It’s 5AM in the northern hills of Malawi where its tobacco is grown. Chifundo Ndilowe is awake and ready for the day. Dressed in grey shorts and a blue NBA vest, still filthy from yesterday’s long day on the farm, Ndilowe has hours of hard labor ahead. He is just 15 years old and has been planting and picking tobacco since he was 10.
“I came here in 2011 because rural life is hard. We were battling at home and I had to start contributing for us to survive. I stopped going to school to work. It is very tough working under these conditions because it is hot and we easily get tired and I am often sick,” he says.
Ndilowe moved 567 kilometers from Mulanje to Mpherembe, 300 kilometers north of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, to work in a tobacco farm five years ago. It means long hours, missing school and breaking the law for little pay. He earns a little more than $140 and $280 a year depending on the harvest. That’s less than $1 a day.
“We work for the year and only get paid after harvest. During the year, we get 20 kilograms of maize for 12 days because we don’t grow crops for consumption. They also give us salt and then we have to figure out the rest ourselves. I get to eat once a day and I take whatever is there,” he says.
Ndilowe is just one of an estimated 800,000 youngsters in the tobacco fields; voices that are seldom heard. One of an army of children who sweat for millions of cigarettes lit all over Africa.
A study on child labor in the tobacco industry in two areas of Malawi, Suza in the Kasungu district and Katalima in the Dowa district, found 57% of all children were being used as child labour in the tobacco fields.
George Kube, an adult tobacco worker, works with Ndilowe and two other children.
“There is no money for the children to go to school and if they don’t work to help we wouldn’t survive. We farm on two acres of land and the produce is auctioned to tobacco companies. You have to be very strong if you are going to do this job because sometimes we have to cut down trees and look for water,” says Kube.
A study, published by the British Medical Association, says contract farmers, like Kube and Ndilowe, cultivating tobacco in Malawi, live below national poverty lines, while independent farmers operate at a loss.
“Even when labor is excluded from the calculation of income less costs, farmers’ gross margins place most households in the bottom income [groups] of the overall population. Tobacco farmers appear to contract principally as a means to obtain credit, which is consistently reported to be difficult to obtain,” says the study.
Tobacco farmers may struggle to make a living but tobacco manufacturers thrive. The world tobacco industry is worth billions of dollars. Cigarette retail values in 2014 were worth $744 billion and over 5.6 trillion cigarettes were sold to more than one billion smokers according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. But, very few farmers make money from it.
The market is controlled by a few international companies; China National Tobacco Corporation, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands. They buy tobacco from cheap emerging markets, like Malawi, for profit.
For years, governments around the world have been trying to clamp down on smoking because of its health implications, through stringent laws and higher taxes, yet tobacco use is increasing in some countries, says Zambian economist Grieve Chelwa.
“African incomes have been rising over the last couple of years and we know that tobacco consumption responds to rising incomes. Further, tobacco companies have put in place strategies (subtle advertising) to take advantage of rising incomes.”
And they flourish.
This year, British American Tobacco (BAT) announced its revenue went up 8.1% at constant rates of exchange, cigarette volume from subsidiaries was 497 billion, up by 2.2%, cigarette market share in key markets increased by 40 basis points and its brands performed exceptionally well with cigarette volume up 9.8% year ending September 30.
BAT plans to merge with its US partner R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the company behind the famous camel cigarette brand, in a deal valued at $47 billion. It hopes to create a stronger global presence and move into new ventures like e-cigarettes.
In its third quarter, Philip Morris International reported net revenues of $19.9 billion, up by 2.6%, net revenues, excluding excise taxes, of $7 billion, up by 0.8%, operating income of $3 billion, up by 0.6%, and operating company’s income of $3.1 billion, up by 1.2%. In Africa, companies thrive because of weak regulation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has a 75% benchmark of tax on the retail price, yet the African average is way below. Nigeria taxes cigarettes at only 20% of the retail price. Chelwa says ideally increasing taxes to reduce tobacco use should work anywhere because of the law of demand, increasing price reduces demand.
“But, the important point is the increases have to be real-inflation adjusted increments,” he says.
In Africa, high tobacco taxes are rare. WHO says only 33 countries, with 10% of the world’s population, have introduced taxes on tobacco products of more than 75%. Tobacco tax revenues are on average 269 times higher than spending on tobacco control.
Tobacco companies are also good at finding new markets, with new smokers and weak regulations. According to an article published by The Lancet, a UK medical journal, tobacco use is declining in higher income countries, but nearly 80% of the world’s smokers live in low and middle income countries.
“Tobacco control regulations are not strong across most of the continent. Countries have ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) but that’s all they have done. And sadly the tobacco industry is an important player in the setting of tobacco control policy in most African countries,” says Chelwa.
For years, tobacco companies argue they market merely to convince smokers to switch brands, but evidence published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows advertising drives smoking.
According to a WHO study, smoking has increased in 27 countries over the past 15 years. Seventeen of these are in Africa. In Cameroon, smokers more than doubled from 7% in 2000 to 22% last year. Congo-Brazzaville has seen the biggest spike. Nearly half of Congolese men smoke. Last year, 22% of its people admitted to smoking regularly, up from 6% in 2000.
“Only 42 countries, representing 19% of the world’s population, meet the best practice for pictorial warnings, which includes the warnings in the local language and cover an average of at least half of the front and back of cigarette packs,” says WHO.
In South Africa, cigarette advertising is banned. There are also restrictions on point of sale product display, vending machines and sponsorship of events, activities, individuals, organizations or governments. Now, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has pledged to take it further by strengthening the Tobacco Products Control Act.
Motsoaledi says there should be no branding, no logos and no colors on cigarettes to discourage smoking. If the law is introduced, all cigarettes will be in a brown package with graphics that show the damage they can cause.
This is worrying for the tobacco industry. Christo van Staden heads the only primary tobacco processing factory in South Africa, Limpopo Tobacco Processors, that processes 12 million kilograms of tobacco. He says the effects could be catastrophic.
“The biggest impact [of tougher regulations] is the increase in illicit cigarettes which is a huge dent in the business of BAT and in the whole market. About 20 to 30 percent of cigarettes in Gauteng are illicit and they are paid way below the price,” he says.
As we meet, in Rustenburg, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg, Van Staden’s farmers have lost 30 hectors of tobacco to a passing storm. On this day, the sun blazes down from a cloudless azure sky. A sprinkler keeps the glossy lawns and flowers alive. Inside the factory, it is dark and you can hear a pin drop. The silence is almost tangible. There is no bustle and machines that usually crackle stand still. It is not tobacco season. All employees are upstairs in the offices working. Dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, Van Staden says tobacco farming is hard.
“For every hector, you need two people to work there and pick it by hand, it is very expensive. One hector costs about R130,000 ($9,500) to plant and the farmer needs to make at least 20 to 25 percent profit. Last year was a very tough year. There were very tough conditions and an average farmer did not make any profit at all.”
“Now they are supporting the local market but if they don’t get any benefit out of that, they have to compete with everyone else in plain packaging, then there is no reason for them to buy South African tobacco, they will literally walk out of here overnight and source their product from Brazil, India and China where they can buy a lot cheaper. We are not ready for that. We would close these doors,” he says.
For Van Staden, closing doors means 10,000 farmers lose their income. He thinks there should be more education about the dangers of tobacco and efforts to keep youngsters away from smoking.
“I am a non-smoker and will not advise anyone to smoke. Most of my staff members don’t smoke. Unfortunately, people smoke everyday but see the warning on the packets and turn a blind eye. Because it’s such an unhealthy product, the governments around the world will try and eradicate it but I don’t think it will happen in the next 20 years. There are laws in this country that allow people to smoke and to close down the primary sector is not going to stop smoking overnight,” adds Van Staden.
South Africa will follow the UK, Ireland, Australia and France in banning branded packaging.
In Uganda, 4,800 kilometers from South Africa, it’s even tougher. If you light up in bars, restaurants or hotels, you will be fined $60 or jailed for up to two months. Smokers must be at least 50 meters away from public spaces, such as schools, hospitals and taxi ranks.
Uganda’s new laws also ban the sale of electronic cigarettes, flavored tobacco for water pipes, the sale of single cigarettes and tightened rules on labeling, advertising and selling tobacco to under-21s.
“We are strongly opposed to plain packing as we feel that there hasn’t been enough consultation and research on it. Our concern is the serious adverse consequences that it will have on the economy, jobs and investment; as well as potentially making counterfeit easier. It trounces fundamental intellectual property rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution,” says Joe Heshu, Acting Head of External Affairs at BAT.
According to Heshu, counterfeit cigarettes are a bigger issue. In 2015, South Africa’s Treasury lost R5.1 billion ($373 million) due to illicit trade. The trade accounts for about 24% of the market.
South Africa has been increasing tobacco taxes since 1994 and the big impact has been the reduction in consumption and prevalence, but Chelwa agrees there has been a minimal impact of the taxes on illicit trade.
“Illicit trade often has to do with tax administration and not taxes. Even if taxes were a cent, you’d still have illicit trade showing that it is not a tax level or tax rate issue but a tax administration issue,” he says.
On jobs, Chelwa argues “there are very few tobacco manufacturing jobs, very few given how mechanized manufacturing of cigarettes is.”
The big worry he says is in the field.
“Governments have to consciously find ways of transitioning tobacco farmers into growing other types of crops. This will require a lot of work,” says Chelwa.
Asked if he thinks cigarettes are killers, Heshu argues his company has launched e-cigarettes, which are supposedly less harmful products, in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Poland.
“We are committed to the research and development of Next Generation Products (NGPs) and globally have invested over half a billion pounds during the past five years. There is a growing body of evidence that NGPs do pose significantly fewer risks than cigarettes.”
For now, tobacco companies continue to thrive. Only 29 countries, representing 12% of the world’s population, have completely banned all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, according to WHO.
Some of Malawi’s tobacco, grown by the likes of Ndilowe and Kube, is shipped 2,000 kilometers south of Mpherembe. In South Africa, 19% of the population, over the age of 15, smokes according to the World Bank. That’s almost one in five people and it is dangerous.
Tobacco is responsible for six million deaths each year. Of those, 600,000 die from the effects of second-hand smoke. This number is expected to increase to eight million by 2030 if current trends continue, says WHO.
Alexandra chain smoker, Mpho Ndlovu, knows this, yet he goes through three packs of cigarettes a day.
“I have been smoking since I was 15. It started as just playing with friends at school because we knew we weren’t allowed to. It was a way of being cool. I got hooked and have been smoking for 40 years,” says Ndlovu.
What started as a game became a habit and then an addiction.
“Smoking helps me when I’m nervous and I just enjoy it. I have tried to stop many times but have failed. I know this might one day kill me but, at this point, there is nothing I can do.”
Ndlovu spends R110.50 ($8) per day on cigarettes. That’s R766.50 ($56) per week and R3,066 ($225) per month and R36,792 ($2,700) per year and R183,960 ($13,500) in five years. If he continues smoking the same number of cigarettes per day for another 40 years, at this current price, he will spend around $100,000 on cigarettes. If invested, he could buy a house.
Ndlovu spends close to half of his R7,000 ($500) salary he makes working as a driver for a logistics company in Sandton.
“By the last week of the month, I would be out of money and sometimes I have to ask people if I can borrow or take some on credit from the spaza shop,” he says.
“When I smoke, especially on weekends, I drink as well. So the money I earn is never enough. My children get angry because they think I should be using the money on them. I don’t know how to stop.”
Ndlovu buys his cigarettes from Ntando Debeza, a hundred metres from his home.
Debeza’s spaza shop sells cigarettes, pipe tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco, hookah and shisha.
“I make about R6,000 ($440) a month from this small shop. Most of the money comes from tobacco sales but I also sell other day-to-day products like bread and milk. People come to buy and sometimes on credit and I collect money at the end of the month,” says Debeza.
This means Ndlovu’s debt grows. But, that’s not all. Smoking does not only affect the smoker. High levels of nicotine exposure from handling tobacco leaves may cause nicotine poisoning called Green Tobacco Sickness, with symptoms including nausea and vomiting.
Back in Mpherembe in Malawi, Kube says he is aware of the dangers of working in a tobacco field without protective clothing, and mostly its effects on minors. “I know children can get sick but what can we do? We need a lot of hands on the farm because this isn’t an easy crop to plant and prepare. It needs three times more people than corn but we don’t make enough money at all,” says Kube.
He is one of the few rural farmers who know this. And it gets worse. A 2009 survey in China revealed that only 38% of smokers knew that smoking causes coronary heart disease and only 27% knew that it can cause strokes.
“Among smokers who are aware of the dangers of tobacco, most want to quit. Counseling and medication can more than double the chance that a smoker who tries to quit will succeed. National comprehensive cessation services with full or partial cost coverage are available to assist tobacco users to quit in only 24 countries, representing 15% of the world’s population,” says WHO.
Cape Town-based entrepreneur Gareth Carter saw this crisis as an opportunity. He founded WeDoRecover, a company that helps patients who suffer from psychiatric and addiction problems.
“Finding the right addiction program to meet someone’s specific needs is a complex process. The crisis and chaos synonymous with active addiction are overwhelming and the multitude of choices in the marketplace adds to the confusion,” says Carter.
According to Carter, people who smoke are more likely to drink alcohol and vice versa. He says alcoholics frequently present with a co-morbid nicotine addiction.
“As many as 80 percent of people addicted to alcohol and other drugs are frequent smokers, but the bulk will die of smoking-related disease rather than alcohol and drug-related disease…”
The damage doesn’t stop there. Carter adds that major depressive episodes among adults are highest in those addicted to nicotine and lowest in those who have quit or never started smoking.
“With nearly 80 percent of the world’s one billion smokers living in low- and middle-income countries, this is a very real public health care problem for us in Africa. Making nicotine addiction prevention and treatment readily accessible to the youth counteracts a wide range of potential mental, physical and mood-disorder problems with far-reaching ramifications to families, communities and our economy,” he says.
Carter thinks if tobacco was “invented” today it would be classed with other illegal drugs. That’s not the case. The lucrative industry in Africa puffs on unfettered.
How Three Small Businesses Are Pivoting To Stay Afloat Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic
In late February, Jeff Davidson, cofounder and co-CEO of fitness company Camp Gladiator, was on an annual boys fishing trip on Lake El Salto, at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico, when he was struck by an overwhelming sense of dread and déjà vu. After a long day of bass fishing, he logged onto his laptop for his daily browse of investment forums, an old habit from his days as a senior vice president at AXA Advisors. Hedge fund managers and Wall Street analysts were following the development of a novel coronavirus out of Wuhan, China, scouring the region for under-the-radar money plays. The more he read, the more he found himself feeling as he did at the start of the Great Recession.
“I just remember the way it felt when we saw Bear Stearns go bankrupt and the panic of the stock market crash. All of that just burned really harsh memories into my mind,” Davidson says. “I immediately went back to our headquarters and told my team, ‘I think we need to be prepared for a major event.’” From Camp Gladiator’s offices in Austin, Texas, they hatched a plan, “Project Mars,” to pivot their fitness bootcamp business in real time.
Founded in 2008 by Davidson and his wife, Ally, who used the $100,000 she won after being crowned champion of NBC’s American Gladiator (which she had auditioned for on their wedding day) to launch the now $60 million company, Camp Gladiator’s training sessions were always meant to run outdoors, in public spaces like parks and schoolyards where people could come together and support one another on their fitness journeys. In recent months, Ally had been conducting a competitive analysis of the virtual workout landscape, with plans to roll out their own remote offerings in 2022.
