Nigerian tech could help unlock cultural hotspot status

Babylon was once believed to be the largest city in the world. Its cultural influence extended across the world, and even across time to today- the world’s first legal code originated from the city. Like Babylon, historically, places like Rome and Athens have held sway in different eras. Today, we have the likes of New York, Paris, and Tokyo leading world culture.

Inevitably, new cities will emerge. Lagos, Nigeria’s cultural nerve centre is already looking like a candidate. In recent times, Nigeria’s cultural goods have become increasingly visible globally, prompting an ambitious notion: Perhaps Nigeria will join countries like the United States and become a global cultural hotspot?

“I was thinking it [Nigeria] was the new Jamaica, but it is now turning to the new America…spreading like wildfire,” the late singer Sound Sultan said, referring to Nigerian music’s increasing popularity worldwide.

It is not difficult to see where the sentiment of Nigeria as ‘the new America’ comes from. UNESCO defines cultural goods as “consumer goods that convey ideas, symbols and ways of life, i.e. books, magazines, multimedia products, software, recordings, films, videos, audio-visual programmes, crafts, and fashion.” These days, you’ll catch Nigerian cultural material in some of the most popular TV shows globally as a matter of routine. For example, in its recently released season three, Netflix’s international hit series, Sex Education, highlighted Lagos’ queer scene against the backdrop of a typical Nigerian wedding- an Owambe- and afrobeat music. That is one of many.

Similarly, the country’s artists are topping global music charts and winning awards. Even lesser-known musicians are getting global renown- Ckay’s Love Nwantiti was the most searched song on Shazam a few weeks ago- an indicator of how much the world is curious about afrobeat. The local fashion industry has also grown along with its global visibility- its designers and colourful attires are gracing international runways.

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A lot of this is thanks to digitalisation which has helped catapult Nigerian culture to worldwide reckoning- think Spotify, YouTube, Netflix. But these aren’t local solutions, and despite its growing popularity, the Nigerian cultural economy still faces several challenges that could hinder its bid to become a definitive global cultural hotspot. Nigerian start-ups, with their understanding of the local ecosystem, could be in a better position to address some of the country’s unique local challenges.

The Nigerian start-up scene is seeing a big boom. The country is the largest tech market on the African continent; the world’s biggest tech giants like Google and Microsoft are present there, whilst global venture capitalists are staking hefty bets on its start-ups.

As the culture economy grows, there is an opportunity for the burgeoning tech ecosystem to cater to its needs through digital innovation. For one, tech companies can now build products for consumption by a worldwide market based on local films, music, fashion, and art as they can now be intercontinental products.

What problems can local Nigerian tech address for its cultural economy?

Poverty grossly affects commerce in Nigeria and leads to low consumption; it crops up across sectors, from tech to music. According to the World Bank, 98 million Nigerians live in multidimensional poverty; with almost half the population unable to afford basic needs, the market for services considered ‘secondary needs’ is substantially diminished.

Also, the prevalence of content piracy in the country still robs the cultural economy of revenue, although it is gradually reducing in music and film thanks to the increasing adoption of streaming services. Then, creators have fewer structured options to make money, thereby unable to cash in on the full economic potential of their creations.

With low financial returns on creative endeavours, investors are reluctant to fund cultural projects. Moreover, the relatively few funding opportunities chase only creators who have a history of success- to the detriment of new creators responsible for fresh ideas and boosting the output rate in the industry. Yet, the ecosystem must be flush with novel ideas and projects to increase its chances of success both domestically and internationally.

Understanding these gaps, Nigerian start-ups should create services that fill them, including affordable and more accessible consumption channels for Nigerian music, films, and art – to disincentivise piracy and help practitioners make more money.

While platforms like Netflix and Spotify have helped improve distribution and provided improved funding opportunities, they are not the ultimate solutions. Take Netflix and Nollywood films, for instance- the giant streaming courts some of the most prominent filmmakers and acquires commercially successful films, leaving upstarts and niche films that aren’t popular demand uncatered – some of these are nonetheless critically acclaimed. Film critic Wilfred Okiche said: “Some of the most critically lauded Nigerian films of recent years are conspicuously absent [from Netflix]. Terrorist drama The Milkmaid, which was the country’s first submission to the Oscars foreign-language competition, has not been licensed; neither has the festival hit Eyimofe (This is my Desire), which was recently added to the Criterion Collection.” Startups can pick up this kind of slack to complement or even rival Netflix’s work in the country.

With music, last year, Nigerian artiste Mr Eazi noted: “There is like so much that needs to be done in the African music space. As we speak, less than two percent of my digital revenue comes from Africa. That is ridiculous for a place where 90% of my fans are…”

Local tech could help build these and alternative structures for monetisation outside what the regular international platforms offer. Exciting examples of alternative ways tech can help monetise culture are; an official merchandising marketplace, a Cameo-like service where Nigerian celebrities are paid to create short shout-out videos to their fans, or Ear1 that helps people make money off replying to their messages on social media. Blockchain technology is another emerging tech that entrepreneurs can experiment with; social tokens, for instance, allow the creation of mini-economies around cultural products and personalities.

Likewise, Mr Eazi’s idea of selling equity in his songs to fans is a concept that can be structured into a new model for crowdfunding with the possibility of returns on investments for funders. In partnership with PiggyVest, uduX developed a product called PopRev to achieve something similar; allowing users to invest in music projects and make profits based on the project’s streaming performance. Considering the flux of investment scams reported in Nigeria recently, such an investment vehicle may prove popular amongst Nigerians seeking wealth-growing opportunities.

It will be exciting to see the tech sector solve more local challenges for the cultural economy to drive sustainability and increase productivity for both sectors. It is important to maximise this increasing popularity in global culture by leveraging the equally growing tech industry.