Koi story: priceless Japanese fish make a splash

Nishikigoi koi carp being bred for future contests at the Kurihara Fish Farm in Kazo, Saitama prefecture. (AFP)
Updated 07 January 2018
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Koi story: priceless Japanese fish make a splash

KAZO: Hand-reared for their color and beauty, koi carp have become an iconic symbol of Japan that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even participate in fishy beauty contests.
The nation’s koi carp were brought to the world’s attention when visiting US President Donald Trump was snapped unceremoniously dumping the last of a box of feed into a palace pond in Tokyo.
But the fish have for decades been popular in Japan, where top breeders take their most prized specimens (known as “nishikigoi”) to highly competitive “beauty parades.”
At one such competition in Tokyo, judges in sharp suits, notebooks in hand, stride around tanks lined up along a pedestrian street where the valuable koi strut their stuff.
They come in all the colors of the rainbow: pearly white, bright red, cloudy-grey, dark blue, gleaming golden yellow.
But it is the curvature of the fish that accounts for 60 percent of the final score, explained competition organizer Isamu Hattori, who runs Japan’s main association for breeders of koi carp.
Color and contrast make up another 30 percent, he told AFP.
And the final 10 percent? “Hinkaku” — a concept that is tricky to define and even harder to judge, best translated as the “presence” or “aura” of the fish.
“’Hinkaku’. It’s either there in the genes at birth, or it’s not,” mused Mikinori Kurikara, a koi breeder in Saitama, north of Tokyo, who says he can spot it in fish when they reach eight or nine months old.
“Put it this way, it’s like looking after your own children every day. You care for your kids and want them to grow healthy. In the same way, you take care of these fish, appreciate them and adore them,” he told AFP.
At his farm, thousands of tiny “nishikigoi” (colored carp) dart around deep basins of carefully purified water, meticulously divided by age and color.
A less glorious fate awaits the other koi who have not been fortunate enough to catch the eye of the breeder: they are sold off as feed for tropical fish.
“It’s a really delicate job, really difficult. Everything matters: the ground, the water quality, the food,” explained the 48-year-old, who took over the farm from his father and is training his son, half his age, in the subtle arts of koi breeding.
“We have many secrets,” he adds mischievously. “But even if we let them slip, it wouldn’t work. You have to be able to feel it.”
These days, any self-respecting traditional Japanese garden has plenty of colorful koi gracing its ponds, but it is a relatively recent tradition.
Around 200 years ago, villagers in the mountainous region around Niigata (in the north-west of Japan) started to practice genetic engineering without knowing what they were doing.
For the first time, they began to cross-breed rare colorful carp, not for food but for pure aesthetical value.
The craze for nishikigoi gradually took over the whole of Japan and then spread into other parts of Asia.
They are especially popular in China, where carp swimming against the tide symbolizes the idea of perseverance leading to riches — rather like people climbing the social ladder, said Yutaka Suga, professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at Tokyo University.
Today, koi is big business and Japanese exports are booming — 90 percent of domestic production is exported and sold at auction.
In 2016, Japan exported a record 295 tons of koi carp, generating turnover of 3.5 billion yen ($31 million), an increase of almost 50 percent from 2007, according to Japan’s agriculture ministry.
As for individual carp, “the prices have become insane,” said carp association boss Hattori.
“Today, a two-year-old carp can sell for 30 million yen each ($265,000) whereas 10 years ago, two million yen was already a very good price,” he told AFP.
Like racehorse owners, many foreign owners leave their prized possessions in their home Japanese farms so they can compete in the most prestigious fishy pageants, which are only open to domestic rearers.
One such owner, Chinese koi collector Yuan Jiandong, was in Tokyo to cheer on some of his own carp.
“It’s not a way of making money. It’s a way of spending it for fun,” laughed the pharmaceutical boss from Shanghai.
But owning koi is so much more than a vulgar display of wealth, he said.
“When you see these beautiful fish gliding around in your pond, you forget the stresses of daily life and you find peace of mind.”
And you can’t put a price on that.


