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Optimists opine that it’s just a matter of time before the animation industry in Africa explodes, but realities on the ground present a different picture all together.
According to Paula Callus of Bournemouth University, African animation has a history that is at times as old as European animation—its earliest animations date to 1916 in South Africa, the 1930s in Egypt and the 1950s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sadly the African animation industry remains relatively small to make an impact on the world market.
While good animation is very expensive and labor intensive, animators on the continent are not just worried about securing financial aid. With questions about piracy issues, who is going to watch the films, and who will pay to watch, constantly at the back of their minds, animators are scared of investing, and only the bold ever think of this genre.
Challenges facing animators in Africa vary depending on the country. In many nations, difficulties include lack of training facilities and institutions that offer animation courses, along with a subsequent lack of production ready talent, an absence of investment in local series and commercials, and an economic situation that makes it difficult and expensive to buy equipment and software.
Animation in Africa is an art that has been abandoned by institutions and ignored by production and distribution circuits. Animators in most countries have very little or no government support. This lack of support, contends Ogova Ondego— an art and culture critic from Kenya— has seen many talented animators leave the region for greener pastures.
In his article ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’s Father of Animation Films Speaks Out’ Ogova says that leading animation producers and directors such as Burkinabe Cilia Sawadogo, Ivorian Vincent Gles and Congolese Jean-Michel Kibushi have been forced to set up shop abroad.
South Africa is perhaps the only country in the region where there is government support available for animation. In her article “Animation in Africa: Going Beyond the ‘Low-Cost’ Option,” Karen Raugust reports that the Department of Trade and Industry offers a rebate of 15% of productions and 30% of co-productions if the local spend is more than $100,000, while the Industrial Development Corp. provides funds for films made in South Africa.
In addition to seeking recognition, animators in the region have to fight on their own turf with foreign imports. Local animation houses face competition from international studios, as networks and other distribution channels rely mostly on foreign fare, particularly for children.
Africa has had rare moments to redeem herself, yet even on these occasions nothing has been forthcoming. UNESCO’s ‘Africa Animated!’ was Africa’s best shot at propelling the industry to new heights, but with Africa’s over reliance on donations and reluctance, the project could not get beyond the workshop phase.
UNESCO’s intent was to train local animators and encourage the production of animation with African themes. The initiative offered three training workshops in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, which were attended by animators from 10 countries.
But even with so much ambition for Africa, UNESCO’s project could not last long. The project that had since the early 2000s conducted training on the continent, folded away in 2008. The folding away just proved how difficult it can be to sustain animation production.
More so, the young trainees who were mentored during this program have failed to live to expectations. None have so far made an effort to realize the aims of the project. Godfrey Mwampembwa and Kwame Ny’ong’o—who were among the trainers during Africa Animated— are the few who appear to keep the initiative’s aim alive. Known by his pen name Gado, Mwampembwa has since 2008 been the brains behind the XYZ show—Kenya’s satirical political TV series— now in its fifth season.
“The future is in our hands. We need to keep up with the technological development. Yet even if we have the expertise the current film-interested individuals have to be educated. Our people need to own the stories they tell,” articulates Kwame Nyong’o, a leading animator in Kenya whose 2011, 10 minute animation ‘The Legend of Ngong Hills’ continues to enjoy screenings in festivals around the world and other specialized screenings.
Africa has a long way to go before it commands its fair share of the world’s animation industry. But for this to happen animators have to dispel the notion that animation is meant only for children.
The creation of Tinga Tinga tales- which uses Tanzanian-inspired art to bring animal-centered African folk tales to life—in Kenya three years ago has positioned East Africa as a contender for a strong Africa animation industry. Tinga Tinga Tales is a co-production of Homeboyz entertainment with the UK’s Tiger Aspect Productions.
All in all, the future remains uncertain for a continent that has a poor animation representation. Despite so many ambitious initiatives that aim at promoting animation in Africa, to date Africa’s animation industry can only boast of one full length animated film: ‘The Legend of the Sky Kingdom,” by Phil Cunningham. With such awful results one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for an industry that is said to be worth $80 billion.