Kenya's entrepreneurs are using technology to scale up their imaginative businesses, writes Gwen Ansell.
In 1985, Cameroonian jazzman Manu Dibangu cut an album called Electric Africa. His purpose was explicit: "I wanted the world to know there is an electric Africa; our culture is not just something in a museum."
That musical message may not have made sufficient waves 25 years ago. But electric Africa sounded loud and clear at last week's conference on the cultural industries, Creative Currencies, organised by the Arts and Culture Trust and the University of Johannesburg on the university's Auckland Park arts campus.
And one of the most intriguing presentations came from a young Kenyan cultural entrepreneur, Mark Kaigwa, taking his audience on a tour of what he dubbed "Africa's silicon savannah".
Kaigwa is a Nairobi-based consultant working across film, new media and mobile platforms. This year, he's one of Forbes Magazine's "30 under 30" top young African entrepreneurs.
His personal story parallels what he described to the conference: a narrative of the transformation of East African business creativity through coastal cables and cellphones, where coffee shops become business hubs and grass-roots initiatives drive entrepreneurship.
"Think of Kenyan fashion and its bloggers," he suggests. "Before the internet, you knew you had something among your peers. Now, you can connect across the continent and the world: people who can raise you to a level you didn't have. Connectivity is a fundamental basis for that kind of growth."
Kaigwa says it all started at home. Although Kaigwa's father had been an army officer, the rest of his paternal family included a well-known actress and a sculptor. His mother was an interior designer, his brother played music, and Kaigwa sketched and at one point designed T-shirts. The family business sold furniture designed by his mother and produced in a factory run by his father.
"I had a first-hand account of seeing art turned into business, from my mother scratching on her drawing board ... through the hands of an artisan ... until you end up with something someone will buy."
Kaigwa's parents sent him to the private Strathmore University to study business and information technology. About 2005, when he graduated, "the Kenyan online scene was characterised by slow, expensive connectivity. In more affluent households, you had fixed-line dial-up connections; everybody else spent a lot of time in cyber cafés with wi-fi."
Creative people dreamt of improvement: "You'd hear a lot of sentences that started 'When the fibre [optic] cables hit …', crammed with lofty ambitions and business ideas."
What Kaigwa acknowledges as his "light-bulb moment" came when he was engaged by Warner Bros to head an African video games design project.
"The job brought together two things for me: the dynamism and creativity of Kenya's grass-roots culture, and what the tech world can afford you."
His video game narrative employed Sheng, Nairobi's urban patois: "If you went to a working-class suburb, they would spot you because your language wasn't as hip as theirs. If you told speakers you were working on a Sheng dictionary, they would show you how it was already out of date."
And he walked around town with game designers "learning they cared even about the precise angle of how a lamppost leaned, because that captured the reality of our urban life &ndashand then saw how the tech could tell our stories."
With the arrival of cheap, cable-supported broadband and affordable feature phones with web access, everything began to change.
In addition to the now well-known cellphone-based M-Pesa mobile money system, Kaigwa told his audience about newer Kenyan projects.
An innovative portable charger affords internet access everywhere; Project 254 brings together investigative writers and photojournalists; single music tracks, sermons and school set-books are sold by online stores Mdundo and Waabeh through scratchcards; and telecoms companies develop apps on SIM cards.
These ideas have huge advantages for small-scale creative operators and low-income consumers. But Kaigwa concedes they are so far relatively small-scale.
"We'll only move to scale by invoking the kinds of discussions happening at this type of conference," he believes.
"And by taking advantage of what's plain in every African metropolis: that bottom-up initiatives &ndash not yet a decade old &ndash really work for fast-moving cultural industries. We need an enabling environment, where a business idea can either fail fast or scale up via micro replication."
Such technology is inevitably disruptive: "If you're a retailer and I can't pay you online, you're at least two steps behind."
And they don't necessarily sit well with the slow-moving bureaucracies of governments.
"We've done top-down. The Kenyan government has a grand plan for its digital Konza city project. It's currently a building site &ndash but nobody is sitting around waiting for this big metropolis to land. We already have organic growth."
The same is true in politics. Kaigwa contrasts the beneficial, but quiet, effect of the government opening up its data online against the massive impact of open-source project Ushahidi crowd-sourcing information around elections and the massive flowering of creative political memes such as satirical cartoons "riding the Kenyan access wave".
What, then, should South Africa's creative and cultural industries be looking for from the government?
Having spent some days wrestling with our slower, more expensive broadband, Kaigwa concedes improvement there "will help &ndash but it's not a silver bullet. Nothing is. What you need is space to pilot: space for micro-pilots. You need policies liberating enough not to prescribe in advance, but to say: 'We'll give you free wi-fi across four city blocks &ndash show us what you can do with it'."
The Creative Currencies conference was held at the University of Johannesburg from August 6 to 8. For conference reports go to: mg.co.za/creativecurrencies