The Ripple Effect of the Digital Economy on African Film and Music Industries: The Mediating Role of China

Credit: Kirsten Ulve / Variety

By Alexander Ayertey Odonkor and Dr. Hiu Man Chan

In 2006, Tsotsi, a South African film written and directed by Gavin Hood, a South African filmmaker, won the Oscars1 for best foreign language film and was also nominated by the Golden Globe Awards2 in the same year for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language. The African film industry in recent times has channelled out spectacular films that vividly depict the scenic landscape and authentic African culture on the continent. For many participants in the African film industry, it was not out of the blue when the New York Times mentioned Timbuktu3 in the list of 25 best films in the 21st century – Timbuktu, a film directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, a filmmaker from Mauritania and shot in South-East Mauritania, won prizes4 from Ecumenical Jury, François Chalais and received nominations from the Academy Awards (Oscars) for Best Foreign Language Film in 20155 and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for Best Film Not in English Language in 20166.

In spite of the many challenges in the region, African film industries have performed considerably well, producing some of the greatest films in the world. Even at the early stage of the post-independence era, a period considered to be the beginning of the film industry on the continent, classic films were produced at that time – BBC Culture’s 100 greatest foreign language-films, lists Touki Bouki7, as the greatest African film ever made. The 1973 Senegalese film which has been digitally restored by the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project was also ranked 52nd in Empire magazines’ 100 Best Films8 of World Cinema in 2010. With a global reach, African film industries continue to increase in size and revenue – Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry is ranked as the second largest film producer9 in the World. As revealed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the film industry in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy10 has been an integral component of the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation Sector with projected export revenue of $1billion in 2020.The film industry accounts for about $7.2 billion thus 1.42%11 of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – overall the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation Sector contributes 2.3% of GDP12.

With similar structures and challenges, the operational activities of the film and music industries in Africa are intertwined – music has been an essential integrant in films, creating rhythms in scenes that influence emotional responses to actions in the film. In some cases, the music associated with a film has been as iconic as the film. Similarly, the music industries in Africa have witnessed rapid growth in the last decade – in 2019, African Giant, Burna Boy’s album was nominated for Best World Music Album during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards13. The Nigerian singer won the Best African Act at the MTV EMA Awards and the Best International Act at the BET Awards in the same year14. Other music artists from Africa continue to have successful careers within and outside Africa – Wizkid, collaborated with Drake on ‘‘One Dance’’ in 2016, the song became the most streamed song on Spotify15 with more than 822 million streams.

The Nigerian singer received the Billboard music awards16 for Top R&B collaboration, Top R&B song and Top streaming song (audio) in the same year. In 2019, The Lion King: The Gift17, Beyoncé’s album featured many African music artists and music producers – the list includes two South African singers, Moonchild Sanelly and Busiswa. South African music has made significant strides on the global stage, making an impact in Hollywood – wololo, a song created by South African music acts18, Babes Wodumo and Mampintsha, together with songs created by other South African singers were featured in the movie Black Panther19, one of the highest-grossing movies in the United States.

African music industries have witnessed tremendous growth in revenue in the last two decades – the projections of PricewaterhouseCoopers indicate that the Entertainment and Media sector of Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria will grow at a faster rate than the world’s average. In these three African countries, the music industry has been the fastest growing and the largest contributor to the growth of the Entertainment and Media sector.

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

Nigeria, one of the fastest growing entertainment and music markets in the world, is estimated to experience a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 12.9%, in the music industry in 2020 – representing more than $86 million, almost twice the $47 million realised in 2015. In 2015, there was an overall growth of 15.7% in Nigeria’s entertainment and music sector thus reaching $3.8 billion in that year. According to the Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2016-202020, of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), South Africa will record a growth rate (CAGR) of 4.4%, amounting to $178 million in music revenue in 2020.

Additionally, revenue generated from the music industry in Kenya is expected to soar to $29 million in 2020. The music industry’s sudden growth in revenue is attributed to three main factors: streaming, demographics and internet penetration. A study conducted by the GSMA21 shows that mobile internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa, continues to increase as countries in the region invest in digital technologies.

McKinsey Global Institute22 estimates that by 2025, Africa’s iGDP (internet’s contribution to overall GDP) will grow by at least 5% to 6%, contributing about 10% or 300 billion to Africa’s GDP. With more than 50% of urban consumers using devices supported by the internet, demographic trends such as a young population, urbanization and rising income levels in Africa is driving the growth in the music and film industries.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa23, the African continent has the youngest population in the world, with about 70% of the total population below 30 years – it is estimated that by 2050, 29% of the entire population of the youth in the world will reside in Africa. The large percentage of the youth in Africa’s population has influenced the growing interest in film and music. Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and other African countries have made considerable investments in the music industry to meet the growing demand for music and film but challenges such as ineffective property laws, inadequate distribution networks and piracy issues have characterised both the music and film industries on the continent.

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

In spite, of the several challenges associated with the film and music industries in Africa, Universal Music Group, Netflix, Sony Music Entertainment and other well established organizations in the music and film industry have entered the African creative industries. In 2018, Netflix acquired the rights to the Nollywood film, Lionheart24 – Netflix’s first original film from Nigeria. In February, 2020, Netflix, premiered its first original African series – Queen Sono25, a six-episode film, written and directed by South African stand-up comedian, Kagiso Lediga. In the music industry, the top three major record companies with the largest global market share have ventures in Africa – Universal Music Group26, has establishments in Nigeria, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Kenya with many signed African artists. Sony Music27 also has presence in West-Africa, specifically in Nigeria and South Africa.

