If it’s Nigerian entertainment, it’s probably Nollywood. But what the Hell is Nollywood?

6 mins read

Naija pop. Naija novella. Naija movies. Naija entertainment awards. Naija videos. Ah hell, Naija honey sweet tea. At some point, a Nigerian sound or visual has streamed through your ears or across your eyes.

Definitely, at the very least, you have encountered Nigerian pop culture at a club that spun house, hip hop and reggae. It usually presents itself as Afrobeats or Naiji hip hop.

Ironically, people in the US, especially those who live outside of black immigrant enclaves or are least-connected to someone practicing traditional Yoruba spirituality, or perhaps, have not read Tomi Adeyemi’s smash novel, Children of Blood and Bone — or a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel such as, Americanahdo not know that they were introduced, if even remotely, to an African video film industry with the humble beginnings of hyper-local movie production.

Of course, the origins of Nigerian aesthetic emerged thousands of years before Nigerian movies, but Nollywood is the latest seed germinating the bubbling expanse of Nigerian entertainment and art.

But, when I tell people in the States that I research Nollywood, they often shake their heads then ask their own version of the same question, “What the hell is Nollywood?”

Nollywood is a rapidly growing movie production industry that emerged out of West Africa in the 1990s.

Noted for its innovative ways to swiftly produce inexpensive movies and cater to an underserved Sub-Saharan African (and its Diaspora) film audience, Nollywood dominates in narrating African pop culture and tradition from the lens of Africans.

Pioneered in Ghana, yet headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria (hence the N in Nollywood), the industry serves as a sobriquet for a number of Nigerian-and-Ghanaian-language production systems. As well, some movies use English or intersperse Pidgin English between indigenous ethnic dialects.

Borrowing heavily from established filmmaking cultures around the world while maintaining African roots, Nollywood carries a variety of genres such as juju, gangster, good time girl, historical and Hausa musicals; but the most popular are comedies, romance, melodramas, and Hallelujah (evangelical) themes.

Nollywood History

BEIJING, China: 18 JUNE 2018 – Nigerian family watches Nollywood at home in Hulumi community in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. StarTimes, a Chinese firm which offers direct-to-home pay TV services, introduced its digital TV service to the locality as part of its pilot project to provide satellite TV in five Nigerian villages. (Xinhua/Zhang Baoping) (nxl)

Leading up to Nollywood, Nigeria struggled with a fleeting film industry that barely gained traction after the country won its independence from the British in 1950.

After several brief periods of filmmaking, the industry almost died until the Nollywood “boom” in 1992. Instead of filmmaking with traditional cinema equipment, local creatives used another approach.

A tech merchant named Kenneth Nnebue thought of a way to shed an excess inventory of 30,000 VHS tapes that he purchased from Chinese traders who frequently dump old technology into Africa.

Nnebue, who worked on locally made productions in the past, decided to make a full-length movie using handheld home video recorders. It was a method of film experimentation that Nigerians learned from Ghanaian videographers who could not afford or in some cases, operate professional filming equipment.

Borrowing plots and themes from his Igbo ethnic group, all the while, using the corresponding language, Nnebue filmed, Living in Bondage. By distributing his movie via local Nigerian traders and launching an aggressive marketing campaign, the movie’s popularity exploded. In turn, Living in Bondage became Nollywood’s first cult classic and the Nnebue strategy established a template for local business persons to make money by making African-centered movies.

Up until 2002, the movies were labeled by tribal affiliation. Outside of Africa, they were often termed African movies and were sold in areas where African immigrants lived in high concentrations like New York.

When a New York Times reporter named Matt Steinglass saw the movies as staples sold by African vendors in the City, he decided to trace them. His search ended in Lagos. Steinglass was so shocked at the number of movies produced with such little resources, that he lightheartedly designated the movie-making machine, Nollywood. Though there are a number of Africans who oppose the name, it is now a popular term to reference this nascent production system.


To date, Nollywood is the first and only self-sustained, native-owned-and-operated African film industry. Unlike its predecessors, African-Francophone films or South African movies, it is not subsidized by State or colonial government organizations. Rather, Nollywood is privately funded by merchants, traders, investors, and independent filmmakers.

The most significant aspect of Nollywood is its economic success. The movie making industry has become such a money generator, that it is responsible for stimulating the local economy throughout Sub-Sahara Africa.