As state-wide shutdowns and shelter-in-place mandates have forced gyms to close indefinitely, casting the $94 billion fitness industry into financial freefall, Camp Gladiator has emerged uniquely poised to profit. While chains like Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy and billion-dollar startups like ClassPass have seen 95% of their profits evaporate overnight, Camp Gladiator’s lack of physical locations and trainer income model (the company’s 1,000 instructors collect 75% of the revenue from their classes) have served as advantages. “Camp Gladiator is like 1,000 small businesses rolled up into one medium business, because each of our trainers are local owner operators that collect the profits of their own locations,” Davidson says.
This alignment they have with their workforce helped accelerate the launch of their virtual offerings to March 16, well ahead of competitors like Orangetheory Fitness. After a week of free #HustleAtHome classes streaming on Facebook Live, they released a 6-week virtual workout challenge for $39 (in-person memberships usually cost between $59 and $79 a month). The quick pivot paid off: Since launching two months ago, Camp Gladiator has gone from 4,000 outdoor workouts a week to nearly 10,000 Zoom workouts a week. It has retained 97% of its customer base of nearly 80,000 and has acquired an additional 20,000 customers and $700,000. The adoption rate has been so high that the Davidsons plan to maintain their virtual offering long term and have been hiring new trainers, many of which were recently laid off from other fitness companies.
“Six weeks ago, we thought we were making a Band-Aid. Four weeks ago, we thought we were making a supplemental product offering that might be worth keeping,” Davidson says. “And now we think we’re making the way forward. There’s a chance that in a year virtual will be our primary product offering.”
Needless to say, fitness isn’t the only industry that’s been affected by the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has taken a significant toll on the majority of America’s more than 30 million small businesses, many of which are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to last the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.
The restaurant industry has been especially crushed. A recent survey conducted by the Independent Restaurant Coalition and James Beard Foundation found that the food services industry only received 9% of PPP dollars, despite accounting for 60% of job losses in March. The National Restaurant Association estimates the restaurant industry lost $80 billion through April and is on track to lose $240 billion by the end of the year.
La Monarca Bakery and Café, a $15 million Los Angeles-based chain described by cofounder Ricardo Cervantes as “if a Mexican bakery and Starbucks had a baby,” expects revenues to drop as much as 40% across his 12 locations this year. “Being that we purposely positioned ourselves in working class Hispanic neighborhoods, we are in areas where the employer and employee basis have been hit the hardest,” Cervantes says. “We have not stopped,” he adds, referring to the work he and cofounder Alfredo Livas have been doing to adapt to the new normal. They’ve kept all of their locations open for pick-up and take-out and reduced all costs and management salaries in an effort to keep the majority of their team intact (about 10% were laid off) and expand their business to include more prepackaged items and family meal options. In response to the needs of their local communities, they started carrying essential items like milk, butter, flour, paper towels, toilet paper and bleach. “Some of our neighborhoods do not have access to large supermarkets or Costco, and if they do, many individuals don’t usually have the resources to stockpile two months of toilet paper,” Cervantes explains. “They need daily goods but in smaller quantities and that’s what we’ve been providing.”
When the duo met as MBA students at Stanford Business School in 2001, they had no idea they would someday be putting their finance degrees to work like this. “We are busier today than we have ever been—and that is not to say that business is great. As the analogy goes, we’re building this new airplane while we are in the air,” he says.
But while the need for social distancing has forced business closures around the world, taking a toll on every sector, some like the wine industry have found somewhat of a silver lining. According to data from Nielsen, wine sales for off-premise consumption during the period from March 1 to April 18 were up 29% as compared to the same period year-over-year, with total alcohol sales for off-premise consumption up 24%.
Kingston Family Vineyards is banking on this trend. Founded in 1998 by Courtney Kingston, the $3 million family-run business is headquartered in Portola Valley, California, with a 100-year-old farm and 350-acre vineyard in Chile’s Casablanca Valley that doubles as a premier tourist destination, one that’s been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for the past six years. It produces just 3,500 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc annually (they sell 90% of their grapes to other winemakers), so when Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of catastrophe on March 19, Kingston lost a significant amount of revenue during what’s been their most profitable season of the year.
