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close this bookThe Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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Culture: a key factor in development - Enterprising Africa

by Gilles Roussel

The author of this article is the Secretary-General of 'Africrion' (African agency for creative youth, 77 Rue de Charonne, 75011, Paris). He writes here about the vitality of cultural entrepreneurs in a number of African countries where his agency operates, focusing on their training needs and their potential role in economic development

In February 1995, Africreation initiated its second African Cultural Entrepreneurs' Training Programme. This project, entirely financed by the EDF, is the brainchild of the Benin Ministry for Culture and Communication and is supported by the Ministries for Culture in neighbouring countries. A selection committee chose 10 future trainees from the 170 candidate files submitted. All are under 30 and they come from seven African countries. Six are women. Their aim is to set up projects involving the theatre and museums or under the multidisciplinary heading of 'Cultural Action'.

The Racines (Roots) Festival took place in December 1994 in Porto-Novo (Benin). This was a multi-faceted occasion, encompassing music, dance, theatre, lectures/debates and exhibitions, demonstrating the creative wealth and open-minded spirit of this historic town on the Gulf of Guinea. Events were initiated, conceived and produced by a team headed by 27 year-old Igor Agueh.

If you travel via Cotonou, the economic capital, take the coastal route. On the left, an unassuming wooden notice announces the 'Mediathe de Diasporas' (Diasporas Multi-media Centre). Where the road ends, there is an African house where artists and their works, exponents of the plastic arts, dramatists and musicians intermingle. It is here that highly organised exhibitions (such as the first Cotonou Carnival) or improvised events and concerts are prepared. The results are achieved in a lively and energetic atmosphere which alternates between serene and tempestuous. The principal organiser at the centre, Camille Amouro, is a 32 year-old dramatist.

Continuing on to Lomyou will find, at the start of a very quiet road, one of the first African design enterprises, offering decorations, furniture-making and fabrics. Kossi Assou, a 35 year-old plastic-arts designer, is the man behind these prolific and authentic forms which are sold throughout Africa and Europe.

In Burkina Faso, Chadian Koulsy Lamko, a dramatist who returned to Ouagadougou after two years as writer-inresidence in Limoges, has opened an agency for training Burkinabe artists. Meanwhile, Parfait Doudy from Congo is collaborating in the development of a Burkinabe regional audiovisual production unit. He is awaiting an improvement in the situation in his own country, which is currently not favourable to the setting-up of cultural enterprises. He sees his project in Burkina as the forerunner for a Bantu Communication project he plans to set up later in Congo.

Lastly, there is Maryam Maloumbila from Chad. Her native country presently has more pressing concerns but she has, nonetheless, successfully established Kadja Kossi, an artistic and socio-cultural centre, in N'Djamena.

Most of the young Africans who completed the first training programme organised by Africrion in Lomwhich ran from February 1992 to March 1993, are therefore proven entrepreneurs and innovators. Although, unfortunately, not all were successful, 144 candidates got their projects through the selection procedure, overcoming the difficulties of that troubled time in Togo and, above all, the problems they encountered on return to their countries. It would be useful to give an explanation at this point of why this 'gamble' on people and their spirit of enterprise was actually made, the bet being placed as much on the diversity of content as on the continuity of implementation.

Culture in development

Without wishing to oversimplify matters, it ought to be said that, in Africa, planned, administrative solutions have too often been sought merely to satisfy the operators and at the expense of those actually involved. This is particularly true in the cultural sector where a number of pare-administrative or pan-African events or structures were set up, virtually all of which were stifled by bureaucracy and by the fact that they lost sight of their initial objectives. This must be countered by the notion of cultural entrepreneur-first and foremost an individual with a specific project and an artistic and organisational vision. In Africa, where art has a strong presence and is integrated into many spheres, a cultural entrepreneur is often an artist or an economic player. His project is always autonomous or as independent as possible. To make a virtue of necessity, budgets have to be modest and public financing realistic (for Africrion, these are essential criteria for verifying the feasibility and duration of productions).

It is thus possible to discern a particular notion of cultural development which concentrates on relevance and the entrepreneurial skills of the players. Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, many young Africans wish to set up cultural enterprises and this is undoubtedly just the beginning. Here, culture has an essential role as an alternative development model, geared more to real people, their creativity and desires, reconstructing communities on a local scale and attempting to set up effective cooperative networks between players on the African scene.

An African cultural entrepreneur's actions are, of necessity, innovative owing to numerous constraints which can be overcome only by ad-hoc solutions, often conflicting with pre-established structures. For such projects to function in the long term, they must be of modest size, and this also applies to the promoter's ego, although he must have a great sense of commitment.

