By Gilbert da Costa
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo laughs as he watches a documentary film in Abuja
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo laughs as he watches a documentary film in Abuja

Nigeria's film industry was in the spotlight at the just concluded Zuma Film Festival in Abuja. The Nigerian film industry has grown rapidly to become the third largest in the world, after that of the United States and India. From the Nigerian capital, reporter Gilbert da Costa provides an insight into Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry has come to be known.

In the early 1990s, Nigerian cities faced growing crime and insecurity. Theaters were forced to close down because people were afraid to venture out after dark. Videos for home viewing imported from the West and India were quite popular, but the depreciation of the local currency made foreign film imports extremely expensive. That was when enterprising Nigerians stepped in to fill the gap with their own products.

And in just 15 years, the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, has grown from nothing into a $500-million industry that employs some 300,000 people.

The films do not screen in theaters- they are recorded on fairly low quality video cassettes, and lately video compact discs, and sold for a few dollars.

Afolabi Adesanya, Managing Director of the Nigeria Film Corporation, which organizes the Zuma Film Festival, says their popularity is based on the fact that they deal with everyday issues in a manner everyone can identify with.

"They are not elitist- they are not appealing to a small segment, they are appealing to the masses who can afford these products, be they on VHS cassettes, video CD or DVD,' said Adesanya. "The storyline, the simplicity of the production, they readily relate with them. The characters are characters they relate with on a daily basis. Their stories are just too familiar; it is like its my story, its your story. So there is strong empathy for the products of Nollywood. Beyond the borders of Nigeria, they have resonance."

With the production of some two-thousand movie titles per year, and revenues estimated at $500 million annually, the industry is ranked the third largest in the world, after Hollywood in the United States and Bollywood in India.

The industry is flourishing against all odds in a country where it can be difficult to live and work.

Niyi Epega, a Nigerian film producer, says the challenges are enormous.

"Electricity! Number one. It is so hard to charge even a mobile phone sometimes. So can you imagine how hard it is to charge the batteries of a 35 millimeter camera? And then all the lights we use? It is just the same stuff everybody else goes through - the traffic, the bad infrastructure - just like any other human being that lives in Nigeria," said Epega.

According to experts, the Nigerian film industry has a huge potential for growth if the right investments to improve quality of talent, production and distribution are made.