Africa’s new revolution

2013-02-24 10:01

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Spearheaded by young designers, bloggers, music producers and app developers, Africans are generating a new cultural economy. Khwezi Magwaza takes stock of the continent’s challenging digital makeover

Africa is now home to some of the world’s ­fastest-growing economies and is developing at ?greater speed than East Asia, according to the International Monetary Fund. Yet the global market meltdown hasn’t left the continent unscathed and we are still facing many of the same problems we faced 20 years ago.

So what changed?

The answer is simple; the conversation changed, thanks to the cellphone.

From South Africa’s mobile libraries, to Nigeria’s movie boom, to Kenya’s mobile apps revolution, digital democracy has awarded young people all over the continent easy access to tools that allow them to create, distribute and promote cultural products not just to the global market but to fellow Africans.

“For the international community, it provides a lens,” says Ngozi Odita, the founder and executive director of Social Media Week Lagos, which kicks off tomorrow.

She initiated the event because she has witnessed the role that digital innovations have played in allowing Africans to be authors of their own stories.

For the first time, Africa will be showcasing its social media and technology trendsetters on a global platform that broadcasts online worldwide from several cities, including Paris, New York and Tokyo.

The event’s line-up has a uniquely African flavour and it’s not surprising that culture features prominently.

“We keep having these conversations about Africa in America and Europe, but we need to be speaking to Africans, speaking directly with the people who are innovating,” she says.

“People will be surprised and inspired by our vibrancy and artistry, and the sheer impact that social media has had, not just in driving conversations but also connectivity.”

Yolanda Sangweni, the South African-born founder of website AfriPOP, feels that this is the most important piece of the puzzle in terms of building sustainable and globally competitive cultural economies.

“It’s not always about the mines and gold. We need to invest in sustainable businesses like technology. Our governments need to start taking this seriously.

“The world was telling Africa’s stories – like in Hotel Rwanda and Last King of Scotland – in a disjointed way that had many mismatched facts,” says the head of Channel O, Lee Kasumba. “I think the digital revolution has played a vital role in Africans telling our own stories.”

Odita agrees: “There is lot of pride in local culture now, so people want to invest in that.”

Everyone agrees that we need new business models. If video killed the radio star, then the web killed album and movie sales. Piracy and streaming services have been gutting global revenues for years.

In Africa this trend seemed to be taking a similar trajectory. Yet almost overnight, the tide began to turn. Thanks in part to social media platforms, artists – from Spoek Mathambo and Fokn Bois to Just a Band – have turned to nimble guerrilla marketing to access new consumers, mostly on the continent.

The availability of cheap, internet-based music production software has made it even easier for anyone to create.

The long-awaited South African iTunes store is one example of how home-grown services are often ahead of the curve in markets where global players have taken years and years to launch.

It was Spinlet (a music service tailored to selling music on cellphones) that has been at the forefront of digital music distribution in Africa by gearing their business model specifically to our mobile-rich markets.

Sangweni notes that it’s artists without an established infrastructure who have benefited most from digital tools. “In Nigeria every kid has a record label. They just started making and selling songs,” laughs Sangweni.

“It’s the more established music markets like South Africa that are struggling because there is more of that gatekeeper culture.”

Nollywood is already valued at $500?million (R4.5 billion), churning out more than 1?000 low-budget, straight-to-DVD titles a year. Nollywood is trailing behind Hollywood and Bollywood only in terms of revenues.

Still, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to progress on the continent is a lack of access to education. At least 51% of South African households do not own a single leisure book, while an elite 6% own 40 books or more. Only 7% of schools have functioning libraries.

It’s a grim picture for the rest of the continent if this is the situation in one of its leading economies. Given low internet penetration, e-books are not likely to be the solution either.

But innovative partnerships between writers, technologists and developers are beginning to capitalise on the 40?million cellphone users in South Africa. Steve Vosloo’s Yoza is a mobile library and social reading platform also available for Mxit.

The two mobile novels released have been read over 34 000 times on mobile phones. A book is considered a bestseller in South Africa if 3 000 copies are sold.

Mobile books and library platforms like this could transform education on the continent. This impact has not been lost on governments and the aid community, but support has been slow. In the meantime, young people like Vosloo are providing home-grown solutions that may actually make a difference.

Image is everything in the global economy and Africa was long overdue for a makeover. Africans, especially those who travel or live abroad, want to have “their Africa” seen and understood.

“I still get asked, Are there hotels there?” says Odita, a Nigerian-American who lives between Lagos and New York.

With big hitters like Bono and Diesel founder Renzo Rosso launching fashion philanthropy projects focused on collaborations instead of aid, the idea that Africa needs to be saved has lost favour in recent years.

However, the need for a Western view to legitimise conversations about Africa is still very much in vogue. That is until Kony 2012.

The viral video touting Joseph Kony as the biggest threat to the continent tugged at liberal heartstrings, but angered many Africans, including the Ugandans being supposedly terrorised.

This was no new phenomenon though. Grumbling about how Africa is presented by the BBC, CNN and meddling Western do-gooders had been a popular pastime for middle class Africans for decades.

What they didn’t have was a way to broadcast their dissatisfaction – until Facebook and Twitter.

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