Nigeria sees a rush to get Nollywood online

Updated 20 June 2018
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Nigeria sees a rush to get Nollywood online

  • Nollywood is home to the world’s second biggest movie industry in terms of production behind Hindi-language Bollywood.
  • A viable economic model for the promoters of Nollywood online still needs to be found, given the lack of widespread high-speed Internet coverage

LAGOS, Nigeria: A glamor blogger, a filmmaker and a tech mogul are competing to create a homegrown African rival to Netflix, but poor Internet connections and intense competition are proving daunting obstacles.
They dream of popularizing access to films made in Nigeria, which is home to the world’s second biggest movie industry in terms of production behind Hindi-language Bollywood.
With nearly $4 billion in revenue and almost 2,000 productions every year, films made in what is known as Nollywood are largely sold on the streets and to idling motorists caught in traffic as pirated copies for just a few dollars.
Local start-ups and Nollywood stars understand the interest in changing the distribution of films that are hugely popular across Africa, where cinemas are few and far between.
With such a huge potential market, video-on-demand platforms have sprung up in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital and home to the country’s film industry.
And competition is already fierce.
Blogger Linda Ikeji — one of Nigeria’s biggest names on social networks — recently launched Linda Ikeji TV (LITV) to great fanfare.
It offers dozens of films, series and programs inspired by US shows but with a Nollywood twist for a monthly fee of 1,000 naira ($2.80).
“We are hoping to be to Africa what Netflix is to the world,” Ikeji wrote on her Instagram page, which has some two million followers.
She promised glamor, sass and humor, particularly with reality shows such as “Football Wives” or “Highway Girls of Eko,” “a show on real-life prostitutes” in Lagos.
The 37-year-old former model-turned-businesswoman made her fortune through advertising revenue on her site, which tracked the lives of Nigeria’s rich and famous.
She said she had invested “half-a-billion naira” of capital in the project. As well as buying video, she is also making original content from her own studios in Lagos.
Before the end of the year, Nigerian company Envivo is expected to launch its own platform with an initial investment of more than $20 million, said filmmaker Chioma Ude, who is the firm’s marketing director.
“(US telecoms giant) Cisco wants a big footprint in Africa, and as our technical partner, they will provide all the technology, from the network to the video compressions, etc.,” the founder of the Africa International Film Festival said.
A viable economic model for the promoters of Nollywood online still needs to be found, given the lack of widespread high-speed Internet coverage.
Only 34 percent of Africans have Internet access compared with more than 50 percent in the rest of the world, according to the 2018 Global Digital report.
But Africa showed the biggest progression in Internet users last year, especially through mobile telephones.
Serge Noukoue, organizer of the annual Nollywood Week in Paris, said price was everything and the African consumer wanted to pay “as little as possible” to watch a film.
“Even iROKOtv, the pioneer on the continent, doesn’t really make a profit,” he said.
“They have had a lot of success in fundraising but what subscribers actually bring in is less conclusive.”
Jason Njoku founded iROKOtv in 2010 but said he made a mistake to count on streaming from the start. “It simply couldn’t work,” he explained.
“Data costs were prohibitive, as is access to reliable broadband across huge swathes of the continent. Our customer service team was inundated with queries.
“We totally rebuilt our product and rebuilt our entire company around the African consumer and their habits.”
That led to an application that ate less data and which allows free mobile downloads of video files.
There is original content, while films have also been subtitled in French, Swahili and Zulu to make them more accessible to other African countries.
Competitors have emerged elsewhere in Africa in recent years, including Kenya’s BuniTV ($5-a-month) or South Africa’s Magic Go ($8-a-month).
“If these online platforms don’t make money yet they’re a bet on the future for when connections are better,” said Noukoue.
“A lot of projects have been created but there will not be room for everyone in the market in the long term. Competition will be fierce.”
Giants of the sector such as Netflix, which in 2016 launched in Africa, could outshine the continent’s video-on-demand pioneers in years to come.
“Netflix doesn’t yet have a real Africa strategy but it’s started to produce original African content. That will be a gamechanger.
“It has considerable means at its disposal that the others don’t have.”