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Creative industries need protection and deliberate support - not repression

Monday March 23 2015

By BITANGE NDEMO
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In the past week, I attended three related conferences. First was the Riverwood Academy Awards held at Alliance Française, where I was chief guest. On Wednesday, I moderated a session at an Intellectual Property (IP) conference at the Stanley Hotel. 

Later, I gave a keynote speech to a gathering of music producers and artists. These three groups are vital in enhancing the creative economy discourse in Kenya. 

This emerging sector has perhaps the greatest hidden treasures Kenya will ever have. Below, I discuss each of the events separately and finish with a combined analysis on how we can exploit the creative economy

I go back a long way with Riverwood, since the time I was in government.  We’ve had a love-hate relationship. 

Part of my responsibility in government was to regulate film production and distribution through the then Kenya Film Censorship Board, now the Kenya Film Classification Board that was created under a draconian law, Cap 222 of the Laws of Kenya, the Films and Stage Plays Act. 

Although I was fully aware that strict application of this outdated law would mean no innovation in the sector, sometimes we arrested a number of the most creative Riverwood producers.

One of the most contentious parts of the law was Section 5 (1) that reads:

Every application for a filming license shall be made to the licensing officer in writing and shall be accompanied by a full description of the scenes in, and the full text of the spoken parts (if any) of, the entire film which is to be made, notwithstanding that part of the film is made or to be made outside Kenya:

Provided that the licensing officer may in his discretion in any particular case accept an application notwithstanding that it is not accompanied by such description and text if he has been given such other information as he requires for the determination of the application.

In the old Constitution, this section was meant to censure subversive speech that could undermine the government. It proved quite difficult to implement in a situation where creative people are spontaneous. 

Given the fact that Kenyans today enjoy freedom of speech, the law contravenes the tenets of the Constitution.

Realising that arrests were not the solution, we resorted to consultations, quietly asking them to be "gentle" with their content.

GOVERNMENT ABSENT

The truce led to estimated revenues of Sh400 million in 2009. Today, Riverwood’s revenues would be anywhere between one and two billion shillings. It still remains in the fringes of the informal economy that employs several thousands of young people. 

We made proposals to amend Cap 222, especially after the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. Unfortunately, this was one of the laws that were not a priority. Amending this law would propel the sector beyond our imaginations.

At times we worked together to promote the film industry through the Kenya Film Commission that was tasked to build the industry. It is through KFC that Kenya first started to recognise talent in the film industry. 

This gave the impetus and confidence that has led to industry initiatives which reward best performers. Unfortunately, a notable absentee was the government, which puts everybody in an awkward position when foreign governments send their representatives to such an event.

The event was indeed an excellent presentation of a professionally managed nascent industry. With opportunities arising from the growing adaptation of digital platforms, the industry is destined to grow if the government implements the 60 per cent local content rule. 

PERFECTING SKILLS OVER TIME

If Nigeria’s Nollywood is anything to go by, Kenya has a hidden treasure in film that we need to unlock to create employment and greater wealth. In the 1980s, the Nigerian film industry ventured into the global market place with poorly produced films, but over time they have learnt to perfect their skills in film production.

Today, Nollywood generates close to $1 billion annually and employs several thousand people. President Goodluck Jonathan created the Nigerian Creative and Entertainment Industry Stimulation Loan Scheme, launched in 2011, which saw entertainers access $200 million to finance their operations.

The second gathering, the IP conference, brought together a number of content producers and broadcasters to deliberate on copyright protection in the wake of the digital era. 

Many content developers are not clear where revenues will come from as they acknowledge the fact that the multiplicity of platforms empowers the producers. 

Most prospective broadcasters have not come to terms with this emerging dispensation that enables new business models by separating signal distribution providers from content producers. 

RITES OF PASSAGE

The industry has not adjusted for people to understand the roles they need to take in order to succeed in the coming days. It is a daunting task for producers to even understand pricing and protection of their products.

Musicians and their producers were also interested in understanding where the new opportunities lie. This subsector is perhaps the one that has suffered the most at the hands of pirates and entertainment outlets that rarely compensate them for intellectual property.

Music and entertainment in Africa play an important role in the cultures of different ethnicities. It goes beyond entertainment, providing an outlet of expression, communicating emotions, celebrating rites of passage and helping to strengthen the relationships between members of a community as a whole. 

This, in most cases, is influenced by culture, which in turn helps to change culture. Creative arts were therefore never meant to be commercialised. It was the joy of a creator if his or her creations spread through villages and were used without any permission. 

Our adaptation of the commercialised Western culture means that we must start protecting our intellectual property, and respect recognisable properties like the iconic Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi

'BANKS FAIL TO SEE'

The digital era brings new opportunities, especially for groups with significant amounts of analogue content that can be converted into digital content. Since we are moving to new platforms, analogue contractual arrangements become null and void.

The many formats in digital would mean that artists will always be allowed to benefit from the new channels of distribution. It is for this reason that the Vitimbi case becomes interesting, considering that some of the old episodes have found their way to YouTube, enabling new revenue models.

Four key challenges hold back the entire creative industry: lack of a supportive infrastructure to enable sustained growth that can unlock the potential that lies in our midst; financing of creative productions, or the intangible assets that normal banks fail to see; failure to acknowledge and compensate for intangible assets; and training to improve chances of success. 

The raw talent that is usually exhibited at school drama festivals is largely individual effort. If the talent were well nurtured, we would begin to see many successful entertainers.

DELIBERATE SUPPORT

These are challenges that we can overcome to create massive employment. We are no longer looking at a market of 44 million, but of 7 billion people. We need to master new ways of doing things and maintain a sustained competitive advantage. 

Our full potential can only be realised if and when we begin to support the industry deliberately, just like the Nigerians have done. 

India, too, which employs in excess of 2 million people and with revenues hovering around $20 billion, has learnt its ropes and moved to the global stage with award-winning films. We must begin to tell the African story through our own lenses.

Gary Ryan Blair said: “Creative risk taking is essential to success in any goal where the stakes are high. Thoughtless risks are destructive, of course, but perhaps even more wasteful is thoughtless caution which prompts inaction and promotes failure to seize opportunity.”

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito