Government perception of Kenya's creative industries is damaging

Sunday July 24 2016

On the sidelines of UNCTAD14 this week, a fantastic series of dialogues on the creative economy in Kenya was hosted by the HEVA Forum and other partners.

I was honoured to join the discussions on the second day as we explored catalysing the growth of creative industries.

The session had the tagline “The Time Is Now”, which ordinarily would have very few detractors.

However, depending on who you ask, "the time is now" actually plays out in a present continuous, never-ending space.

One apt description of the creativity is offered by Hendrik van der Pol.

Based on ideas rather than physical capital, the creative economy straddles economic, political, social, cultural and technological issues and is at the crossroads of the arts, business and technology. It is unique in that it relies on an unlimited global resource: human creativity. Growth strategies in the creative economy therefore focus on harnessing the development potential of an unlimited resource and not on optimising limited resources (as in traditional manufacturing industries).


The creative economy, therefore, requires new modes of thinking to appreciate and invest in its value, especially in developing countries like Kenya.

While our economic development is seemingly focused on the ‘traditional’ factors of production — land, labour and capital — the creative economy is premised on individual and group creativity.

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There also is a key distinction worth making, between cultural and creative industries. The former “relate to the creation, production and commercialisation of the products of human creativity, which are copied and reproduced by industrial processes and worldwide mass distribution.

"They are often protected by national and international copyright laws and usually cover printing, publishing and multimedia, audiovisual, phonographic and cinematographic productions, crafts and design”.


Cultural industries are “more concerned about delivering other kinds of value — including cultural wealth and social wealth — rather than primarily providing monetary value”.

Creative industries, on the other hand,  “encompass a broader range of activities than cultural industries including architecture, advertising, visual and performing arts.”

The UK’s definition of creative industries, now widely adopted by other countries, is:

those industries that are based on individual creativity, skill and talent with the potential to create wealth and jobs through developing intellectual property’ - includes thirteen sectors: advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film, interactive leisure software (i.e. video games), music, the performing arts, publishing, software, and television and radio.

From last week’s and other previous discussions, it is clear that the practitioners are way ahead of policymakers in conceptualising Kenya's creative economy. One need not go far to encounter creative expressions.

Kenya is a country bursting at the seams with a creativity of enormous economic potential, some of which is already manifest.

An immediate next step, that can inform our valuing and measuring of the creative economy, is agreeing upon a classification similar or different to the one described above, an effort to be led by the government and whose urgency cannot be overstated.

One hurdle blocking the path to unlocking the full potential of the creative economy in Kenya seems to the perception of culture and creative industries by policymakers and other Kenyan government officials.

In the dialogue, it emerged that the prevailing perception of culture and identity is as monolithic elements, varying ever so slightly between sisal skirts, Maasai beads, museums, athletics and the flop that was the quest for a national dress.

It was unfortunate to hear the Cabinet secretary for Sports, Culture and the Arts conflate the critical segments under his docket with the above variations.

Not only was it greatly incompatible with many of the creative economy actors in the room, but the conflation also reflected narrow thinking that possibly hinders the lobbying for more state support in facilitating requisite factors for growing the creative economy.


The minister’s subsequent declaration that the government would be investing Sh50 million (it was not clear to what exactly) is telling of how much the creative economy’s potential is undervalued.

While calls for research and data were made, even that Sh50 million may barely cover the costs of surveying baseline data, which perhaps would be its best use, assuming it is meant for just culture and the arts, and not sports as well.

The language used to discuss nascent opportunities in this country is also emasculating.

It often involves a framing of the status quo as though nothing has been happening and shifting goal posts, so that even the little happening is not sufficient.

Sometimes, it is just wholly uncritical and downright annoying. “Kenyans don’t read books”, “we don’t research our culture”, “we need to...”, “we should…”.

What is curious and frustrating about this framing, especially within the creative economy dialogues, is that it seems to be a rigid talking point, one expected to serve as a "takeaway", which maybe stalls the actions to be taken, or accounted for, by all actors.

Who should be doing what, in the collective framing of "we"? Which Kenyans are these not reading books, warranting such a fallacy of composition?

It makes “the time is now” a present continuous rallying call, much in the same way the youth have been the future for as long as can be remembered.

It can be a convenient way to prevent conversations from happening and accountability mechanisms from being strengthened, which is why it is of absolute importance to articulate the challenges while stating the actors best suited to address them.


This should not be in the typical ‘tunaomba serikali’ format, but rather, "what has (actor x) been doing?’, what are they doing now, and what will they be doing going forward?

There is a need for bolder questioning of actors, especially those acting on our behalf within the state. So, to government: "mme-do", "mna-do?", "mta-do?".

A key opportunity and competitive edge for Kenya’s budding creative economy is its linkages to ICT.

To get a sense of the immense potential here, all one need do is spend a couple of hours on Twitter, and marvel at the creative expressions, of even ‘mundane’ matters, among Kenyans on Twitter (KOT).

Then hop on over to Facebook and Instagram and take note of how creative entrepreneurs, or ‘creativpreneurs’ as they are otherwise dubbed, are leveraging these social media for product awareness, sales and customer support.

This is just one snapshot of the creative economy that fits within the limits of demand and supply, a merging of creativity and technology creating markets.

I’m convinced that for our creative economy to truly take off and remain a sustainable industry generating employment and economic output, Kenyans must be the primary consumers and beneficiaries!

I’m taken by the continued positioning of our country and all it has to offer for others to come and enjoy.

The streets are cleaner and more beautiful when some dignitary is in town. Kenyan citizens are secondary beneficiaries of investment opportunities, if at all they are considered.


Is it any wonder, then, that patriotism is an increasingly guarded sentiment among us? “Tunavumilia, rather than, tunajivunia, kuwaWakenya.”

A Kenya for Kenyans first is possible and the creative economy and its underlying cultures acting as factors and drivers of development can make it possible.

This means valuing Kenyans as consumers to be wooed, and being convinced of the products emerging from creative industries.

In fact, government was well challenged to lead by example and be a key consumer of local creative industry outputs.

Wouldn’t it be something to walk into a government office and find it furnished with Kenyan-made furniture and Kenyan artwork, bookshelves stocked with Kenyan literature?

Oh, and I hope someone passed on designer Nick Ondu’s phone number to CS Wario, to source his bespoke, locally designed and tailored suits!

The time is now, but now is not forever.

Nanjira is a researcher on technology's intersections with governance, culture and media. Twitter: @NiNanjira