Notes on the African Creative Economy

In this article writer Paul Brickhill, who has 30 years experience from African cultural development tries to understand the dynamics of creative economy in Africa and draw conclusions towards appropriate development strategies.

Written by Paul Brickhill

This article was drafted as a concept paper for internal discussion and policy formulation by Book Cafe and its partners in Harare (which falls under Pamberi Trust, a Zimbabwean arts NGO). It was not meant for publication, and for this reason it has no footnotes or references since it is not intended any type of as a definitive study, but to stimulate debate.

At the time, Book Cafe could find almost no data and little analysis to articulate the factors and structures determining the African creative economy holistically. A vast amount of data and information exists on the European creative economy, and in the developing world in specific areas such as Jamaican reggae, Indian book publishing and so forth. Neither UNCTAD, nor UNESCO statistical yearbooks have reliable data from sub-Saharan Africa (outside South Africa) on creative economy indicators such as employment and trade.

The analysis is built largely from direct experience and conclusions around how creative economy functions in principle, and – given broad African conditions – some of the major themes of creative economy development in Africa.


1. The creative sector is one of the fastest growing economic sectors world wide. According to data of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, the annual growth for the period 2000 – 2005 is estimated to 8.7%, constituing some 3.4% of the total world trade in 2005 and the sector employed some 5.6 million people in the European Union alone in 2006. The African part of the sector’s world trade is estimated at about 1%.

2. This trend has been in evidence since 1980. Between 1980 and 1998 global trade in cultural products (including hardware) quadrupled from USD98 billion to USD 388 billion (Unesco). Around the 1990s, the term ’Creative Sector’ came into more general use to define this ’cultural economy’. In the decade following, 1998-2008, global trade in cultural products continued its growth, recording USD750 billion in 1998 (UNCTAD).

3. In the late 1990s UNCTAD became specifically interested in accurate economic statistics and definitions relating to the ’Creative Economy’, and has since the 2000s maintained a permanent research team compiling and interpreting data.

The results are comprehensive: whereas, prior to the 1990s ’definitions’ related to the culture sector reflected its social function (heritage, identity, cultural diversity, access to culture, globalisation, creative innovation and forms of expression, social content and message, language, orthography and literacy, popular culture versus artistic integrity, ’culture’ versus ’entertainment’ and so on), since the late 1990s there has arisen a structured set of economic parameters and following this comparative and historical data has been generated in’Creative Economy’.

4. The issues here are critical to this concept paper. In broad terms, stimulus and incentive schemes (through policy, advocacy, grants and funding, infra-structure, partnerships, relationship to development and to the state) applied in Africa in the ’Creative Economy’ have continued to respond solely to the social function/need of culture.

5. There are virtually no meaningful comparative or historical statistics relating to economic outputs in the Creative Economy in Africa (output and production, turnover, employment, trade and exports, imports, investment).

There is de facto no effective regulatory system in any African country in relation to the ’Creative Economy’ (wages, employment conditions, investment and tax, ’standards’, definitions and so on) except as applied through the formal economy according to outdated and in global terms pre-1980 industrial production concepts (for example: paper, printing, publishing, factory production of CDs, media).

6. Not less than 70-95% (depending on level of industrialisation) of Creative Economy economic output in Africa exists in the SME informal sector, and under the radar of all statistical instruments and economic planning frameworks and decisions.

Books are written, published, sold; arts festivals held; all types of performing arts staged or recorded; bands take tours and (strictly speaking) ’export’ their product; sculptures and fine art are produced and exported on large scale; films are made and sell in tens of thousands of units in every informal market in the continent: and not one of these outputs is systematically recorded statistically in way or by any measurement.

7. The phenomenol rise of digital communictions and its direct relation to cultural output has further undermined any method and possibility of accurately understanding and recording African economic output in its ’Creative Economy’.

With existing and accessible technology a song can be recorded anywhere in Africa (informally, as 90% is), uploaded on internet, its copywrite bought, sold and traded, individual units downloaded and paid for – the artist receiving funds by numerous methods of informal money transfer – and not one stage in the mechanics of these transactions is recorded in any statistic or record.

African creative economy – indicators

While absence of hard facts deflects clarity in economic development approaches, there is indicative ’data’ and certainties to draw several critical and accurate assumptions.

