The poor state of the creative economy across East Africa

East African governments scarcely support their creative industries, whether through financing or policy initiatives, leading to a struggling sector that faces monumental problems. PHOTO| FILE

What you need to know:

  • According to the study, released in May this year, there is lack of training and skills in home-grown TV and film makers, meaning the quality of the visual and audio product is sometimes wanting.

  • “This is quite evident in the lack of professionalism in the local film industry, with most Kenyans preferring to watch cheap Mexican soaps and Naija movies,” Tabu Osusa, the executive director of Ketebul Music, based in Nairobi, told DN2.

  •  “Most of these young film producers lack originality and creativity and often don’t do enough research to come up with scripts and direction that would appeal to the majority across the country.”

Although Kenya is by far the economic and creative hub of East Africa, a new study shows that the sector has numerous weaknesses which are spread across its neighbouring countries.

The study, by the British Council and titled Scoping the Creative Economy in East Africa, analyses the state of the creative economy in the region and confirms that Kenya is also a hub of continent-wide significance, offering strong competition and collaboration potential to South Africa and Nigeria.

Nairobi, the study points out, has attracted global giants such as IBM, Google and Microsoft because it has the universities, infrastructure and dynamism that make it a natural leader in the region.

But that is where the rosy tale ends, because, in contrast, the complete lack of funding — for the Kenya National Theatre, for instance — by the government means the local arts scene is a shell of the powerhouse it once was.

That nervousness by the government to support a sector which may be critical to the nation is also reflected in the edginess of advertisers, who will not support such “controversial” productions like the TV political satire XYZ, the Kenyan version of Spitting Image, for fear of government reprisals.

According to the study, released in May this year, there is lack of training and skills in home-grown TV and film makers, meaning the quality of the visual and audio product is sometimes wanting.

“This is quite evident in the lack of professionalism in the local film industry, with most Kenyans preferring to watch cheap Mexican soaps and Naija movies,” Tabu Osusa, the executive director of Ketebul Music, based in Nairobi, told DN2.

 “Most of these young film producers lack originality and creativity and often don’t do enough research to come up with scripts and direction that would appeal to the majority across the country.”

In his description of the Kenyan creative economy, John Katana, the band leader of Them Mushrooms, notes that the local arts industry “is a lion that has not roared or awakened yet”.

“It has all the potential to become a multi-million-or-billion-shilling economy,” he adds, “but it has not taken off properly yet.”

As to whether the Kenyan government has put in place policies to support a creative economy, Katana says: “Unfortunately, no, the government hasn’t done anything worth noting. There’s a draft music policy — which, among others, compels broadcasters to play 60 per cent local content (see sidebar, right) — but there’s no policy on the arts, generally.

The ruling Jubilee party’s manifesto has so much to offer the creative economy, but has not done much in that regard.”

The study notes that hubs and clusters are under-networked and under-connected internationally, and that there is a gap between the “Silicon Savannah” dream and reality in terms of finance and ability to get projects off the ground.


Osusa remains pessimistic, arguing that “the dream of making a Silicon Savannah in Kenya may not be realised that soon due to the fact that most African governments, with Kenya being no exception, come up with brilliant concepts now and then but often fail to implement them due to corruption”.

“I think the lack of support and funding on the part of the government is also due to misplaced priorities and the lack of knowledge about the sector,” he adds.

The British Council study shows that the quality of advertising, especially on TV, is weak compared to international markets, and Osusa concurs, saying this could be due to lack of creativity on the part of the creators of these adverts. Katana also agrees, saying this could be occasioned by the fact that there is a bigger radio listenership vis-a-vis TV viewership, making corporates opt to advertise more on radio than TV.

“I also think that the use of foreign characters on a big percentage of TV adverts alienates local TV viewers, thus impacting TV advertising.”

The study observes that the country’s education is light-years away from providing creative education for the future.

“I guess the lack of support on arts education in general comes from the mistaken belief that science subjects are superior to the arts,” Osusa observes.

“This is true in public schools, but there is a significant paradigm shift in private schools, with a good number of them providing creative education and related activities,” Katana adds.

The study notes that there is almost no funding for live theatre and performance by the government, and Katana says “the most that the current Jubilee government has done is refurbish the National Theatre and fund the National Talent Academy”.

“Both these undertakings were started by the Mwai Kibaki regime,” he continues. “There’s nothing notable that the current government has funded within the theatre and performance domain.”

Low wages, poor working conditions and limited opportunities for too many talented people are among overall weaknesses identified by the study. The East African creative economy is also characterised by weak creative education and low levels of entrepreneurialism, management and leadership across the arts and cultural sector; plus low levels of literacy across the wider population.

Cultural conservatism can also lead to an aversion to risk, experimentation and the influence of different cultures, while issues of tolerance and inclusion (for example, gay rights, and barriers to women in the workplace, among others) could prove hindrances to creativity.

There is also a lot of replication in architecture and over-innovation in technology, and many artists have to grapple with inconsistent approaches to copyright — from weak rights collecting mechanisms to draconian enforcement, with few examples of a mature and coherent approach to rights management.

But the outlook is not all gloomy, as the study observes that the East African creative economy has a number of strengths such as cultural distinctiveness, very strong traditions, and real flair across creative sectors including music, crafts, fashion, visual arts, film and — increasingly — digital content industries.

There is a growing market for this kind of output, because the region is experiencing the consumer trends of an increasingly youthful population, an expanding middle class, and a growing hunger for value-adding and personalised goods and services.

East Africa is experiencing rapid urbanisation, with cities becoming real spikes of commerce, talent and creativity. Also, the pervasiveness of digital technology means that innovators in new and emergent technologies, as well as those in multi-platform and multi-channel activities, are now mainstream, and there is a proliferation of straight-to-digital business models across the region.


This has given birth to innovation and convergence, where collaboration across different sectors, disciplines and technologies is growing.

The region’s rich and varied cultural heritage is being infused with legacies of creativity, invention and trade in aesthetics. The cultural practitioners in the region are bold and ambitious, brimming with a sense of an emergent new world order and growing confidence in an African context.

The study notes that the creative economy in East Africa has opportunities. For instance, it can build the capacity and confidence across the creative workforce, ignited by creative education and skills provision, mobilised by professional development activities, and catalysed by digitally enabled platforms which showcase and trade creative goods and services

The economy can also nurture domestic and international markets for creative products and services.

“With even small levels of growth in the market, many jobs will be created and a significant number of talented people will be empowered to build careers in the sector,” the authors point out.

The creative economy in East Africa, therefore, can be characterised as fragile, fragmented and at an early stage of development. While there are fundamental and important differences between countries, there are many shared issues which currently hold the sector back.

In some ways the barriers are the same as those faced in any economic sector in the region — pervasive corruption, bureaucratic and incompetent systems from another age, lack of fundamental infrastructure, and systemic poverty.



Culture is not seen as an exciting field here




Between 2004 AND 2008, Uganda’s exports of cultural goods and services were estimated at $20 million. Copyright industries here employ about 100,000 people countrywide, with 10-12 people employed in every 1,000 in the central region and 0–1 in 1,000 in the northern region, according to a mapping survey commissioned by Uganda National Commission (Unatcom) for Unesco in 2009.

But Uganda’s creative economy has a number of weaknesses. For instance, lack of government funding means that even well regarded institutions such as the National Museum face an uncertain future.

For the past three years, the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) has been lobbying the government to support mainstream culture in all development initiatives, and specifically to earmark at least one per cent of the national budget to cultural development programmes.

The CCFU executive director, Emily Drani, observes that “there is limited political will and financing of the culture sector, reflected in the low priority given to cultural heritage on the national development agenda”, and that “Uganda has no ministry of culture, so (culture-related) structures are spread under different ministries and departments”.