During the selection procedure for the second Africrion programme, it was certainly demonstrated that reasonable size and ambition could go together. Proposals full of vitality were made for theatre projects (21% of the total), live shows (17%) and plastic arts (10%). Some projects were somewhat ill-defined with 27% designated under the catch-all term 'Cultural Action'. This often reflected a lack of rigour in the initial approach. It should be noted that much progress remains to be made in enterprises involved in sectors which require technology or networks such as audiovisual, publishing and multimedia activities. These are currently underdeveloped in Africa. Similarly, there is a real gulf between French and English-speakers, Nigeria, in particular, being looked on as a continent apart. If cooperation within Africa cannot overcome this obstacle, it faces a bleak future.

Cultural enterprise is obviously of limited importance to the African economy which is essentially dependent on North/ South relations (trade between African states represents just 3% of the continent's total trade). The African entrepreneur must, therefore, develop projects which are relevant and, above all, small-scale, capable of serving as a basis for local development and regional relations.

The post-colonial and sometimes 'neo-colonial' situation which prevails mean that the work of the cultural entrepreneur can be particularly relevant. He or she is in a position to be an agent both for genuine local economic development and for the advancement of local democracy. Cultural centres, cinemas which have been converted into theatres, artistic events and festivals all contribute to the emergence of local cultural policies, even if it is a very slow process. The democratising role is accompanied by something more concrete, namely job creation, albeit on a modest scale. The number of artistic and musical groups which survive and evolve under uncertain conditions in Zaire, Burundi, Togo, Nigeria and Chad is impressive.

The original nature of the African artistic outlook means that the economic dimension, although small, plays an innovative role in a field where relationships between disciplines are very strong. It also combines with the liberalising dynamic created by all cultural life. It is, however, markedly different from the role of culture in Eastern Europe, for example, where ideological criticism still predominates.

Training needs

The cultural entrepreneur is a rarity. He or she has to be a manager capable of performing amazing feats: for instance matching the financial constraints to the ambitions and innovative spirit of the creator. In Africa, the requirement for skills is considerably heightened by the weakness, and in some cases, complete lack, of cultural administration (this is the case, for example in Zaire, Liberia and Sierra Leone), as well as by the major problems involved in financing. There is a particular dependence on financial circuits originating in the North. Entrepreneurs have to adapt to these, gain an understanding of the rules and procedures and try to tap into pre-existing networks of relationships.

The training requirements of African cultural executives are thus immense, all the more so when set against a context in which the universities do not have a role. At this point, we ought to pay tribute to the CRAC (Regional Cultural Action Centre) in Lomwhich is responsible for training many cultural administrators. It enjoys a precarious existence, but it must be acknowledged that a number of projects and policy developments have been due to its work.

Training requirements are essentially of two types: methodology and access to cultural networks. Methodology, broadly speaking, covers administration, management, implementation of cultural projects and definition of cultural policies whether at a local or national level. Access to networks is fundamental. It entails a knowledge and understanding of both the cultural policies and the bodies that exist to implement them. There is also the issue of implementing a genuine network of cooperation and (essentially in our view) creating linkages between the 'actors' end Africa's cultural institutions. We believe, from this standpoint, that the regional dimension is crucial. It is by this means that Africreation, through its various projects, enhances exchanges and collaboration throughout the Gulf of Guinea, with a particular focus on Benin, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. The last-mentioned country has made a genuine cultural policy into one of the driving forces behind its development.

The stakes involved in artistic and cultural training programmes are thus crucial and must include the following features:

-encouragement of creativity, improvement of technique and development of the notion of method;
-progress in Africa itself, but also favouring comparative work through courses staged in both Africa and Europe;
-creation of trans-African cooperative networks;
-a high profile through the achievement of professional and entrepreneurial projects: this forms the very backbone of educational and vocational awareness;
-improvement of complementarity between technical, artistic and managerial training programmes on the one hand and administrative colleges on the other hand. CRAC in Lomould be relaunched in this context.

In historical terms, art in Africa has always been a force favouring social cohesion and unification, idealising and transcending the attributes of power, the sacred and the people. It is always fascinating to observe that the 'transmutative' virtues which are applied directly, and largely without intermediaries, to the entire group, are always active in contemporary African art. This expresses a directly perceptible reality by using a language which is sometimes highly sophisticated. African culture is and always has been a crucial element in development because the transcendency of forms of expression is combined with contingency, an immediate and structure-giving 'applicability'. The role that culture has to play in development in Africa also brings hope for a northern art which is smothered by the microcosm and which has lost its sense of reality; which is, when all is said and done, less essential, less vital and too concerned with appearances.

Today's emerging African cultural managers, are helping to reveal to the world that the 'aesthetic' stakes have a direct and significant contribution to make to economic, social and political development.