1. The sustained global increase in trade in cultural products – based on irrefutable data and evidence – has, by definition, included Africa. From a perspective of the ’African cultural product’, Africa is quite effectively connected to ’world’ cultural capitals.

In music, one would easily and with certainty point to direct linkage between Francophone African artists with Paris and Brussels based record and music promotion companies. The largest retail distributor of African music in the world (FNAC) is Paris-based. The same conclusion would be implied and reached in connections between London and large parts of Anglophone Africa; Lisbon (and increasingly Rio de Janeiro) with Lusophone Africa; and in USA a sizeable New York and USA East Coast linkage with West Africa.

Johannesburg and Cape Town are regional nodes in this global music production system, as is Dakar (for West Africa) and to a less degree Nairobi (for East Africa). Putumayo Music (world music distributors) finds it necessary, for example, to maintain a Cape Town office. Sony Music’s African interests are based in Johannesburg. Virtually all major African artists record in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Dakar, as well as Paris, Lisbon and England for the major European record companies; and are distributed globally.

2. Partly, linkage between African cultural product and global cultural trade and production is fuelled by African Diaspora linkages which have grown very rapidly in the past 25 years.

8% of the population of Greater London Council is African, and over 85% of that is first generation immigrants. Significant Senegalese and Nigerian comunities are established in New York and Washington; a sizeable Ghanaian comunity is established in Illinois (mainly Chicago) and historically in Hamburg, Germany and Denmark; and so forth in Paris, Marseilles, Lisbon, Southern Italy, more recently Spain.  300,000 Africans live in mainland China. Small African communities exist in every European and American city over 250,000 or so. About 6-8 million Africans live in South Africa (some estimates are over 10m).

3. Although a sizeable (although completely unknown) proportion of ’value-added’  in the chain of cultural production (published books, recorded music and CDs, and fine arts for example) is generated overseas, where more prosperous and predictable mass markets exist (many African authors have significantly greater readership in Europe, sometimes in a foreign language, than in their country of origin), it is certain that production and consumption of African cultural product is increasing within Africa, and assumed that ’structurally’ it is re-locating to Africa. The evidence for this is indicative, but clear.


An overwhelming percentage (perhaps 95%) of Nigerian straight-to-DVD film product is sold in African markets. Nigeria is the largest producer of low-budget DVD films and the second largest film industry in the world (average 45-55 new titles a week; average 50,000 units sold per film; sales 130 million units, wholesale turnover estimated USD250m per annum).


Historically, publishers in UK and France have provided a large proportion of books for sub-Saharan African markets (except primary school level, and more industrialised South Africa). Figures of book exports from the EU to Africa are regular and reliable. Driven by by World Bank loans and bilateral grants to African countries these exports grew rapidly through the 1980s and 90s, to reach about USD800 million per annum in 1998 (an indication of the scale of African book consumption in the formal sector and at wholesale price).

Since then, the rate of increase of EU book exports to Africa has slowed considerably (estimated USD950m in 2005) while African book markets and consumption (including World Bank loans) have expanded at around 5% a year. While there has been some increase in Indian exports to Africa (the only other sizeable book exporter to Africa), it is insufficient to explain the shortfall.

There is only one conclusion: a significant volume (approximately USD300m p/a) of book production for African markets has ’shifted’ from Europe into Africa. This accords with the increase in the number and scale of African publishers, from less than 200 in 1980 to over 1000 today (African Publishers Network).


The shift from analogue to digital technology from the mid-1990s revolutionised music production. The investment required to purchase recording equipment fell by two-thirds in the low-budget range. Recording costs plummeted. Skills, training, repair and maintenance costs fell.

More importantly, as production shifted to CDs from the 90s, it became possible to produce a limited number of units, at slightly higher unit cost as for larger volumes. CDs remain the mainstay of the African recorded music industry, since internet access and speeds, and absence of online payment systems inhibit movement towards downloading.

