From Darkness into Light: Policies for Audiovisual Development in Africa

By Rasmane Ouedraougu

bye-bye-africa-mahamat-saleh-haroun.jpg Bye Bye Africa, 1999

Rasmane Ouedraogo was invited to London from Burkina Faso to take part in a high level seminar [1] on ways to give the creative industries a central role in development strategy. One of Africa’s best-known actors, and a leading player in audiovisual policy, he could not get a visa in time to take part, so Vertigo is publishing his paper below.

Poverty can no longer be seen simply as an economic consideration. Strategies for development must include the aim of “enhancing human capabilities – to expand choices and opportunities so that each person can lead a life of respect and value” [2] Choice, in this context is not about being a consumer in a global marketplace, but about each individual’s right to play an active role as a citizen in a world community. This recognition informs UNESCO’s groundbreaking ‘Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions’[3] which became law in this country in March this year, and which commits all signatories to action enabling the developing world to have access to infrastructure and world markets for its creative industries. The UK government has already recognised the importance of action on culture in Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa report, so Rasmane Ouedraougu’s audit of scant resources and his informed proposals for action provide a blueprint for UK support and targeted action.


The production of films, television and videos is one of the most dynamic, growing sectors globally – all of us are consuming more and more images from all of these sources, whether through traditional distribution channels or the internet. However, in Africa, audiovisual production generally and cinema in particular are experiencing a profound crisis. UEMOA (the West African Economic and Monetary Union) has expressed its intention to restore to its member states the capacity to produce images for film and television that serve to reinforce not just the cultures from which they come but also contribute to their democratic spirit.

moolaade-ousmane-sembene.jpgMoolaadé, 2004


The entirety of the cinematographic and audiovisual chain in Africa is in severe difficulty. There has been a sharp drop in production and in some cases its virtual disappearance; a loss of many cinemas, with those that remain deteriorating steadily; the marginalisation (often exclusion) of African films from both cinemas and television screens; and a general loss of expertise in the crafts of production. The roots of this crisis have not just economic, but also political and professional elements including:

§ A lack of understanding, interest and / or disengagement by governments, expressed by the absence of policies to support the audiovisual sector, or the failure to follow through and actually implement existing policies
§ The weakness of public broadcasters, in particular expressed by a lack of commissions from independent producers, and a lack of exchange of programmes between African public broadcasters
§ The absence of African funding sources, whether these be public funds, broadcasting commissions or private investment
§ The weak and sporadic nature of local production activity, which makes it impossible to consolidate skills and develop talent
§ The disappearance of the exhibition market, due to the economic and physical disintegration of Africa’s cinemas. Screens which remain are concentrated in major cities, and subscribe almost exclusively to Hollywood releases
§ The lack of organised regional or sub-regional markets, even in modest terms, for distributing African audiovisual works
§ The absence of well-structured organisations to represent African cultural professionals
§ Long-standing problems with respect to the collection of royalties for creators
§ Increasing piracy of audiovisual works

touki-bouki-djibril-diop-mambety.jpg Touki Bouki, 1973


The Market for Images

Improving the current state of affairs must include greater acceptance of African cinematic and audiovisual works on the television screens of countries of the North. Such a commitment would serve as a form of guarantee for African directors not only to have their works seen by significant European audiences, but also to derive significant economic benefit from this. Both feature film and broadcasting markets must open themselves to African films, and distributors and exhibitors should be incentivised to create networks which draw in works from Africa.

We need a permanent framework for exchanging programming between the continent’s national public broadcasters, and in general a closer working relationship between broadcasters and private producers – both through commissions and co-productions – should be encouraged. The establishment of a network of distributors and exhibitors to ensure efficient circulation of cinematographic works from member states of UEMOA has already been identified as a potentially useful channel for countering the current marginalisation of African images. Similarly, a regional television strategy would be an efficient approach to pooling markets and resources in this sector.

New Technologies

The digital revolution, applied to production and distribution, brings the potential of business models better suited to the realities of African countries. Moreover, helping to provide access to such equipment would make it possible not only to reduce our great dependence on Europe, but to also to increase the volume of production. If the manufacturers of these technologies made them available to developing countries at discounted rates it would enable independent production houses and broadcasters to convert to these new business models and to become more competitive.

waiting-for-happiness-abderrahmane-sissako.jpgWaiting for Happiness, 2002

By lowering costs of distribution these digital technologies could be used to create alternative screening spaces, thus compensating for the loss of traditional cinemas outside our major capitals. The few digital projection venues which already exist show genuine economic promise. Digital satellites, with their greatly expanded offer of channels, could offer similar benefits if a synergy is created with existing national broadcasters. Digital technologies are already the most efficient instruments for ensuring the preservation of our audiovisual heritage and archives.

Film Finance

Co-production is the key to addressing the difficulties of financing audiovisual works, whilst at the same time opening additional markets for their sale and distribution. We must therefore encourage countries of the North and those of the South to sign bilateral and multilateral cinematic cooperation agreements that include co-production, genuine access to respective national markets, and tax breaks for revenues flowing from such partnerships.

The Commonwealth should follow the example of the European Union and spearhead the establishment of a fund in support of developing the cinema and television industries of the South. Additionally, the broadcasters of Commonwealth countries could be encouraged to commit a certain percentage of their revenues (0.005%) into such a fund.

mandabi-ousmane-sembene.jpg Mandabi, 1968


The Commonwealth should support skills development in the sector, and the delivery of necessary training. Currently, there exist a number of training frameworks in Africa – NAFTY in Ghana, KFC in Kenya – as well as those in South Africa. Sometimes, these structures only need temporary expertise, knowledge transfer, from external sources which can then be developed locally and imparted to others. Such strategies could be better resourced with finance from wealthier member states of the Commonwealth.

Broadcasters from developed countries should enable students from such programmes to take part in brief skills upgrading sessions, or longer-term practical internships, focussed on specific roles within the broadcasting system.


[1] International Development and the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, Marlborough House, London November 6th 2008, convened by the UK Coalition for Cultural Diversity, the Commonwealth Foundation and The Global Policy Institute
[2] UN Development Programme - Human Development Report, New York, 2002
[3] The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and the Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, 2005