The ICT infrastructure is still restricted to urban regions as only 18 per cent of Ugandans currently have access to the Internet. “But even in the urban areas where ICT infrastructure is abundant, it is hardly exploited towards the growth of the creative industries,” the Ugandan playwright and actor, Philip Luswata, told DN2.

“We are hardly seeing a growth in animation, a growth in a creative population on the Internet discoursing about their craft, better quality creative products due to quick access to research, an increase in Ugandan artistic works being shared with the rest of the world due to information gathered from the Internet. None of these have spiked up, even in this ICT age,” Luswata adds.

The study observes that the Uganda National Cultural Policy of 2006 mainly relates to traditional forms of literature, music and dance, and not to the creative economy.

The policy is the first comprehensive instrument that takes into account the country’s cultural diversity, and was formulated to guide the formal and informal systems of managing culture at all levels.

The government admits in the policy that, generally, capacities in the culture sub-sector are inadequate. The major areas of inadequacy include limited qualified personnel, materials and equipment; knowledge about markets for products; infrastructure; and coordination. This status quo undermines the potential for culture to contribute to national development.

The policy says culture is cross-cutting. All sectors, ministries and local governments are, therefore, required to identify culture issues within their mandate and fund these activities within their budget ceilings.

In addition, funding should be mobilised from and by the private sector, civil society organisations, traditional/cultural institutions, faith-based organisations, as well as individuals.

The study observes that culture is not a key part of the Uganda Vision 2040, where it is not specifically mentioned. The Vision emphasises on national culture, behaviour and ethical conduct, with no mention of the creative economy.

According to the study, there is very limited cross-over between the tech community and the arts, with arts institutions serving a narrow definition of the sector.

Luswata admits, saying: “We are yet to appreciate the place of technology in what we are doing. But then, we need to attract the kinds of people who can invest such into us. The creatives can hardly, in the interim, raise the kind of funds necessary for the industry to be technologically relevant. But then, our product too, under the circumstances, is hardly attractive for potential investment. We need to drive what we are doing up to that point where it is obvious that we can do better with better equipment.”



The government does not support, but sees need to ‘overtax’



The film industry in Tanzania is undoubtedly strong, but government attempts to strengthen copyright protection by stamping films are either seen as heavy-handed and done for the purposes of censor, or as a misguided and poor attempt to crack down on copyright infringement.

The National Film Board is prominent and seemingly quite powerful, while the Copyright Society of Tanzania (Cosota) and the Copyright Society of Zanzibar (Cosoza) need strengthening. Dar es Salaam also enjoys an EU-funded programme of 10 creative industry support activities.

Tanzania’s brand in the creative economy is strong in music and film, partly due to the fact that Kiswahili, with over 130 million speakers, and English mean access to pan-African markets, but it is massively underdeveloped and suffers a lack of confidence, expertise and experience in Tanzanian exporters.

The craft, design and fashion sectors are also real strengths, with a very distinctive aesthetic and strong connections to tribal communities and identities. But professionalisation, capacity and links to market are all major handicaps.

According to the Scoping the Creative Economy in East Africa study, Tanzania lacks proper distribution channels for films; and filmmakers are routinely ripped off or are naive in the way they structure deals.

Saying there is “no proper distribution of films” is a misnomer, says Dr Martin Mhando, a leading Tanzanian filmmaker and academic. “Distribution is a business that follows and also sets industry trends. What is not happening in the East African film industry is the lack of structural support between the various media industries (TV, cinema, promotions, advertising, etc) through which cross-funding of projects can be encouraged and undertaken within specified industry structures. Currently, for example, there are few pre-sale structures between producers and TV houses or distributors, and that inhibits the way the industry can be leveraged across the various sectors.”

The study notes that a visa cost for any visiting artist is over $1,000, making artistic collaborations difficult.