This, added to the vast and uncontrolled pirating of music in Africa (estimated minimum 70% of production) can mean only a massive increase in the music CD production and volumes of units sold. There are no figures, but facts are obvious. A visit to any African market (Dakar or Addis Ababa being excellent examples) is astonishing: virtually any recorded song by any African artist can be purchased amongst hundreds of CD outlets. (NB we are not concerned here by ethical, legal and copyright issues, only indicative data relating to the volume and growth in the ’Creative Economy’).

The Stromme Foundation showed in 2005 that around 4% of Mali’s gross domestic product was derived from music (mainly exports) and 95% was not accounted. Our own recently conducted “Economic Impact Study” of Swaziland’s Bushfire Music Festival has proved that R1 million invested into that festival, both commercial and grant funded, has generated R20 million in turnover into the Swazi economy (arts consumption and tourism). We can quickly show that a small music industry (like Zimbabwe, or Mozambique), currently creates livelihood for about 5,000-plus individuals.


Considering that arts festivals sit at the ’apex’ of any Creative Economy, from an economic perspective as a showcase and marketing catalyst, the rise of African arts festivals has been arguably the clearest indicator of the emergence of an African ’Creative Economy’.

Moreover arts festivals are quite sophisticated instruments in a Creative Economy, logistically demanding, they require finance and investment, high levels of skill, and this must be ’driven’ by an internal economy (availability of all the necessary technical, skills, marketing, management linkages, as well as the cultural ’product’ and audience).

African contemporary performing arts festivals began to systematically emerge from the mid-late 1990s, and today many of the established festivals are about a decade old.

Some prominent festivals (with estimated attendance where known) are: Harare (HIFA, 61,000), Zanzibar (Sauti za Busara 25,000), Mali (Festival au Desert 12,000), Gabon (Gabou hip-hop 35,000), Dakar (Banlieure Rhythm Festival 15,000 and Dakar Jazz Festival 7, 000), South Africa (National Arts Festival 80,000, Macufe 180,000, Poetry Africa 12,000, Arts Alive 70,000, Cape Town Jazz Festival 65,000), Uganda (Bayimba 10,000), Malawi (Blantyre Arts Festival, Lake of Stars 18,000), Burkina Faso (Ouaga-Jazz), Nairobi (SawaSawa 20,000-plus), Mozambique (Tunduro 15,000, Maputo Jazz), Swaziland (Bushfire 21,000).

There has been an equivalent festival development in film (Durban International Film Festival, Ouagadougou FESPACO (Africa’s largest film fest 40,000 attendance) and many national festivals) and books (about 15 more prominent publishing countries have national/regional book fairs, eg Nairobi International Book Fair, 20,000; Cape Town 40,000; Harare 15,000), and to a lesser extent fine arts, which is more scattered.

Although several performing arts festivals have already collapsed or ’stuttered’ (eg Dakar, Gabou) the pattern is evident: there is a major, verifiable emergence of performing arts, film, books and fine arts expositions throughout the continent. From humble starts, the majority are growing steadily in audience, standard and scope. Needless to say there are also massive traditional cultural festivals attracting hundreds of thousands.

African creative economy – realities

1. At the base of the pyramid of the the African ’Creative Economy’ an overwhelming majority of economic formations are small (2,3 to 10 persons), emerging, proprietor managed and not registered as companies (or in most cases any other legal registration eg partnership, association, cooperative, non-government organisation). From a legal standpoint these ’arts practitioners’ are self-employed and/or partnerships. Individuals frequently cross-subsidise their arts activities with other sources of income. They have little interchange with formal sector economy, and only a fluid relationship with state (depending on any use-value to them in this relationship, or any regulatory mechanisms).

In this category exist well over 90% of bands and musical acts, sound and recording studios, a similar percentage of informal art and craft galleries, most film makers, theatre groups, dance ensembles, virtually all poets (massively growing art form in Africa) and niche areas like stand up comedy, a huge number of self-published authors and perhaps half of all small-medium publishers, as well as most of the service and technical sector that provide sound, staging, technical, repair, logistic, costume, design, promotion, web technology, and transport services etc.

There are a huge number individual operators in the sector, gaining livelihood – technically speaking – as ’consultants’, and offering a vast range and scope of technical skills, although they wouldn’t describe themselves like this.

While this part of the African Creative Economy looks (and is in a structural sense) chaotic, unregulated and disorganised (in the sense of any form of association) it is effective and productive, flexible and (in respective arts disciplines, often highly skilled, although mostly self-taught). It exhibits a high degree of entrepeneurial and financial acumen, although basic management and accounting functions are weak. While there is zero access to loan capital (except private loans) capital is generated, on the whole, through clever business deals, product knowledge and energetic marketing. There is a powerful entrepeneurial spirit at work – survival in local challenging circumstances depends solely on this.

2. Above this exists the ’top tier’ of formal, regulated structures – registered businesses, NGOs, associations, cooperatives, partnerships and individuals. Outside South Africa, it accounts for no more than 5-10% of production and turnover volumes in the Creative Economy (depending on sub-sector, books and publishing being about 50%, CD and DVD production about 30%), but it is in a ’strategic’ position in terms of relationships with the state (as registered vendors, service providers etc), and with external funding and funders.

Here one will find music recording companies, some but not all international touring musicians, music schools, arts festivals and big concert organisers, major galleries, bookshops, medium scale publishers, theatres (ie physical theatres), ballet and dance schools, performing arts venues, clubs, importers and exporters of hardware, as well as some of the better organised associations (musicians unions, writers bodies and so forth).

In this top-tier, there is a degree of dependence on external development funding and generally exchange, inter-action (sometimes ownership) with overseas contacts, suppliers and customers. The vast majority of academic and other policy-related papers sees African arts and culture almost entirely through the prism of this small upper-end of the sector.

3. It is virtually impossible to generalise about how the African ’Creative Economy’ practically functions in terms of turnover, finance, trade and investment, since it differs from region to region and between disciplines and sub-sectors, save to make some general comments.

Outside of South Africa, the music industry is still financially fuelled by live music and touring, its turnover generated largely through audiences, and in close, frenetic partnership with thousands of clubs, bars, and venues. CD sales comprise less than 50% of typical income, but this is growing. It is, by and large, an entirely ’local economy’.

In film, a huge number of low-budget short films are made in Africa. In Nigeria this is serious business, with significant private local investment. Elsewhere, this is mostly driven by small-scale external funding, some investment by local TV stations, and otherwise self-financed. Only South Africa has a medium-large formal film industry.

Arts festivals are mainly dependent on small-medium grants from embassies and European cultural agencies (usually to pay for artists fees and travel), external funders (staging and sound), and increasingly the local corporate sector (branding, marketing). The festivals are starting to generate sigificant volumes of turnover through the gate and food and beverage sales, and becoming aware that they are close to viability in this respect.

Fine arts and galleries operate quite well based on sales to tourists and visitors, and some significant inflows towards the major exhibitions.

Publishing is financially driven by the education sector which frequently cross-subsidises more risky areas of fiction and social sciences (ie within a single publishing house), and where this is absent, it is funded by a variety of academic sources, and often in co-publishing agreements with overseas publishers.

Theatre and dance is almost entirely  externally funded, since – unlike music- it cannot generate enough turnover from audiences.

Cutting across all disciplines are tens of thousands of small, direct social ’connections’ into Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Brazil and elsewhere, bringing all manner of opportunities for sales, touring, help, loans, gifts, exposure, marketing; either through Diaspora connections or foreign friends and well-wishers. Africans are exceptionally gifted at social networking in this way.

4. Throughout this Creative Economy, whether formal in the top-tier, or informal in the vast swathe of entrepeneurship there is insignificant access to loan and investment capital, (except for small, private investments). Again, South Africa presents a partial exception, and some specific sub-sectors in specific locations (Nigeria, film; Kenya, books etc). From an economic angle external development funding is ’treated’ as if, and takes the place of investment capital, although invariably ’pitched’ around development rationale.

As a final remark, it is evident everywhere how resilient the Creative Economy has been in Africa. Not only has it grown with insignificant capital inflows, but it has maintained employment, livelihoods and incomes more robustly than much of the formal economy. This is not at all unusual – it reflects, generally, global growth referred to earlier.

Paul Brickhill is Creative Director of Pamberi Trust Book Cafe in Harare, Zimbabwe and has 30 years background in African cultural development, mainly in publishing, literature and music.

This article was originally published at – the website of Mimeta Centre for Culture and Development.

All photos by Thomas Bjørnskau.