Building an African digital content industry

April 2016

By George Twumasi, CEO, ABN Holdings Limited, London, United Kingdom

African cultural heritage weaves a complex, rich and colorful fabric of deep knowledge and wisdom. Yet for generations our compelling folktales and the insights they convey have been undervalued and uncelebrated. History tells us, however, that the greatest civilizations on Earth flourished because of an unshakeable confidence in the creative power of their belief systems and their myths.

Kenya’s Spielworks Media is on a mission to “express and celebrate” Africa’s storytelling tradition in the digital age. Screenshot from the company’s series Jane and Abel, an intriguing tale of manipulation, deceit and revenge between two rival business families caught in a power struggle. (photo: Spielworks Media).

Recognizing the huge creative potential of Africa’s cultural resources, the power of the media and the need to renew confidence among Africans in our creative potential, the African Public Broadcasting Foundation (APBF) is supporting efforts to establish a viable African public broadcasting landscape that harnesses digital technologies and encourages the production of high-quality, compelling content made by Africans for Africans.

The APBF, which was established by ABN Holdings Ltd in collaboration with Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong of Harvard University and key African broadcasting organizations, is a pan-African electronic media organization that brings together broadcasters and academic researchers. Its vision is to support Africa’s economic transformation by establishing a creative workshop in which a succession of authentic and inspiring development-oriented story arcs are developed, produced and distributed across African television channels, targeting millions within Africa and beyond.

Drawing on Africa’s deep cultural wealth, the APBF is recreating Africa’s inspiring storytelling tradition for television with content made by Africans for Africans. The goal is to take advantage of the immediacy and audio-visual power of television to celebrate the continent’s lush history of folk tales to entertain and enlighten viewers.

For centuries, Africa’s uplifting storytelling tradition went uncelebrated. This has generally dampened interest among Africans in the rich cultural wisdom of our narratives, effectively curbed any appetite to exploit its creative potential, and obscured a vision of a future of infinite possibilities in which noteworthy achievements are the norm.

An archive of African culture emerges and inspires

Over the last 65 years, however, researchers have been amassing an expanding archive of African knowledge ranging from its archaeological and historical roots to its literary and folkloric traditions. Initiatives such as the African Writers Series sponsored by Heinemann Educational Publishers since the 1950s – which enabled writers like Amos Tutuola and Chinua Achebe to get started – also now represent a considerable literary archive. Similarly, the six-volume Dictionary of African Biography, published in 2012 by Harvard University Professors Emmanuel Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, which traces the events shaping the continent’s history over the past 5,000 years, provides another rich source of information about Africa’s heroes and heroines.

Screenshots from Spielworks Media’s Sumu La Penzi (above) which traces the lives of four sassy women living the high life in Nairobi, and Sema Nami (right), Starswahili’s brand new hit talk show. (photo: Spielworks Media).

These works reveal the depth, wealth, and complexity of Africa’s history and document the tangible cultural and artistic contributions made by African societies of the past. These include Egyptian hieroglyphics, Meroitic script and the Ethiopian Ge'ez script and language. They also provide an invaluable source of inspiration for young African creators today to create content that is made by Africans for Africans.

An opportunity to revive interest in African culture

Traditional media and content industries across the globe are being irreversibly altered by the shift to new digital media technologies. These technologies are transforming the way we produce, store, distribute, and consume creative content. In Africa also, traditional business models within the media sector are giving way to new digital platforms which have become the central drivers of rapidly evolving operating models, consumer relationships, and revenue growth.

The digital revolution will grant Africa’s creative entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to translate Africa’s folklore traditions into engaging, creatively packaged digital content which can be shared with millions of consumers around the world at the click of a button.

Making the most of these opportunities, however, will require the transformation of Africa’s broadcasting landscape. Creating an environment in which a sound public service-focused digital publishing industry emerges is a key priority for the APBF. To achieve this, we are focusing on three main goals.

First, we are concentrating on developing culturally iconic, subscription-based television brands that are oriented toward the mass market. Africa needs to establish a broadcasting ecosystem that is efficient, affordable, platform agnostic and supportive of the monetization of content. It needs an ecosystem that attracts the participation of all Africa’s public and private broadcasting corporations within which they can operate profitably.

As a whole, Africa’s broadcasters are sitting on a vast commercial opportunity to entertain, educate, and inform tens of millions of low-cost television subscribers. Turning this opportunity into concrete economic benefit, however, requires a commitment to protecting and securing all intellectual property rights associated with the generation and distribution of new African content across multiple platforms. That is why the APBF is seeking to work with WIPO and progressive African governments to enhance awareness of the importance of IP and to strengthen the IP capacity of the continent as a whole.  

Second, we need to restore the integrity and virtues of Africa’s cultural emancipation. The goal is to support the digital transformation of African societies while retaining interconnectivity and diversity, and to rekindle Africa’s spirit of cultural creativity by establishing a robust digital television content-publishing brand driven by inspiring and compelling African content that resonates with African viewers.

To ensure a continuous flow of content that is made by Africans for Africans, the Foundation is supporting efforts to establish an African Digital Media Fund to assist Africa’s burgeoning media entrepreneurs. 

Third, we need to enlighten African viewers by using commercially viable public service television networks to entertain them.

Africa’s broadcasters are sitting on a vast commercial opportunity to entertain and inform millions of low-cost television subscribers with compelling African content, says George Twumasi. (photo: Spielworks Media).

The immediacy of television and the way in which it can so convincingly convey stories can be tapped to restore the aspirational virtues and integrity of Africa’s past civilizations. Success in motivating Africa’s restless youth will depend on our ability to validate the continent’s worthy historical past and its notable accomplishments, while, at the same time, projecting a compelling vision of a renewed African personality that is capable of pursuing productive and transformative change.

Investment is crucial to meet rising demand

The African television market is already experiencing insatiable demand for original, culturally edifying African content. Nonetheless, Africa’s cash-rich television companies, mostly pay-TV operators, continue to cater to the preferences of their affluent subscriber base and its strong appetite for international programming.

Driven by market forces, pay-TV operators have little or no interest or incentive to produce culturally engaging content with which Africans can readily identify. Out of an estimated 100 million homes with a television in Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 17 percent (approximately 15 million households) can afford access to digital terrestrial television or direct-to-home television.

Africa is actively preparing to switch to digital television, but many broadcasters lack the financial means to create an adequately resourced digital distribution infrastructure. That is why the international partnerships and investment that the APBF is seeking to secure are essential.

Aligning the services of the different players within Africa’s broadcasting ecosystem will go a long way toward establishing a viable public broadcasting service that is affordable to low-income households and rich in African content.

The APBF recognizes the aspirational value of content made by Africans for Africans. Our aim is to create an African broadcasting landscape that is made up of regional content hubs capable of continually producing and distributing cutting-edge content to tens of millions of low-income pay-television households and mobile television subscribers. Our goal is to secure access to at least 50 million pay-as-you-go television subscribers across Africa by 2023.

We are also working to ensure that affordable content delivery devices (set-top boxes, digital TVs, smartphones, tablets, dongles, etc.) are available on a country-by-country basis. Progress in these areas will further deepen and enrich the range of content made by Africans for Africans.

The APBF’s overriding aim is to leverage digital technologies to stimulate the rebirth of Africa’s originality and creativity. This can only emanate from stories that are made by Africans for Africans. We believe that by stimulating the curiosity of all Africans in their cultural heritage, it will be possible to foster the development of a thriving billion-dollar digital content industry that will support the continent’s social, cultural and economic development goals.

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