Q and A with Tuluntulu's Pierre van der Hoven

By Polycarp Kazaresam

Dubbed “the mobile content”, Africa has seen a rapid spread of portable handsets across it’s countries. Did you know that during the first half of this decade, the number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa has jumped by 13 percent a year? 

Pierre van der Hoven, CEO of Tuluntulu, is well aware of this phenomenon.  Tuluntulu translates from Zulu as “continuous stream”, which is exactly what der Hoven is offering Africa’s mobile club. Founded in 2014, Tuluntulu is an app that allows users to access online video on their phone. From news to documentaries, Al Jazeera to AfriDocs, Tuluntulu offers a range of free 24/7 channels. It may seem that Van Hoven found a magic formula, but developing Tuluntulu came with challenges. African Business Review catches up with van Hoven to talk strategy, technology and Africa’s TV industry. 

Can you give us a brief overview of Tuluntulu?

So Tuluntulu is an African content platform and what we’ve done is taken TV and radio to mobile phones. There were a couple of challenges along the way – the biggest one the last mile networks are basically low bandwidth networks; we have to develop technology that enables video to work H networks. So there is an underlying technology and methodology that enables video to work on low bandwidth mobile networks, including on EDGE networks. The other thing we did very differently is that … a lot of our opposition (if you want to call them that, well I don’t call them that because I don’t really regard them [as our opposition]) work with pay models and we decided to go with the traditional free to air model and to this day we remain uniquely free across Africa. So it wasn’t rocket science, we’re basically just taking TV and radio to mobile devices, Africa is a mobile-only continent and we just needed a bit of tech to do that, so we launched that two years ago and now we have over 430,000 app installs.

So how come you decided to opt for the pay model, rather than using subscriptions?

I think Africans are not too keen to pay for things, especially if they haven’t tried them. For a lot of our territories, the pay model is foreign - they are not used to paying for television, it’s a free to air model normally driven by a public broadcaster. Radio has always been free. So I think it was a bit of a miscalculation on behalf of a lot of people who thought that Africans were suddenly going to jump from a free model to a pay model. There’s huge amounts of competition in the upper ends of the market where the pay model does work but down the demographics, there are very few players going further down the demographics. We’re looking for a business that is scalable and has huge numbers. I think the free model was a better model, or certainly a better model to get traction we’re not excluding the possibility that we will do ‘pay certain premium channels’ in the future but we just think the market Is not entirely ready for that yet.

I see! You’ve kind of answered my next question, which is about how you competing with Netflix’s African arm.

Yeah, we don’t. We don’t compete with Netflix. Netflix is aimed at the top of the market and it is specific content. It’s mostly American-produced series, feature films, it’s on demand. We’re focusing on African content, so we’re not even in the same content space. We appeal to people who are more interested in local, African variations of content than the latest Hollywood blockbuster, we’re not in that space. 

If Netflix appeals to the top of the market, which demographic does Tuluntulu appeal to?

We’ve got 22 channels so we appeal to all demographics, so it’s not limited to any demographic. But, if you had to put us in a generic box, we’re further down the pyramid and we’re more focused on local. That’s how I would describe us, relative to Netflix and DSTV.

What are your plans for expansion or investment?

Yeah, we’re currently raising capital. Our mission is to be the biggest database in the whole of Africa. We’re constantly adding TV channels; it seems to be getting to 2/3 a month now. We want to extend the audience base primarily and we’ll do that by expanding the content offering. We’re in the process of raising capital. We’re kinda just coming out of start-up mode, so with a bit of money, I think you’re going to see a lot of growth coming from Tuluntulu. We’ve done the hard graft – we’ve proofed the model and we’re now in the position to raise capital. Now it’s the process of competing properly with some resources. Before that we’ve pretty much done it on a shoe string.

Why did you decide to set up Tuluntulu in Africa, and not anywhere else in the world?

Partly because I’m African. I grew up here I was born here, I’ve been here for many generations. I’ve launched a couple of other media projects in Africa so it’s familiar to me. I understand the market now, the source content…all that familiarity. The other sign was that it’s a great market because there’s very little competition. The opportunities are massive in Africa. If you look at the bigger picture, if there’s big growth areas globally it’s the explosion of mobile, and Africa’s history of growth is bigger than probably any other continent, because it came from a very, very low base. Globally, there’s an explosion of video so we’re all moving towards video, so we’re in that vertical. Lastly, even for companies like Facebook the last areas of growth, last growth branches are in the developing world and we’re squarely positioned as a developing world product, so yeah it’s a good place to be. There’s a lot of growth happening between mobile Africa and video.

