The rise and rise of East Africa’s creative economy

“African imaginations are worth investing in” is the rallying cry of Teesa Bahana, Director of 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust, as she campaigns for funds for her new Ugandan arts centre. She’s not alone in thinking so – Sotheby’s’ recent African contemporary art auction saw record-breaking sales from artists from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Senegal, according to  Quartz. What’s more, in a celebration of local cultural heritage, African collectors made up 70 per cent of those sales. 

There’s a sound business case to be made for backing the East African arts scene. The added value of a productive creative economy is well-documented – be it on tourism, technology, or social mobility. Albeit a few years out of datean Ernst & Young  2015 study indicated that cultural industries in Africa and in the Middle East are worth US$58 billion in revenue, contributing 1.1 per cent to regional GDP and employing 2.4 million people. Despite the setbacks of the Covid pandemic, those figures are likely to be on the increase – a British Council report‘Scoping the Creative Economy in East Africa’ cites “new digitally enabled business models which converge different sectors and practices through the development of new creative content, services or experiences, are flying out of countries at a rate few would have predicted just a few years ago.” 

An increasingly enabling policy, investment and regulatory environment is also helping East Africa’s creative sector. Despite well-documented tax policies on social and digital services, the bigger picture is positive. The British Council’s East Africa Arts Programme providesongoing grant, skills training and funding opportunities for art projects, while dedicated funds like Heva provide finance and business support for creative industries.  One such benefactor is talented Kenyan entrepreneur Bryan Ngatia, whose collective of Kenyan creatives – Too Early for Birds – tell Kenyan stories through art and film. He commends his British Council Cultural Heritage Seed Fund grant for providing the ability to offer his cast and crew healthy contracts and stable working conditions that set a precedence in the sector, enabling a whole community of theatre practitioners who won’t settle for exploitative agreements going forward. He adds, “The icing on the cake was that HEVA’s involvement went beyond financial support. We got business and structural guidance that shaped us better for survival in the future. “

The private sector is progressively more interested in the sector’s potential. Last month (April 2021) saw the launch of Birimian, the first operational investment company dedicated exclusively to African luxury and premium heritage brands. Delivered through a combination of mentoring, financial and operational support, Birimianis establishing an ecosystem designed to create value for African entrepreneurs and help independent labels become international brands.  In the same month, the East African Community (EAC) Leather Industry Network Platform launched, offering industry players a “reliable virtual space to connect, interact and transact business.” The trade in leather and leather products in the EAC has enormous potential and is growing at an annual average rate of 1.5 per cent. 

As the global economy begins to rebuild following the effects of the still-present, crippling pandemic, the creative industries look well-placed to support a return to economic growth. Not to mention helping us all to come to terms with the experience through essential artistic expression. 

Further Reading 

The following links support further investigation into East African cultural industries: