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Is Africa's music streaming revolution on the horizon?

Daniel Pelz
March 22, 2021

Many music lovers in Africa still download their favorite tunes illegally. Now, online streaming platforms such as Spotify are becoming more popular. This could help artists secure their incomes. But challenges remain.

A young women listening to music on headphones
Online music streaming services are becoming more popular in AfricaImage: Westend61/imagomimages

When Mdundo launched in 2013, the music distribution platform from Kenya was still a pioneer of sorts. Today, eight years and seven million active users later, co-founder Martin Nielsen is convinced that his plan worked.

"The market for music streaming and downloads in Africa is growing rapidly," he told DW. "People are going online and there is a great demand for content. and that includes music in particular."

The Swedish streaming giant Spotify takes a similar view. So far, the platform is only available in five African countries. By the end of the year, it aims to provide services to 39 countries on the continent. Spotify's main competitor, Apple Music, already expanded its offerings last year.

"Music is an integral part of youth culture. Africa has the youngest population in the world," Spotify's head of music for Africa, Phiona Okumu, told DW. 

Platforms with potential

There are other players involved, too. According to the website WeTracker, there are currently more than 25 streaming platforms operating in Africa. This includes services such as Boomplay, which has about 50 million users, but also smaller providers, including Mkito in Tanzania, Songa from Kenya and uduX in Nigeria.

A screenshot of the Mdundo website
Mdundo allows users to stream and download songs legallyImage: mdundo.com

But the Nigerian technology analyst Victor Ekwelaor does not trust the rosy messages being sent out by the platform operators.

"I don't think they are booming," he told DW. "There is just a wave of marketing measures and attempts to get into the market."

One of the main obstacles facing streaming services is that only 29% of people on the continent use the internet.

"The biggest problem is the connection: getting people online so that they can consume music," Mdundo founder Nielsen said.

Expensive data connections

Data connections are also expensive. According to a study by the British telecommunications provider CableUK, African providers charge an average of $3.30 (€2.77) per gigabyte.

Only the American continent beats such a hefty price. But at the same time, most people in African countries aren't getting any richer. 

"The platforms are mainly present in countries with better economic conditions and low data prices," Ekwelaor said. A look at the core markets of Mdundo and Spotify, which include Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, confirms this.

Spotify Africa screenshot
Spotify offers a light version of its streaming platform to AfricaImage: Spotify

The providers want to counter this with technical innovations. "Data prices are a challenge, internet connections are a challenge, but that can't stop an entire continent from moving forward," Spotify manager Okumu said.

Spotify has created a lighter version of its original app that works without high-quality smartphones and with lower bandwidths. Competitor Mdundo mainly relies on free downloads, which require far less data than streaming. This is financed by adverts before each song.

Increasing the use of streaming services would also mean more income for African musicians. So far, many artists have been losing revenue because their music is often illegally downloaded or sold on pirated CDs. Just €72 million in license and usage fees were collected in Africa in 2018 — less than 1% of global revenues. In contrast, revenues from the digital music business increased by 36% between 2014 and 2018.

"Pirated copies are a big problem in Africa and streaming offers a solution," Okumu said.

Young men looking at their smartphones in Lagos, Nigeria
Internet connectivity prices are notoriously high in AfricaImage: AFP/S. Heunis

What's left for the artists?

Mdundo, for example, reports that it donates half of its income to the artists. This year, the platform is targeting revenues of $600,000. With more than 90,000 registered artists, only small sums of money are lost.

Despite the obstacles, Mdundo founder Nielsen believes in the potential of his platform. He is aiming for 18 million daily users by June 2022. Even then, he believes that downloads will work better than streaming.

"The Internet will become more and more natural on the continent and it will become easier to reach larger target groups and to earn money with it," he said.

This article was adapted from German.