By Patrick Kabanda
“All roads lead to Kilembe.” As a child growing up in Uganda, I heard that statement countless times. Kilembe, a town in Western Uganda, is best known for its rich copper mines, and copper exports have been considered a major source of income for the country since the colonial days. The Ugandan people were told then, and still told today, that their prosperity depends on mining and drilling for oil. When I was young, my passion was music, and I dreamed of earning a living as a musician. But I often heard from my mother that the colonialists had considered African music meaningless. Nobody seemed to take music or other arts seriously as a potential source of wealth, in Uganda or anywhere else in Africa.
While the African continent is rich in oil, gas, precious metals, and other minerals, rampant corruption and tax evasion deny the ordinary citizen in Africa any profit or income. “Wealth that enslaves the owner isn’t wealth,” the Yoruba people of West Africa say. Unfortunately, Africa’s poor are enslaved in poverty today. How, then can Africa survive?
An unlikely sector may be part of the solution. African citizens could reap major economic and social benefits if their governments more efficiently develop and promote their cultural activities – music, painting, sculpture, design, literature, publishing, and the performing arts that all make up the “creative sector.” Ripe with opportunity, Africa could promote its own heritage and build a sustainable economy for itself.
A 2010 United Nations report on the global creative economy suggests that trade in the creative sector has enjoyed continuous growth even in the recent turbulent economic times. IT has increased from $267 billion in 2002 to $592 billion worldwide in 2008. But most of this commerce is realized in developed countries, which accounted for 83 percent of exports in creative services and 56 percent in creative goods. In the U.S. alone, entertainment, literary and artistic activities contributed $74.3 billion to the economy in 2012. Developing countries could tap into this market and benefit from their own cultural production.
From Uganda to the U.S., the misconception that the arts don’t create jobs impedes action to promote cultural sectors. There’s evidence showing the economic potential of the sector. Nigeria’s movie industry, Nollywood, now generates millions of dollars. “Graphic Africa,” a showcase exhibition of the work of 16 African designers with ceramics, furniture and textiles illustrating trends in pattern and style, attracted great interest at the Habitat Platform Gallery during the London Design Festival last year. The Design Network Africa, a Danish program to equip African artists with business skills and marketing, is an example of an initiative with great potential.
Monetary reward however, isn’t the only reason to develop Africa’s cultural sector. Investing in culture can create jobs that bring higher employee satisfaction. Unlike mining for instance, participating in African creativity could mean meaningful employment for the continent’s largest population – its youth. High unemployment rates across the continent are worrisome, could engaging and potentially lucrative jobs fix this?
The creative sector can also promote tourism, social inclusion and national identity, and should be celebrated in their own right. My home country, Uganda, should do more to promote bands like Afrigo, a group formed in the 1970s to enrich live entertainment in a nation too familiar with hardship. In South Africa, the artists I met while there were quick to tell me that music contributed to the struggle against apartheid. South Africa rightly honors that contribution, and this year, it is being celebrated in Carnegie Hall with a festival, “Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa.”
As cultural ambassadors, African artists can positively influence people to invest, study, or visit in Africa. The negative image often associated with African countries translates into poor country “brands” (to speak in business or marketing terms). And weak brands “can have a significant impact on a nation’s attractiveness for investment as well as tourism,” observes FutureBrand, a global brand consultancy that publishes an annual Country Brand Index. Wildlife helps drive tourism in some countries. But the rich variety of African cultural traditions should be equally attractive, and cultural assets like South Africa’s International Library of African Music are viable tourist destinations.
Culture and development are interdependent. That is, they are collaborative, and not mutually exclusive. A balance sheet analysis isn’t enough to formulate development policies, says James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank President and a cellist. “If you’re going to make judgments about the people in the country about whether they trust you or not, what you have to do is to identify them in terms of their culture.” Wolfensohn recalled that in Mali, a country no stranger to hardship, the only time he saw people happy and proud was when they were displaying their arts.
Unfortunately, for many leaders, the arts are almost just trinkets. “One of the disappointments to me was that the leadership of many African countries do not themselves support their cultures. And that’s a shame,” says Wolfensohn. “I don’t know whether all the countries have cultural ministers. But if they do, I don’t think they meet together very much to project an African image.”
The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union’s vision and policy framework to encourage socio-economic development, acknowledges this: African countries need to “find ways to diversify their economies, namely by boosting non-traditional sectors; expanding their range of products and exports; and engaging with new economic and development partners.”
African countries should go further and implement a cooperative New Partnership for Africa’s Cultural Trade (NEPACT) to promote small-scale creative enterprise. This policy could work under special trade arrangements where, for example, member African nations could come together to negotiate their cultural export provisions with the European Union or with North America. Governments will indeed need to find better ways of protecting intellectual property with copyright; many artists in Africa are now deprived of their rightful earnings by piracy. But it can be done. Creative solutions can help grow the creative sector.
If Africa embraces the idea of making cultural and artistic activities an integral part of economic development and social progress, maybe the Yoruba can someday say, “Wealth that comes from creativity is true wealth.”
Patrick Kabanda, a citizen of Uganda, is a 2013 graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a 2003 graduate of The Juilliard School.