching Nigerian content, and Nigerians watching South African content, and vice versa. Big Brother Naija was watched across the continent, for example and for the first time, the reality show was available to stream on Showmax in the UK. Many of Africa’s most-loved original productions are available to stream from abroad on Showmax, which is available in more than 30 international markets.

The Real Housewives Of Durban

Interest in scripted programming from Africa also seems to be blooming globally, what’s driving this and how do you expect this to affect your operations?

MultiChoice is 26 years old, so is well-positioned to meet this increased demand both locally and internationally.

We’re increasingly co-producing with international partners, like Monte Carlo’s opening night crime series Reyka, with Fremantle; or the epic pre-colonial fantasy Blood Psalms and the police procedural Crime And Justice with Canal+; or our adaptation of author Deon Meyer’s best selling crime novel Trackers with CineMax and ZDF.  And we’re also seeing strong international sales on the likes of The Real Housewives Of Durban and our record-breaking true crime series Devilsdorp.

This is all allowing us to be more ambitious than ever before, as increased demand helps us to recoup on increased budgets.

The continent is huge and diverse as is its drama industry output – which country/countries do you think are producing the most eye-catching scripted series at present?

We’re currently producing Showmax Originals in Kenya, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria and South Africa; as MultiChoice we’re producing across the continent, in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and beyond. We are truly the only business in Africa producing in this volume of territories.

Kenya has been making hit festival films for nearly a decade, from 2012 AFI Festival winner Nairobi Half Life to 2016 Toronto Film Festival winner Kati Kati to 2018 Berlin Film Festival winner Supa Modoas just three examples. So they’re definitely a country to watch at the moment, from the Showmax-Canal+ co-production Crime and Justice to the music industry drama Famous.

We’re also really excited about our first West African comedy, Ghana Jollof, which was shot in both Ghana and Nigeria. There’s a lot more happening there we’re not quite ready to talk about yet.

South Africa is also making better and better content. We’ve been delighted by the rave reviews for our Showmax Originals this year, like the psychological thriller DAM, the mockumentary Tali’s Baby Diary, and the neo noir Skemerdans, while internationally we’ve seen Reyka selected as the opening night series at Monte Carlo, Moffie nominated at the BAFTAs, and Gaia win at SXSW, among other accolades for MultiChoice owned and licensed content.

Most recently we launched our first true crime docu-series Devilsdorp, which has to be seen to be believed, and set a new record for the most hours watched in its first four days of launch of any film or series ever on Showmax – outperforming the likes of Game Of Thrones. 

What differentiates your company’s drama from imported series? 

While we’re increasingly co-producing and making content that travels, our key audience remains Africa. So we’re also leaning into hyper-local content in our regional languages, without the pressure to explain things for foreign audiences.

We work with local producers, invest in the next generation of industry professionals with our Multichoice Talent Factory, and provide our students with the best possible learning experiences from global experts, including our partner, the New York Film Academy.


Are you looking to work with other international players on drama, and if so, how?

Yes, this is a key growth area with us. Our recent co-production partners include Acorn, BET, Canal+, Cinemax, Fremantle, Media Musketeers, and ZDF, among others.

If you want to tell African stories, talk to us. We can help with financing, but more importantly with connecting you to the best talent across the continent, as well as local knowledge of what to expect and how to keep your story authentic.

How is your drama slate developing and what upcoming show are you most excited about?

That’s a cruel question: it’s impossible to pick one child over another.

But if we have to pick one, we’re particularly excited about Blood Psalms. Set in ancient Africa, Blood Psalms chronicles the rise to power of a fierce teenage princess who battles a world-ending prophecy to navigate her people through ancient curses, long-standing tribal vendettas and the wrath of the gods.

Show creators Layla Swart and Jahmil X.T. Qubeka from Yellowbone Entertainment were responsible for South Africa’s 2020 Oscar entry, Knuckle City. The boxing drama was the most awarded film at the 2020 South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA), where it took home six awards, including Best Director for Qubeka and Best Editor for Swart, and the most nominated film at the 2020 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAAs), where it won two awards.

Blood Psalms

Co-produced with Canal+, Blood Psalms’ heavy-weight ensemble cast includes eight SAFTA winners: Bongile Mantsai (Knuckle City), Hamilton Dlamini (Five Fingers For Marseilles), Hlubi Mboya (Isidingo), Mothusi Magano (Tsotsi, Hotel Rwanda), Siv Ngesi (Knuckle CityStill Breathing), Thishiwe Ziqubu (Hard To Get), Warren Masemola (The Republic, Tjovitjo), and Zolisa Xaluva (GomoraKnuckle City), among many, many other South African stars.

But we’re also excited for different reasons about The Wife, the first Showmax Original telenovela, inspired by the bestselling books by Dudu Busani-Dube; Troukoors, a Showmax Original romcom about a wedding planner who’s surrounded by love but struggling to find it for herself; the family thriller Desert Rose, starring Neil Sandilands (Sweet Tooth); and our survival horror series Pulse, which is currently filming in Mauritius.

And that’s just Showmax content, let alone the broader MultiChoice slate…

What is the single biggest challenge holding back the African scripted industry?

We’re in a really good place: there’s experienced talent, fresh locations, improving budgets and a wealth of incredible, under-exposed stories.

Now we just need cheaper and better internet across the continent, so streaming can grow even faster and build an even bigger pan-African audience.

What needs to change more widely across the industry to improve diversity?

We already have the diversity the rest of the world is trying to embrace at the moment, so are looking forward to bringing a fresh African voice to the global conversation.

Read Next