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The power of the creative economy to unite people, and its impact on employment

Sunday June 29 2014

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The power of African creative-economy innovations continues to rock the world, yet many Africans are unaware of its value and how to exploit it. 

First, before I get down to tell you about the power of the creative economy, its definition is essential to what I want to say. John Howkins, in his book The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas, says the creative economy comprises advertising, architecture, art, crafts, design, fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, R&D, software, toys and games, TV and radio, and video games. 

We basically know what it is, but we fail to leverage its potential to create wealth and employment. Several of Africa’s great artists have died poor, unlike their counterparts in other countries that have exploited this industry to not just create wealth, but also to unite their citizens. 

Artists have a sell-by date, and if they are to sustain their lifestyle, they must invest for a rainy day. To elaborate my point, consider Tofo Tofo, a three-man Mozambican dance group that combined the Kwaito genre of music (a form of South African house music) and Pantsula (a popular dance used as a means of expression during the violent apartheid times in South Africa) to create their own unique type of dance that has become internationally admired. Their creative art may have been simple, but its power to unite people is inconceivable.


These three young men had never heard of Beyoncé in their life before the web connected them. At Beyoncé’s invitation, they travelled to the USA, trained Americans on their dance moves in California, and headed home, their innocence written all over their faces. 

When I met them here in Kenya at a Google event, I gathered that money was not their primary motive in dancing; they just had a passion for dancing, and perhaps that explains why they are good at it. But they needed legal support on their American travels to advise them on how to maximize the value of their intellectual property.

In the past, Africans lost their intellectual property in music to Americans who later became famous. ElvisPresley, for example, acknowledged that most of his works were influenced by African-Americans. It is well acknowledged that African music combined with the music of the white European settlers in America to produce new styles of music, including jazz, blues and ragtime.   

Here at home, we watch how artists like "Mzee Ojwang" and "Mama Kayai" languish in poverty yet their creativity continues to powerfully entertain and unite us. Their works straddle new channels of distribution that were not part of their original contracts. The marketing and distribution of their works is stunted. By now we should have dubbed their works into multiple languages and expanded the market reach. 


Dubbing TV content is a process of recreating content in some language other than the original, and in the process creating employment with increased value. Other teams can convert their works into animation and broaden the market to non-African countries. 

The 2014 report on research and markets of the global animation industry estimates the industry's value at $222 billion. The report identifies major animation markets as the United States, Canada, Japan, China, France, Britain, Korea and Germany. Most of the segments in the animation industry are growing at the rate of 7 per cent year to year. This labour-intensive production is often outsourced to cheaper-labour locations, mainly for film and television program producers. 

The animation and gaming industry that was non-existent in India a few years ago is now worth more than $5.4 billion and growing. In Kenya the industry is gaining traction. Whereas in 2007 we had less than 10 animators, today we have over 3,000 youth honing their skills in this emerging industry. We need to support the sector, especially in capacity building that is likely to absorb a great number of the unemployed into sustainable employment.

There is renewed hope in film. You can imagine if Lupita Nyong'o were a renowned Kenyan neurosurgeon how many people would have associated with her as a Kenyan heroine. But today Lupita is a sister, a daughter and heroine to Kenyans from all walks of life. Our newspapers have inadvertently discovered a face we all admire yet as she honed her talent at Rusinga School, no one noticed this great talent.  


Indeed, there are one thousand other Lupitas waiting to be discovered, not by us but by some foreign talent-search agency. We see her raw beauty in the midst of political tension in Kenya. We are fascinated by her beautiful dresses in the midst of poverty and despair. We see her scintillating dark chocolate face in the midst of racism and discrimination in Africa. Yes, if it takes the power of creativity for us to know one another and build sustainable brotherhood, then let it be, and we possibly need to pay more attention to the school festivals and discover our heroes and heroines early.

Why not?  On December 5, 2013, The Guardian published a story titled "Hollywood has blockbuster impact on US economy that tourism fails to match": “Creative industries led by Hollywood account for about $504 billion, or at least 3.2 per cent of US goods and services, the government said in its first official measure of how the arts and culture affect the economy.” 

The creative economy is serious business. India’s Bollywood contributes more than $21 billion to the economy. Nigeria’s Nollywood, although not well diversified, is ranked third globally in gross earnings, its film industry generating more than $800 million in revenue in 2013. 


If you have watched the Kenya Schools Drama Festival, you will understand the unexploited potential that we have. Many of the pupils will dissipate into abject poverty or at best go to college to take on careers their parents have chosen, only to tarmac later with concealed talent.

The Kenya Communications Act stipulates that local television stations should air at least 40 per cent local content, but even the most compliant station is not able to sustain 20 per cent local content. Even with increasing appetite for local content, we are not able to do productions at competitive costs. Each producer is investing heavily into capital expenditure instead of sharing with other producers. We do not understand the complete value chain of the industry. Our lone-ranger mentality is hurting us. 

We are not developing capacity as we should. That is why Mexican shows continue to dominate our prime time.

The film industry in Kenya is characterised by multiple individual silos, whereas in other countries you find people specialized in leasing the equipment, editing and multimedia services, labour-contracting services, industry support services, etc. These value-chain services encourage optimal use of resources while building capacity in specialized services. 

Ultimately, increased volume of work will push the costs downward, making the industry competitive. Our lone-ranger model leads to expensive productions that the market cannot afford while carrying assets that are rarely utilized. In Africa, we seem to think that wealth is only created when you own capital equipment.


Our failure to develop the creative-economy value chain is hurting and will continue to hurt into the future. Global content giants are taking advantage of our irrational behaviour, and have started to archive our own cultural material such that in the future we shall buy it from them.  

Well, as the Swahili say, “Mwacha mila ni mtumwa,” loosely translated as “he who abandons their culture is a slave.”  We must begin to step up the discourse around how we should preserve our cultural heritage. We must start with at least a museum in each county. At the minimum we should build digital libraries of our cultural heritage.

On art and crafts, the standards have plummeted owing to the fact that the sector is not taken seriously and there is virtually no training for most artisans. The majority of the artists in the sector have no passion in what they do. They joined the industry because there was nothing else to do. Women make ciondo as they did in the 19th Century. The local fashion industry is neglected, yet we’ve had African creations on the global stage. 

The same problems cut through other creative industry sub-sectors. It is time we built the creative economy sector. It is the one that unites us, and has great potential for employment. It must be engaged with differently. And perhaps this is what Albert Einstein meant when he said, “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito