From Cape Town to Cairo, Lagos to Nairobi, animation is fueling the emergence of a creative economy across the African continent and helping to satisfy increasing global demand for new programming and production capacity. Just this month, a series of announcements underscores the rising prominence of African voices in one of the few COVID-resistant segments of the media and entertainment industry.
In a major industry development, the winner of Cartoon Network Africa’s Creative Lab competition, Ridwan Moshood from Nigeria, has opened an animation production company called Pure Garbage, to produce a series of his award-winning original property, Garbage Boy & Trashcan, in anticipation of a global distribution deal. The studio is a partnership between Moshood, US-based producers Baboon Animation, and the African Animation Network (AAN), a for-profit social enterprise that’s instigating and coordinating development of animation capacity across the continent.
“Ridwan is one of the great emerging talents in animation, not just in Africa, but worldwide,” said Mike de Seve, a veteran writer/producer/director of series and features who is founder and president of Baboon Animation. “He has a great instinct for what’s poignant with young people. Garbage Boy is very much in the spirit of classic Cartoon Network style. It’s hilariously stupid. And Ridwan himself is only in his early 20s. His potential is unlimited.”
The African Animation Network is a key part of the emerging strategy, knitting together local and regional efforts in over a dozen countries across the continent including Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Togo, Uganda and Kenya. “We’ve built a robust for-profit model that doesn’t rely on government, to build partnership with animation associations to impact the creative communities,” said Nick Wilson, founder and head of projects and content for AAN. “This has enabled us to scale at an unprecedented rate, with maximum impact and long term sustainability.”
The studio partnership is just one of several initiatives that AAN is undertaking in collaboration with Baboon Studios in a major effort to tap the energy of Africa’s rapidly-emerging creative economy and consumer market. “All the disruption in the traditional broadcast television model has worked to Africa’s advantage,” said Wilson. “We have the world’s youngest population, a combined continental population of 1.2 billion on par with India, and a middle class of 300 million and growing.”
Wilson says Africa’s legacy of underdevelopment meant many countries had to leapfrog old technologies and move right into the digital era, with Africans pioneering mobile payment and mobile entertainment platforms ahead of the rest of the world. Though the cost of data is still high by world standards, audiences across the continent are primed to consume short-form content and animation.
Going direct to digital may help African animators overcome an insidious structural barrier built into the global economy. Animator and activist Isabella Rorke of Animation S.A., speaking at the ICON pop culture convention held last year in Johannesburg, observed that African media does not support locally-produced animated content because it is so much cheaper to license foreign content from the US and Japan that has already earned most of its money in its home markets, and is consequently available at extremely low cost in Africa. Even top local creators are at a disadvantage competing with global branded IP with top-flight production values.
Another persistent issue in Africa is the skills gaps, with the young workforce lacking resources and training to compete at a global standard. AAN and Baboon are addressing that in partnership with Boston Media House (part of Boston College South Africa), launching a Baboon Animation Academy and Fukamela (IsiZulu for “incubator”). The initiative is expected to be unveiled once schools in South Africa reopen after COVID-19. Rorke’s organization is also working to improve the rigor of arts curricula in South Africa’s black townships to train a cohort of talent capable of working to global standards.
Though globalization has disadvantaged local IP development, it has benefited the nascent African animation industry in other ways. Animation production services, which tend to migrate to low-cost markets, are now starting to spill over from East Asia and India to Africa. This allows Africans in the industry to gain professional skills in a real-world environment, building capacity for locally-sourced projects and eventually helping Africans climb higher in the creative value chain: the same path that propelled Japan, South Korea and India into global animation powers.
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One recent example of studios making this shift from production to creation is Cape Town-based Lucan. The company just announced it is expanding from basic production services into development of original IP, starting with a series called Isaura. The 12-episoide scripted series follows a young girl from a fishing village in Mozambique who attains the ability to breathe underwater and communicate with turtles as she adventures through the east coast of Africa, and features her fight to conserve the ocean, as well as various social and political climate change issues.
Lucan’s announcement follows last year’s deal between Netflix and Triggerfish, a large and well-established Cape Town studio in partnership with London’s CAKE, for a kids’ series called Mama K’s Team 4, created by Zambian writer Malenga Mulendema. The show is part of a wider Netflix initiative to amplify female African voices.
“People didn’t know that we have these stories and this voice,” said Wian van Bergen Creative Director for Lucan. “We’ve got an amazing pool of talent here and we can finally showcase it.”
Though creativity is flourishing everywhere, most of the business is flowing through South Africa, with its better-developed infrastructure and business culture. And within South Africa, despite the arrival of majority rule in the early 1990s, the white population still controls the lion’s share of economic resources, and enjoys better access to global capital and markets. What’s different now is that the white elite is putting their resources in service of amplifying indigenous voices and building capacity for the wider society. Global partners are on board with that as well.
“We’re prioritizing diversity, opportunity and income distribution,” said de Seve. “If all we’re doing is making white South Africans richer, I’m not doing my job. But in partnership with AAN, we can change the rules of the game and open things up for African creators to reach the global market.”
Wilson says the momentum spans the length and breadth of the continent. Some of these efforts receive the support of national or regional governments eager to reap the economic benefits of developing a new industry and a more highly-skilled workforce. Others are getting a boost from private companies setting up their own training and internship programs.
“Young people have so much talent, so many stories to tell, but the barriers are high,” said Werner Uys, co-founder and producer at Lucan. “Companies can empower them, let them work in a real studio environment, learn from top creatives, then employ them in jobs that let them pay back their student loans.”
The world is already taking note. In recognition of creative activity in the region, the Annecy Animation Festival named Africa its territory of honor for 2020 – now postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. For the last several years, African projects pitched through Annecy’s Animation du Monde competition – run by AAN the past three years — have gone straight to the finals, with several projects getting festival releases and wider deals with some of Europe and North America’s leading distributors via an agreement with the South African affiliate of the DISCOP Market. Last year, Sitraka Randriamahaly of Madagascar won for a TV series called Mora Mora and Mathew Brown (South Africa) and Harrison Yinfaowei (Nigeria) were recognized for their feature film The Oil of Amadai. Annecy is also setting up its own studio, Afrika Toon, in Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa.
“The partnerships between AAN, DISCOP Markets, DISCOMICS and the Mifa have been a catalyst for African talent to be identified, mentored and introduced to African and international influencers,” said Laurence Ythier, Head of Media Relations for Annecy. “Animation du Monde enables participants to build relationships, confidence to sell their projects, and insight from international industry professionals with years of experience on worldwide projects.”
Baboon’s Mike de Seve is boundlessly optimistic about the future, given all the momentum converging around the continent. “We’re putting more effort into work with an original African look, African voice,” he said. “It’s there. We think the world wants to hear African stories with an African sense of humor right now, and we are trying make that happen.”
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