End of an era
Kenyan movie shops face uncertain future amid technology onslaught
Published: Oct 12, 2021 05:28 PM
Cosplayers watch the film Black Panther in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2018. Photo: VCG

Cosplayers watch the film Black Panther in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2018. Photo: VCG

 Walls populated with striking movie stickers and booming music pouring out of speakers tend to characterize many movie shops dotting residential suburbs of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. For years the outlets were irresistibly charming to a significant segment of the population.

But these stores are slowly disappearing one after another, erasing a once essential part of Kenyan entertainment culture, all thanks to consumers' changing preferences, advanced technology, and a challenging business environment.

"I liked going to movie shops every Friday to pick something to watch over the weekend after a long week of working. It was also a place for fostering friendships and engaging in light conversations," Tim Muraguri, an IT specialist told the Xinhua News Agency in a recent interview.

Video shops started surfacing in Kenyan urban centers around the late 1990s and would eventually spread to other corners of the country in the subsequent years. The shops were operated by renting out foreign movies packaged in videotapes at a small fee.

As years went by, renting seized and movies were purchasable in high-resolution affordable DVD and CD format. The effect was a mushrooming of video shops in residential estates to cater to the growing need.

"Back then the shops resonated with people who did not have money for theater because with just 50 shillings [45 cents] you could enjoy a movie showing for 1,000 shillings on the big screen," said Muraguri. Although still a huge fan of movie shops, Muraguri admitted that the endearment he held for them began to taper off some three years ago due to the rise of more convenient home entertainment options.

"The entry of the internet has made this business quite challenging because people now have access to it at home, school, and office so they can stream movies whenever they want," said Alice Mwaura, a movie shop vendor.

Mwaura began her business in 2005, driven by the desire to offer an alternative to television content. The reception she received was positive enough to generate a fulfilling income from the trade.

As internet service providers started making their way to the market and fiber optic cables were laid in residential areas, Mwaura observed the closure of similar enterprises around her. 

Additionally, the departure from storing movies on DVDs and CDs to flash drives meant that she had to adjust her prices to reflect the new change.

"Initially the movies would go for 0.45 dollars because one would be buying the disc together with the movie but now people are coming in with their own devices [flash drives] so the price has gone down to 0.27 dollars," said Mwaura.

Internet connectivity is expected to grow tremendously with technology innovation, digital transformation, and enhanced connectivity, according to the government communication agency.

While penetration of the internet remains a huge challenge to Mwaura and other traders, and tough economic times have worsened the situation.

"Customers are now opting to buy series which will have around 10 episodes each with 40 minutes of watch time rather than a one-hour movie. They say it's economical since they will watch the series for a whole week," Mwaura told Xinhua.

"That means for a whole week, you will not see these customers, that in itself hurts the business," she added.

Mwaura, like most movie shop owners, has had to complement the business by selling other items on the side. She currently sells phone accessories including phone cables and cases.

However, Mwaura is clear that there will be a time when she will have to pull the plug.

Meanwhile, Netflix has launched a free plan in the country to tap into the lucrative market much to the displeasure of movie shop owners.