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Connecting African listeners to the global music scene: Inside China’s Startups

Chinese music streaming app Boomplay has over 77 million users in sub-Saharan countries and is going for more.

In the race for the ears of African music-lovers, Boomplay, an app with Chinese roots, is secretly winning.

“We aim to bring music from all around the world to Africa, and take African music to the world stage as well,” said Joe He Xiaoqiu, Boomplay’s CEO, in a recent interview with KrASIA.

Boomplay was introduced in 2015, as a pre-installed music player on Tecno, a smartphone brand owned by Chinese company Transsion, also recognized as the “Cellphone King of Africa,” when the phone maker looked beyond hardware and beefed up its internet offerings to lure African users.

Now Boomplay a wholly-owned subsidiary of Transsnet, a joint venture established by Transsion Holdings and Chinese Internet tech leader NetEase (NASDAQ:NTES) in 2017.

“Music plays an important part in the life of African people,” He Xiaoqiu told KrASIA in a recent interview. “Music genres originally from this continent, for example, Afrobeats, are not only regional hits, but also have become global exports,” he noted.

The service, available on iOS, Android, and via web browser, currently has more than 77 million users globally, according to He. Notably, the app registered an additional 35 million users since the first quarter of 2019. 

Around 86% of Boomplay’s total users are based in sub-Saharan countries—mainly Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania— also key markets for Transsion, He detailed, adding that most of the app’s users are between 18 and 35 years old.

“These countries have a lot in common in terms of cultures, languages, and religions,” he explained.

In April, the firm raised USD 20 million from investors including Maison Capital and Seas Capital in a Series A round. The funds will be used to boost the firm’s expansion, content acquisition, and product optimization.

Since its debut in 2015, Boomplay has become one of the top music streaming services in Africa. Source: provided by the interviewee

Beyond a music player

The app features albums and musicians from different categories on the main page, and it also offers a “private radio” function that recommends a personalized playlist of songs. In addition, the section “Buzz” is a public forum where users can browse the latest entertainment, sports news, and other posts, He explained.

Boomplay provides most of the songs on its platform for free, while it also offers premium options. The monthly subscription fee starts at USD 1.99 per month, which allows users to enjoy an ad-free experience and stream or download unlimited content.

In African countries, Apple and Spotify also bring the subscription fee down. In Nigeria, Apple Music’s one-month subscription costs NGN 900 (USD 2.3) with an additional 50% discount for students. Spotify, in South Africa, offers a monthly premium plan for ZAR 59.99 (USD 3.53).

Boomplay’s popularity has risen with Transsion, as the music platform comes pre-installed on Transsion’s devices. In 2019, Transsion sold 137 million handsets, a mix of feature phones and smartphones, via its sub-brands Tecno, Itel, and Infinix, ranking as the top vendor in Africa with a market share of 52.5% according to its 2019 annual financial report.

The app curates artists and playlists on the main page and also offers a news sector. Source: screenshots of the app

The firm is also putting efforts into offline promotions to capture more users, He explained. For instance, last year, Nigerian star Tiwa Savage became the first African artist who signed a global deal with Universal Music Group after she won the MTV Europe Music Award for Best African Act. Boomplay staged a free concert for the Afrobeats diva in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, to promote her single, ’49-99′.

“There is still a lot of room for improvement for us,” He admitted. “In the short term, our main goal is scaling up, by refining our products and enriching our library to meet the diverse needs of our users.”

The population of the African continent reached 1.3 billion in 2019 and is estimated to double by 2050. When it comes to internet availability, more than 525 million Africans are online, although the percentage—40%—is lower compared to the worldwide level, Business Insider reported last year.

He hopes the app can be ingrained in the sub-Saharan region, covering at least 100 million users by the end of 2020, while expanding its footprint to other countries.

Joe He Xiaoqiu, the CEO of Boomplay. Source: provided by the interviewee

Challenges ahead 

The best route to profitability is still unclear for many major music streaming service providers.

With 286 million active monthly users and 130 million paid subscribers, the world’s leading streaming service Spotify is still loss-making. Despite narrowing its losses for several consecutive quarters, Spotify has yet to post an annual net profit since it was launched 12 years ago.

Piracy and low average per-user revenue are also getting in the way. He didn’t disclose how many users are paying for the premium service but argued that profitability is not yet a current main target. “Frankly speaking, the music streaming business is a test for capital. Copyrights cost, bandwidth cost, and human cost, etc,” he said.

Compared to other music services targeting this continent, including France’s Deezer, Kenya-based Mdundo, telecom carrier’s own offerings like MTN Nigeria’s Musictime, and local startups like Playfre, Boomplay currently holds a dominant position. The firm has signed deals with global labels like Universal Music, Warner Music, and local independent-label digital rights agency Merlin. Boomplay includes more than 37 million songs in its music database, 1 million of which are native from Africa, He told KrASIA.

Notably, the inefficiency of mobile payments in Africa is one of the challenges for the company to overcome. “The habit of online payments has not been fully cultivated and these tools are not very mature,” He said. Boomplay now supports multiple payment methods, including Flutterwave, Mpesa, and Transsion’s PalmPay.

Competition still looms from western giants like Spotify and Apple Music, which so far haven’t gained much presence in the market. Of the 54 countries on the continent, in 2019, Spotify was only officially available in five: South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, according to Wired. Meanwhile, Apple is bringing its offering to more countries, but the service is limited to its own devices.

Looking ahead, he pointed out that the early entry and more localization efforts would help Boomplay to retain its dominating position. “Our vision is to empower the African music ecosystem to unlock its full potential,” He said, adding that the company is planning more initiatives centered around music.

This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country