Warner Music Group28 is the latest to enter the African market forging a partnership with Chocolate City, a leading record label in Nigeria.

Currently, the film and music industries in Africa look attractive and promising especially as internet penetration continues to improve – this feat has not been a fluke. Successive governments in Africa, in collaboration with international organizations and several countries have contributed immensely to this development. Notable among these countries is China – known to be one of the largest investors in Africa, between 2000 and 2013, China invested $1.7 billion in 38 African countries. According to Tracking Chinese Development Finance project29 (AidData), a chunk of this amount was invested in telecommunications infrastructure. Chinese telecom MNCs have extended telecommunication networks to rural communities30 in Africa by operating in the hinterlands, where motorable roads are few – these places have been consistently avoided by other Telecomm companies because of the poor road infrastructure that makes these localities difficult to access.

Also, Chinese telecom companies such as ZTE, Techno and Huawei among others, offer comparatively less expensive smartphones in Africa – Collectively, Chinese telecom companies control31 about 53% of the smartphone market share in Africa. Chinese smartphone companies support the music and film industries in diverse ways – Techno has chosen Nigeria’s sensational singer Wizkid32, as the company’s brand ambassador. The Chinese smartphone company has also partnered with the Africa International Film Festival33 (AFRIFF) to improve the quality of films in Africa via digital technology. In 2015, Techno launched Boomplay Music in Nigeria, a streaming service provider for African music – with more than 60 million users, Boomplay34, the biggest African music app now has contractual agreement with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment.

Through StarTimes35, a Chinese electronics and media company, China is gradually extending digital television to rural areas in Africa, making African film and music accessible to the population in both urban and rural areas – In 2015, China began a project to make satellite television accessible to 10,000 villages in Africa. Currently, StarTimes has digital coverage all over Africa. The company has launched the Pan-African Online Film Festival – a film awards organized for African film and music video producers.

In recent years, China has also invested in Africa’s film industry through academic research and dialogues – Africa and China have a long-standing relationship with the latter investing heavily36 on the African continent. This strong partnership between Africa and China has made the African market an ideal destination for China to export media consumptions. It has been reported on several occasions that Chinese TV series are becoming more and more popular among Africans37. As part of efforts to improve the relationship between Africa and China, the first ever research centre dedicated to African film and television was launched in Zhejiang Normal University in December, 201538.

Since then, the research institute has facilitated annual forums for not only academic research exchange but also dialogues relating to further industry collaboration. In addition to dialogues, the Centre for African Film and Television Research also makes documentary films that tell stories of African expatriates living in China39. In comparison to other established institutions for African media studies on the international front, the implementation model employed by the Chinese institute focuses distinctively on integrating industry trends with its activities. In other words, these research led activities are relatively more relevant to implementation and practices rather than driven by cultural theories or identity politics. Although the support and investments from China is essential to Africa’s development, it is imperative for a balance to be achieved – China plays a crucial role in Africa’s creative and cultural industries, so it is necessary for appropriate measures to be implemented to discourage the replication of exploits in the colonial era – a novel Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) sparked debates regarding this particular question.

While the central intension of the film is to promote African-Chinese cooperation, sections of the African community feel uncomfortable watching how African culture has been represented in a clumsy manner40. The question still remains, in future collaborations, how can African culture be properly represented and promoted with the influx of new investment and involvement form Chinese companies? This is a challenge that requires a redress on all facets – all relevant stakeholders in Africa and China should be engaged in a problem-solving process to rectify this anomaly. In the future, there will certainly be many film co-productions between film producers on the African continent and China, as exemplified by the first film co-produced by South Africa and China41. Storytelling will be a key element to this exciting future as both Africa and China have a rich cultural heritage.

Evidently, China’s investment in Africa’s telecom industry has yielded tremendous outcome – it has built a network foundation for further development of the continent’s creative industries: enhancing content circulation and distribution in the music and film industry. This has enabled more and diverse content to be accessed across the continent especially in rural areas. It is expected that there will be more opportunities to explore in the area of creative and cultural content export as China’s investments in Africa, specifically telecom infrastructure continues to play an indispensable role in the growth of the creative economy of the continent. For this expectation to be realized, it is incumbent on all parties involved to work assiduously to ensure that the partnership between Africa and China brings to light the best from the film and music industries rather than recreating similar exploitations in the colonial era.

About the Authors

Alexander Ayertey Odonkor is a chartered financial analyst and a chartered economist with a stellar expertise in the financial services industry in developing economies. He has completed the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) program on Financial Programming and Policies – with a master’s degree in finance and a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance, Alexander also holds postgraduate certificates in entrepreneurship in emerging economies and electronic trading on financial markets from Harvard University and New York Institute of Finance, respectively.

Dr. Hiu Man Chan is an academic, consultant and entrepreneur with a specialty in the creative industries, focussing on the collaboration in the film sector between the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK) and China. She holds a PhD from Cardiff University, Master of Arts from University College London (UCL) and a Bachelor of Arts from Oxford Brookes University.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.