Can you highlight this importance – the importance of technology to the African economy?

Well the key thing about technology is that in the past streaming simply did not work. Most of the streaming system we’re developed in the first world and they ran at very high bit rates. That just didn’t work in Africa, full stop. So we developed technology that works on EDGE. What that did was it increased the potential reach across Africa by a massive factor because they are very few (or certainly when we started) there were very few 3G networks out there. And lastly, it gives the consumer the choice to save money. Ultimately, I think that’s going to prove to be, I think, a very important competitive advantage. If I watched an hour on Tuluntulu its going to cost 1/3 of if I watched an hour even on YouTube. It’s a choice, so the consumer can choose to drop the quality of picture and save money - I think that’s a very important customer focused offer. 

Does the company have any continuous growth strategies?

We’re in a massive growth market, we’re in a market that’s relatively unexplored, you can’t look at competitors because there aren’t any direct to us. We’re in an extremely dynamic environment. We’re acutely aware that what’s happening in Africa nobody really knows, so we have a very focused philosophy. Our pay-off line is ‘Africa 4 U’, a lot of our channels have the ‘4 U’ after it. It’s trying to say to the market “you tell us what you want, what you like”. So we’ve developed a culture of being very customer-orientated listening to the market telling us what content they like, what they don’t like… all that kind of stuff. Listen to the customer.

Sounds good. So what is the general quality of African TV at the moment? 

The first response is “what is quality?”. A lot of people in TV industry think quality is HD, 4G…that kind of stuff. We don’t believe that at all. We believe that quality is about the emotional connection that the viewer has with the content. So if you depart from that point of view then we’ve got to find content that’s relevant to our audiences, and that really means African content for Africans. For too long people have been telling African stories on behalf of Africans. Now it’s time for Africa to tell its own story. We know from the experience of Nollywood that low cost emotional stories are popular. In fact, one of our most popular channels across Africa is a Nollywood channel. I don’t know if that answers that answers the question.

Yes, it definitely does. I agree with your point about Africans telling their own stories, they’re all too often told by Westerners. It reduces their authenticity. 

I think authenticity is a very good word you’re using there. It’s got to be…people have to relate to the stories, which often means they have to make them themselves. They shouldn’t be made by third parties. Our vision is to be the distribution platform, so we look at the content producers and creators as our partners, they plug in to our platform and our job is to ensure distribution and monetisation. Our business philosophy is to partner with these content people, we don’t want to be dictating all the stories we just want to be the distributing platform. So if you look at our 21 channels at least half of those we don’t have editorial control of at all. We give that to the expert in that particular vertical. So the content producers in Africa are very specifically part of our vision, and part of our partners. Our job is to generate funds that flow down to the producers. 

Moving from partners to employees – how many staff members does Tuluntulu have?

Well, good timing with that question – what I’ve just told you answers a lot of that. We don’t employ a lot of people, because we partner with a lot of people. Our own staff complement is quite small, but our partner network is quite big. If the question is how many people are directly or indirectly involved in the Tuluntulu company, I have no idea! But as a company, we’re small - we’re less than 10 people.

That’s interesting. Do you think that as companies become more tech-orientated, this kind of staffing model will become more prevalent?

I think it’s a function of a start-up per se, you’ve got to keep your overheads down, keep your fixed costs down. It’s a part of our philosophy, which is a lean start up philosophy. We listen to the market and its very much a part of our… a lot of tech companies do the same thing, it’s kind of a collaborative company we’re in. So we need to find people we can partner with and the old model of country work from 9 to 5 is… we’re in a digital space, maybe it is a little bit of a new way of working but I think in our industry it’s a way we want to work We want to partner with people rather than make them employees. I think that opens up the scope for creativity and expression. All the good stuff’s is not going to come from formally employed staff members. We’ve got to do a couple of things really well, and we’ll have a huge footprint in terms of distribution and have a monetisation platform that works.  The creative expression in our content channels, we need to open that up as wide as possible. 

Brilliant! So finally, where do you see Tuluntulu going in five years’ time?

I think we will have 15 -20 million people who would have downloaded or app and used it in on a monthly basis. I think those numbers are conservative, I think we’ll have hundreds of TV channels Hopefully we will be by a long way the market leaders in Africa for the distribution of TV and radio content.

African Business Review’s July issue is now live.

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