“Indeed this is a very backward thinking system where, after failing to enforce the available tax structures, the government would rather ‘overtax’ to enable its organs to fleece artists and art promotional institutions through the many, many fees, of which the artists visa fee is only one,” Dr Mhando says, adding:

“The ‘vibali (licences) syndrome’ is a huge scam that the government closes its eyes to since it does not support the arts properly, and so resorts to allowing government arts bodies to set up fees and regulatory cash points to milk artists!”

Government support for entrepreneurship and young people is tiny and inadequate, the study observes, and Dr Mhando says the government’s view of the arts is that of some sector that only has to be “tolerated”.

And so only when the government recognises the true commercial and social value of the arts would the Treasury properly resource it.

“We know the government moves slowly, but after all the lessons we have learnt from the West and now even from Nollywood and the Nigerian government links with it, we still have little understanding of the potential of the industry,” says Dr Mhando.

Mr Yusuf Mahmoud, the Chief Executive Officer of Busara Promotions, the organisers of the annual Sauti za Busara music festival in Zanzibar, laments that even after 11 successful editions, the festival still receives zero financial support from both the governments of Zanzibar and Tanzania.

“In fact, we have to pay the National Arts Council every year for registration, event licenses and permits from the Board of Censors, artists’ work permits and visa, assorted taxes, media and film permits, permission to put posters on streets, not to mention costs for venue hire, policing and security, electricity, water and sanitation, technical facilities and so on,” Mahmoud says.

“For many years we’ve had meetings with ministers, directors, permanent secretaries, even the President and Vice President, to beg for at least some of these expenses to be waived, but we’re not holding our breath to get financial support from our governments in the foreseeable future.

It’s only fair to say the best we hope for is minimal interference,” he adds.

According to the British Council study, the education system is not geared up to meet the demands of any sort of the knowledge economy.

“I think there is need to not simply have a band aid reaction to what the arts could do and then inscribe a small measure in the curriculum to show that the arts are supported in the school system.

“The government ought to encourage a commercial view of arts education — in the creation, funding and developing of a system where identified arts students are encouraged to form enterprises even at the school level for them to understand that the arts pay,” Dr Mhando says.

Mahmoud suggests that, with regard to government policy, “we’d like to see more travel bursaries for artists to encourage East African artists to travel, watch, listen, learn, perform, share and collaborate with other musicians, especially around this continent”.

“We need to build bridges of peace, friendship, mutual respect and unity across Africa; what better way to do it than through the universal language of music?” he adds.




Five main areas that need support if the East African creative economy is to grow

1.  Creative education:  From primary school to undergraduate level, education is often patchy and old-fashioned and does not deliver the types of skills and knowledge needed for either the knowledge or creative economy.

There is a huge desire for approaches which will foster new skills and a need for activity which shows new ways of learning at all levels, including at entrepreneurial skills level.


2. Legal and financial services:  These ‘twin heavyweights’ of a legal and financial system that is fit for the modern creative economy are not that strong in East Africa, the study noted, adding: “It will be a slow battle, but there is a need to continue the fight through demonstrator projects, advocacy and quiet diplomacy.”


3. Merging culture and the creative economy: Because of distance and a lack of infrastructure, East Africa has arguably more to gain from strengthening the relationship between the creative industries and culture than the West, with real potential to grow markets, for monetisation, to extend reach, and to innovate.


4.  Develop traction: A problem for the creative economy globally is that it is often ‘under the radar’ and thus invisible to governments and the wider economy.

This is especially apparent in East Africa, where cultural mistrust of the sector (as a non-traditional business sector and therefore unreliable and untested) run deep.

“There is a need for large scale projects which can really change opinion and raise the profile,” the study authors suggest.


5. Grow markets: Because of relatively low income levels and under-developed domestic markets, in order to create viable businesses, creative entrepreneurs need to have markets across Africa and internationally.

“Export of East African creative products is still woefully lacking because quality, knowledge, capacity, and contacts are lacking”, which means growth is stunted and aspiration is often not as high as it should be.


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