Why Covid hit creative sector the hardest

Friday August 13 2021
Actors from the Afroman Spice theatrical company

Actors from the Afroman Spice theatrical company in a scene of the poetic musical play "Slay Queens of Africa" that was staged in Kampala in August 2018. PHOTO | COURTESY


When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world in March 2020, the economies shut down affecting all sectors, but one of the hardest hit is the creative industry: Live music performance; suppliers of weddings, parties and social events, comedians, cruise liners performers event hosts and all cadres of content creators. The gigs simply disappeared into thin air overnight.

The impact of the pandemic has been particularly felt in venue and site-based activities, such as theatre, live music, festivals, cinemas and museums. The livelihoods of artistes, artists and cultural workers were directly hit by lockdowns and physical distancing measures.

And since most creatives are freelancers, they have experienced higher levels of income loss and unemployment than other categories of workers. This reduction, in turn, led to a severe disruption in global employment.

It is estimated that the cultural and creative industry suffered a $750 billion reduction in the gross value added, and 10 million jobs were lost in the sector. Losses range from 20 to 40 percent across different countries.

The cultural and creative industry is considered the driver of cultural, economic and social lives of communities.

The creative ecosystem, which combines a handful of multinational conglomerates with a multitude of freelance creatives and small and medium-sized enterprises, employs a significant proportion of workers. “Many people around the world depend on the cultural and creative industry for their livelihoods. Yet, the often precarious or non-contractual nature of their work has made artistes and cultural professionals particularly vulnerable to the economic shocks that the pandemic has triggered,” says a recent Unesco report on the global economic impact of the pandemic on the creative industry.


Key findings of the report titled First Africa-wide survey of the economic impact of Covid-19 on cultural industries by Ribio Nzeza Bunketi Buse, show that financial losses in the cultural and creative industry on the continent in the second quarter of 2020 varies significantly from one country to another.

Buse is an associate professor of cultural and creative industries management at the Catholic University of Congo and of Social media at the University of Kinshasa (DR Congo).

He notes that the losses range between $134,360 for Uganda and $1.49 billion for South Africa, respectively 0.002 percent and 1.7 percent as contributions to gross domestic product. The combined turnover during the lockdown period of the six countries; Senegal, DR Congo, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Namib-ia, in which the online surveys were done is $1.5 billion.

Buse’s survey also shows that the most affected subsector within the cultural industries in Africa was the performing arts – live music, dance, theatre and events. This is explained by the ban on gatherings in these countries to control Covid-19 infections. The content subsector – audio-visuals, cinema, visual arts – came second.

Lydia Akoth, 10, a member of Project Elimu

Lydia Akoth, 10, a member of Project Elimu, practises dancing on a sofa at her home in the Kibera slum in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, during a distant ballet lesson via a mobile phone due to Covid. Photo | Gordwin ODHIAMBO | AFP

Rachel Kessi, the co-director of Muda Africa put it in perspective thus; “We had a three-months lockdown in 2020, and public gatherings and any kind of performance were banned. At Muda Africa we had ex-changes and performances in Uganda, Rwanda, Switzerland, USA and Germany that were cancelled, re-sulting in a loss of over 43,000 euros worth of grants. Our annual festival had to be held as an online event. Even though the ban was lifted last September, performances are still few and recovery is really slow.”

Muda Africa is a non-profit organisation in Tanzania that conducts professional training in music and dance to the youth.

And Tanzania did not even have stringent lockdown measures, compared with countries in the region.

Ugandan musician Joel Sebunjo’s experience was therefore different. “In Uganda, performing artistes have literally not worked for close to two years now. We all know and can agree that we earn largely through being on stage, because there is very little income that comes through record sales.”

“Concert venues, theatres, galleries, dance studios, museums and festivals have all been halted. Therefore, if artists are not earning, it means that they also cannot create, because creating is an expensive venture that needs cash,” Sebunjo added.

However, the organisers of the Sauti za Busara Music Festival managed to hold two editions during the pandemic because Tanzania’s stringent Covid health measures only lasted for three months and there was realy never a total lockdown.

“Sauti za Busara is the only festival I know of that took place with physical editions in both 2020 and 2021. However, the pandemic brought with it many challenges, for example scarcity of funding, complica-tions of travel that resulted in several artistes cancelling last-minute and additional expenses for health and safety procedures,” said Yusuf Mahmoud the director of the festival and chairperson of Music in Africa Foundation.

According to Mahmoud, Sauti za Busara 2021 provided a positive example for the region. The 2021 edi-tion was tagged Alive and Kickin! which resonated strongly with artistes and audiences, offering hope and solidarity, and that we can adapt.

Members of Sauti Sol band

Members of Sauti Sol band performing in Kampala in 2016. Live performances are among the hardest hit sectors by Covid-19. PHOTO | EDGAR R. BATTE

According to Mahmoud, they are now preparing the 19th Sauti za Busara, set to take place in Stone Town during February 11–13, 2022. Hundreds of music groups from across the continent have submitted appli-cations and will be reviewed by the festival selection committee this month. “

“There is no shortage of musical creativity and talent across Africa but until now it is rare for our musicians to derive sustainable income online. And virtual concerts cannot replicate the magic, excitement and energy of the live experience,” added Mahmoud.

“Across Africa, various distribution services are emerging, but how many pay artistes fairly? Telcos play a big role in East Africa, but with poor regulation who receives the profits? Not only do we need policies and regulation; we also need enforcement,” Mahmoud adds.

This happened in Kenya in 2021. The country had gone through the worst effects of the pandemic with strict and complete nationwide lockdown. Broke artistes took to social media to appeal for financial help for basic needs such as food and rent.

The government stepped in with its stimulus package to businesses, and offered 100 million to various artistes for sustenance. But a one-off was never going to be enough. Musicians in particular, took matters in their own hands and started agitating for better and more royalties. Although this campaign had started before, the pandemic accelerated it. It bore fruit when parliament passed a Bill directing an increase in royalties and especially by Safaricom’s Skiza Tunes digital service.

According to the Unesco report, the acceleration of the digital transformation across the culture and creative industry emerged from the crisis. Digital technologies were used in new ways by audiences and cultural professionals alike, triggering the emergence of innovative digital production, distribution and consumption patterns.

The pandemic has triggered the emergence of innovative digital production, distribution and consump-tion patterns. In the medium to long term, this trend could also inspire new business models, the Unesco report adds.

The studies by Buse shed light on the most profitable subsectors during this pandemic period. Digital media, online gaming, music and audio-visual content were able to be resilient. Their value chains – from creation to consumption – don’t require a high level of mandatory face-to-face interaction and effective use can be made of online tools.

Mahmoud however has reservations about government–led changes. because of different priorities.