For four years many people across the African continent have been left in stitches by the antics of a young woman from Uganda whose no-nonsense attitude expresses loudly, very loudly, some comical truths. The boldness of this young woman is captivating. To unapologetically hold down her space in an otherwise male-dominated profession is no small feat, but to do so using a relatively new platform, YouTube, demonstrates determination and innovation. By showcasing her brand of comedy on a digital platform, Anne Kansiime ultimately catapulted herself to stardom beyond the borders of her country and achieved mainstream success. Kansiime now performs across Africa. She is just one of the young African women in recent history who have taken to exhibiting their creativity on various digital platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube and the blogosphere, and who are taking the continent by storm.
To create or to be created
Africa’s creative economies are still in their developmental phase, yet to reach the heights of its Western counterparts, but the tide is slowly changing. Our ethnic and cultural diversity is finding representation in more and more books, movies, plays, music and others forms of creative expression. Much of this is locally produced content. Young Africans are seeking role models and stories that they can identify with. I recall as a child telling anyone who cared to listen of my dreams of making it in the film and music industries (yes, both of them). Needless to say, that dream was shot down by those who told me that going into such industries was just not a viable career option. It was inconceivable to my advisors, as it still is to many people, that anyone can make a decent living through entertainment. Such beliefs are, however, not completely unfounded. The African creative economies are indeed growing with film and music industries accounting for 1.42 percent of the GDP in Nigeria (Lopes, 2015) and two percent to four percent of the GDP in South Africa (Lopes, 2014), but the continent still needs to reap the full benefits of its creative economies to give impetus to economic development and to close gender disparities in the working world.
The creative industries are major employers of young women who face a number of socio-cultural barriers when it comes entering and achieving recognition in a number of sectors of African economies. Young African women tend to dominate creative spaces, such as in the arts and crafts, fashion and film industries. Women, for instance, constitute about 48 percent of the Nigerian creative economy which partly comprises of Nollywood an entertainment powerhouse on the African continent (Dandaura, 2013:16).
However, it is also necessary to take off the rose-coloured glasses of employment opportunities for young women and note that, even within the creative economy, as in many others, leadership positions are held by men. In South Africa, women film directors are under-represented. The publishing of African literature, which is still male-dominated terrain, largely due to the gap in education and literacy levels between men and women, simply does not have enough women publishers (Christensen, Ljungman, Odongo, Sow and Frederiksen, 1998). Another important trend is the tendency for young women to carve out places for themselves in the informal sectors of their economies. This is already evident in the creative economy which, in many African countries, is yet to be fully integrated in economic development.
Changing the game: Content is queen
When I was harbouring dreams of international stardom, the Internet and virtual networking platforms were somewhat of a novelty, but now Internet use is gathering steam in sub-Saharan. As a result of this, the African creative economy is extending its presence to digital platforms with the popularity of blogs, web series and other forms of content online. The bad news is that Internet use is gendered. More men than women are connected to the Internet in sub-Saharan (Silver and Johnson, 2018). The gap goes beyond access to include digital literacy. This has slowed down the impact on the growth and establishment of female owned and managed creative spaces online. These and other barriers need to be overcome if African women in the creative industries are to catch up with the fast-paced, world-wide digitalisation of the creative economy.
But, and this is a huge but, mobile use in Africa is becoming ubiquitous with women in African countries, such as in South Africa and Kenya, where women are using mobile internet more than men (IT News Africa, 2017). In addition to this, there are innovative young African women who are gloriously rising to the occasion, and are producing and showcasing their creativity online. Content creation is not just an in-thing. It is becoming an avenue of creative expression and a means of sustenance for young Africans. African Millennials and Gen Zers are undoubtedly more tech-savvy than their predecessors, and are increasingly becoming content creators rather than mere consumers.
In this era of connectivity, there are many young women across the continent who are making their online presence felt. Kansiime is one of them, achieving continent-wide success via YouTube. Tyra Chikocho, a young Zimbabwean comedian, has garnered a huge following on Facebook with her ‘Madam Boss’ skits, which hilariously examine issues across the socioeconomic divide by highlighting the often tumultuous relationship between a maid and her boss.
Uche Edo, a young Nigerian woman, founded Bella Naija, an online magazine which won the Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards for the best African blog. Honey Ogundeyi founded Fashpa, a Nigerian online fashion retailer which designs, manages and distributes its own clothing. Digital artists, such as the Angolan Keyezua and the Kenyan Wangechi Mutu, address African culture, womanhood and sexuality online. And the list goes on…
What is clearly evident is that the online creative economy gives young African women control. There is no shattering of the proverbial glass ceiling, nor is there need to, because cyberspace, by nature, is open and unstructured. The structural barriers which hinder young women from becoming leaders in the creative industries are therefore transcended through the use of online technologies. As a result, there are many young African women who are creating informal platforms which they themselves assume leadership of by determining the issues they want to highlight through the content and also by giving an authentic representation of African womanhood in the twenty-first century. The returns of the creative economy online are similar to offline returns, however. It is not as profitable as it ought to be. In many cases, it is even less so. However, there are young women who have been able to achieve mainstream success with some even generating a decent enough income to make passions and hobbies such as blogging a full-time job.
Formalising the informal
As we find our footing in the digital world we live in, it is time for young women and African nations as a whole to realise dividends from the hard work and time invested in the establishment and running of digital platforms. Digital platforms currently often represent a stepping stone to mainstream success, but they are not the mainstream. In order to increase the number of young women employed and achieving success in the creative industries, this needs to change. Young women who are making their mark online need investment and the recognition that often comes along with it. It is from these platforms that women are finding their voice and expressing their diversity, and such efforts should not go unsupported. They should be used to create more opportunities for women to work in the creative economy.
Countries outside the African continent have begun to realise this. Advertisers in more developed nations have taken advantage of the current trend by working with social media influencers to promote their brands. Influencer marketing has gone beyond including celebrities in more mainstream spaces to include people who are making an impact online. The phrases ‘influencer’ and ‘content creator’ are becoming less bywords. They now come with actual job descriptions. In Africa, where more traditional jobs are still favoured, we lag behind, and yet we have creativity in abundance. Both the public and the private sector should extend financial and technical support to young women who work in the creative economy.
A multi-stakeholder approach should be taken for this to be a reality. Programmes and projects which seek to achieve digital literacy among young women should be initiated and receive adequate funding from government and private players. Policies should be formulated and put in place to protect women creators online. A wholly unregulated industry leaves people vulnerable to unscrupulous practices, thus depriving them of the benefits they ought to reap, but it is important that regulation does not infringe upon the creative freedom of women. Africa has a bad history in terms of censorship, which shouldn’t be repeated online. Finally, the so-called informal platforms should be integrated into national economies across Africa to ensure the transformation of the continent by eradicating poverty and inequality and achieving sustainable development.
The ingenuity of a few creative women alone is simply not enough to ensure the employment of and secure returns for young women in the creative economy, nor is it enough to steer the African creative economy into the future. The commitment and effort of various stakeholders who appreciate the need to have young African women dominating and achieving in their respective spaces is needed. I believe the future is bright for young African women in the creative economy. The resilience and brilliance of the women who are creating their platforms are so powerful that, sooner or later, people will not be able to help sitting up and taking notice.