With Kingston’s 20th wine-grape harvest of the year well underway, the vineyard shifted to offering virtual wine tastings, shipping bottles to customers in advance. Revenue in the U.S. for the month of April was down just 10% year-over-year.
“Based on these virtual tastings, we’ve made up a lot of revenue with a totally new business,” Kingston says. “Before the coronavirus, hosting guests in an intimate setting was key to how we shared our small corner of the world with others. They’d often become customers for a lifetime. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, we can’t do that. The bright light in the darkness is what we can do.”
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
How This African Animator Is Handling The Virus
Nigerian filmmaker and animator Niyi Akinmolayan is using the most creative way to explain the pandemic to young Africans.
Niyi Akinmolayan was home in Lagos, Nigeria, after the state issued a lockdown for businesses and schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought global economies to the brink of destruction. He had his two children, aged five and three, both at home, who did not understand why they could no longer go to school, an activity they thoroughly enjoyed.
“The three-year-old was okay but I needed to explain to my five-year-old why she could not go to school and I found it tough trying to do this. How do you explain to a child that there is a virus when they cannot see it and also how do you tell them to constantly wash their hands?”
Beleaguered with this dilemma, Akinmolayan remembered his passion for animation.
“I started out as an animator in 2003, but it was a small industry then so I moved on to feature films instead and by 2010, I released my first feature film. I’ve gone on to make films over the years including the highest-grossing Nollywood film The Wedding Party 2 as well as a couple of films on Netflix.”
Akinmolayan founded the animation arm of his company, Anthill Studios, where he serves as both CEO and Creative Director, about six years ago. Prior to that time, most people were using animation for advertising and montages for TV shows, however, he wanted to use animation as a new way of telling authentic stories.
Anthill Studios originally sought to fill the void of a dedicated post production company for Nollywood but has, over the years, ventured into everything from content production, music videos and motion design. Due to the lack of investment for animation content in Nollywood, Akinmolayan has focused more on the commercial viability of filmmaking in Nollywood, where he also wears the hat of film director, to cover the bills.
“But last year, we did something that was quite big and went viral and it was an animation called Malaika, which was a 17-minute short film loosely based on Queen Amina and that was what led to this new animation. So, I set up a team where we can tell really creative African stories with animation. Because there is the issue with funding, we only do short experimental projects to test the audiences.”
One of those projects was a short two-minute explainer video about what the coronavirus was, which immediately went viral. The content was mostly targeted at adults and was done in four languages namely English, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.
“But when it hit me was when the schools locked down. I had to find a way to get the message to my children. It felt like I was doing a lot and it wasn’t sinking in. So I started thinking about it differently and said ‘think about this big virus out there and if it gets mummy and daddy you are not going to see mummy and daddy for a long time; no more chocolate, no more icecream and the only way we can beat this virus is to wash our hands every day’. And it was a joke at the time but I started thinking how else are other parents explaining this to their kids?”
With that Eureka moment, Akinmolayan reached out to all the animators in his company and arranged for them to pick up the workstations in the studio and take them home and begin proving to people the potential of the great work they had been doing in animation for the past six years. They worked remotely for four weeks on the project.
“Initially, we just wanted to make one explainer video so I put it out for free on multiple platforms like Africa Magic, Ebony Life TV and also social media platforms. In 48 hours, we had over 400,000 views. The animation is in four languages and has been made available for people to download and if they want to rework it in any language, they can do it.
“But what it has achieved so far is that it has been shared everywhere including churches and schools and I am proud of it. I have received so much feedback from parents saying that they are running out of soap because their kids cannot stop washing their hands,” he says.
The goal is for other NGOs and government institutions to take up the animation content as part of their coronavirus education strategy for children. He hopes the content will also help parents to engage with their children and explain complex things about the current pandemic.
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