Africa Creative Conference: Is Africa ignoring the Golden Goose?

Africa Creative Conference: Is Africa ignoring the Golden Goose? African Business editor Anver Versi reports.


Africa Creative Conference: Is Africa ignoring the Golden Goose? African Business editor Anver Versi reports.

Until I was invited to speak at the 3rd African Creative Conference late last year in Cape Town, I must confess I had not consciously thought of creativity as an economic factor. Of course like most people, I watch films and TV, listen to music and read books and magazines, and I have been aware of the revenues generated and the costs involved but the concept of a creative economy per se had not taken root.

The conference, organised by Arterial Network – the largest intercultural network in Africa – and the Cape Craft and Design institute, opened my eyes to the enormous possibilities that creativity has to offer both for national and social development as well as generating considerable wealth.

Globally, the creative industries generate trillions of dollars and seem immune to the vagaries of economic ups and downs. Film, TV and literature in particular allow societies to make sense of the world around them, to identify and project their values, to create role models and to interpret the events that have shaped their societies. Everyone loves a good story and a good deal of creativity centres around the telling of stories in a variety of forms and in as entertaining a manner as possible. Finely tuned creative products travel well – witness the dominance of Hollywood and Bollywood around the globe – and the rise of Chinese cinema. A similar case can be made for literature and music. Interestingly, while Hollywood is at the heart of the largest and most-advanced economy in the world, Bollywood has thrived despite the relative poverty of India. Both reach billions of people in far-flung parts of the world and both have succeeded despite language and cultural barriers.

The creative economy is also excellent at generating jobs and developing new skills. In the US, it contributes 11% to the GDP and provides work for over 30m people. It has a similar impact on the Indian economy. In Nigeria, said Dojoma Ochai, assistant country director of the British Council in Nigeria, the movie industry generates about $500m per year in revenue, making up 5% of the country’s GDP and 11% of its non-oil exports. This is despite the fact that most Nigerian films are low-budget and are made straight to DVD. In addition, nine out of 10 copies available are pirated. (See page 22.) But despite this enormous market, Africa’s contribution to the creative economy globally is barely 1%.

Why is this so? Dr Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, the Commissioner for Social Affairs at the AU Commission, believes that most African states and economic planners have paid only the barest of lip service to the creative economy. They tend to see it in ‘cultural’ terms and only in relation to its revenue-generating capacity as part of an overall tourism package. Ministers in charge of culture, which often also lumps in sports and sometimes, ‘women’s affairs’ into the same portfolio, tend to occupy the lowest rung of the ministerial pecking order.

Apart from some countries in North Africa and South Africa, governments seem almost unaware of the massive potential that African creativity possesses both in terms of social cohesion and revenue generation. There have been some positive developments – Nigeria has made funding available for the arts, particularly for films and has worked with UNCTAD to explore ways of mainstreaming creativity into the national economic blueprint.

But by and large, the African official attitude to the creative economy has been half-hearted at best. Countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali which had a tradition of making and exhibiting films depended heavily on funding from France or the EU.

But you can never keep a good showman down. African filmmakers and music producers are now exploring fresh avenues to reach audiences that the new media provides. As internet access and broadband width increases and pay-per-view systems become entrenched, producers will come up with content and style that could give the global giants a run for their money in Africa. But that day is still far off.

“Despite the abundance of creative talents and rich cultural assets in the East African Community,” said Bernard Bakaye Lubega, the Principal Culture and Sports Officer of the body, “the region is yet to benefit from this huge volume of international trade in culture and creative industries. The total share of East African countries in the global market of creative goods and services remains insignificant although Uganda is in the process of developing a creative economy strategy.

“The problem is attributed to the fact that creative industries in EAC countries are still grossly fragmented. As a consequence, the cycle of production, marketing and distribution is not complete. Hence, the commercialisation of the cultural and artistic creations in both domestic and foreign markets remains low.”

More hopefully, Marina Guo, the Shanghai-based Vice-director of the John Howkins Research Centre on Creative Economy, suggests that Africa has a rich and unique culture that can be marketed abroad: “The continent is already achieving world recognition for its music, film, performing arts and craft.”
She said China’s enormous middle class has an ever-increasing appetite for creative and cultural products which African entrepreneurs can tap into. “There is an enormous demand for creative digital content, and high-definition programmes are desired from ever-increasing numbers of new media operational platforms and independent production studios,” she says. Setting up joint ventures with Chinese partners or production companies could be a provide access to this market.

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Pursuing social goods
Mike van Graan, the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute and Programme Director of the Arterial Network African Creative Economy Conference 2013, moved the discussion away from the emphasis on culture solely as an economic factor.

“Given the conditions on our continent,” he said, “the arts are also a valuable tool through which to pursue socially good ends: educating people to change behaviour to improve their lives, building social cohesion, affirming women, etc. And they are also a means of economic growth and of employment creation, but this is not their primary worth. The debates about the instrumentalisation of the arts versus art for its own sake versus art for economic growth are meaningless on a continent where conditions are such that all three are valid, and appropriate – it is simply a question of creating and applying policies that take cognisance of the prevailing conditions.”

The creative industries, he said, “are not a silo, nor an island within any society. They are impacted upon by a range of issues, and they in turn impact on other aspects of societies.”

My own contribution was to argue that Africa’s greatest competitive edge over the coming two decades will be its demographic advantage when it will have the world’s largest young labour force. But for this force to assert itself globally, African youth will need a constant steam of narratives of their own making, rather than those imported from other geographies. Film, TV and literature have been the traditional sources of this narrative and therefore, developing a viable creative industry cannot be regarded as a luxury, or irrelevant to present conditions, but as a essential factor of social development and economic growth. The sooner African governments woke up to this necessity, the sooner the infrastructure could be put in place to make the creative economy a pillar of national development.

I believe that the very fact that a major conference on the creative economy is now in its third edition is proof that this industry has lost its Cinderella status and beginning to take its rightful place on the African development landscape. I look forward to the fourth edition.

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