As reported by the Times, the United States International Trade Commission detialed that the industry is attributed to bringing $600 million annually into Nigeria’s national economy. In addition, Nollywood creates between 200,000 to 300,000 jobs yearly, more than Nigeria’s formal sector (Lobato, 2010; Okoye, 2007). With about 1 million people employed, the industry provides income in countries without government assistance programs or social security.

So popular the movies, they stream on Netflix, Youtube, and Hulu channels. As well, streaming enterprises such as iROKO (the African Netflix) and an array of satellite and cable stations specialize in running movies. Even black Hollywood actors make appearances such as Kimberly Elise, Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox, Wyclef Jean (Haitian-born), Akon (Senegalese-born) and Jimmy Jean St. Louis (Haitian-born).

A popular actor who also ranks as one of the highest paid in Nollywood, Genevieve Nnaji.

The Mash up

There are two recognized waves in Nollywood: the first, termed pre-new Nollywood; and the second is New Nollywood.

The first generation of Nollywood ranges from its 1990s inception to about 2010.  Often filmed with low-technology and meager budgets, the productions employed lower tech quality when compared to silver screen movies.

Nonetheless, it were these characteristics that made Nollywood a unique experience for African viewers, who already watched badly duplicated pirated Hollywood and Bollywood movies, Telenovelas and Hong Kong flicks for many years before the West African movie powerhouse emerged.

An excellent example of the first generation of Nollywood, which culled global success are a series of movies named after pop-soul icon Beyoncè: Beyoncè, the President’s Daughter (2006), The Return of Beyoncè (2007) and Beyoncè & Rihanna (2008).

Another feature of Nollywood, whether old are new, is that most movies have several parts, like Beyoncè & Rihanna has parts 1 through 4, making the movies a six to eight hour viewing.

The Beyoncè movie series, to date, is one of the most popular in Africa and the Diaspora. It also marks the global conversations between continental Black folk and those in the Diaspora, where the cultural productions of US-Caribbean born people of African descent are employed and remixed in Africa. The swapping is also heard in music and seen in fashion.

Those in the Diaspora answer with their own mash up; hence, Beyoncè’s ankara-couture clothes that she rocks intermittently. And way before Beyoncè, singers such as Nina Simone used African fashion and hair to present their idea of international linkages to Blackness.

From 2010 on, the term “New Nollywood,” heavily promoted by filmmaker Kunle Afolayan (Haynes, 2014) challenged filmmakers with larger budgets and access to better filming equipment and technology, to grow their crafts by enhancing movie productions.

The idea is to take the well-established picture making techniques found in African-francophone films and weave them into the Nollywood machine. Examples of New Nollywood that offer a range in genre and to show the diversity in movie making are October 1st (Kunle Afolyan, 2014), Black November (Jeta Amata, 2012), Doctor Bello (Tony Abulu, 2013) and Fifty (Biyi Bandele, 2015) ― movies that are accessible via Netflix.

It must be noted that all Nigerian filmmakers do not fall completely under the Nollywood umbrella, but certainly are independent filmmakers emerging in Hollywood as ones to watch. Biyi Bandele, a UK-based Nigerian  Nigerian novelist, playwright and filmmaker, wrote an adapted screenplay script for Adiche’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun then directed it. The movie starred Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor with Star Wars breakout star, John Boyega, appearing it the film too.


Bandele directs Nollywood movies as well. Said Bandele after the Netflix release of his movied, Fifty, “I think in the next 10 – 20 years, there would be movies that have come out of this thing called Nollywood, that would be conquering the world. That would be as good as anything Bollywood or Hollywood is bringing out,”

Re-Presenting Africa

Nollywood, whether haphazardly or intentionally, provided a visual and audio platform for West Africans to re-present and develop their art on a global stage.

Before Nollywood, most media came out of South Africa, a southern country with the highest white population and legacy of Apartheid infused in an industry heavily influenced and in many ways, controlled by colonizers.

When the West African industry broke, it allowed for untrained and under-resourced creatives to produce their perspectives; and even more so, a massive demographic of people who could finally afford to watch a production of their own that catered to their economic realities.

To have access to technology that captures the art of the people mushroomed into multiple industries. Now, Nigerian culture and people pepper UK and US entertainment. And it all started with recorded videos of low budget cameras.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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