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Africa’s Mysterious Mobile Gaming Industry

At first glance, a description of African market realities may sound like a mobile game developer’s dream. A continent where two-thirds of the population are under the age of 24 and where smartphones are dominating as the most popular internet access platform. It is a place of unprecedented creative freedom due to a vacuum in competitive gaming companies on the market and low production costs compared to foreign countries. So why does coming across an African games developer today still seem about as likely as seeing an elusive African penguin?

Primarily, it is an issue of communication. Global mobile game revenues have surpassed those of consoles and personal computers, reaching an estimated $36.9bn last year. The African and Middle East regions were the highest growing in the world with an astounding 26.2% growth rate compared to last year. The demand for games in Africa is growing fast. All the more in countries with a higher level of digital development like Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Digital innovators are moving on from focusing on fintech products and exploring how to use digital in healthcare, education, insurance and, of course, game development. Last year 7 of the 47 Microsoft Imagine Cup game development semi-finalists were from Africa. Sadly, much of this information remains under the radar as this burgeoning sector’s exceptional story is unpublicized except for the occasional web article.

This is not to say that mobile game developers in Africa have it easy. Just as in so many other areas, Africa’s sector-skipping development has created a unique system of practices. Perhaps one of the most important of these for game studios is the method of payment. Games in Africa tend to be offered on a subscriber basis via individual mobile phone providers rather than simply through the App Store. This means developers have to go to various telecoms to ensure they reach their whole audience. Due to its early stage on the market, there is also little data on what African gamers want. This obstacle forces developers to cast a wide net, producing everything from strategy games to fueled action storylines. However, this also gives them a great degree of creative freedom. Some, like Cameroonian newcomer Kiro’o Games’ ‘Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan’, search for African themes. Others, like South African games developer Free Lives, focus their product on a wider and easier accessible western market.

Outside orientation is another significant reason for explaining how successful African game developers have remained so unnoticed in recent years. Most of their games are marketed on the world stage, rather than the African market, which is still underfunded and underdeveloped. Game designers are also able to live relatively well in Africa even on minimal Western salaries. Sometimes, like in South Africa, grouping together, with their earnings allows them to rent houses large enough to include a Jacuzzi or swimming pool while using the property also as an office. This idyll is perhaps a little too much for the general African public that does not see games as a viable, nor respectable career. Yet another cultural obstacle is connected to the lack of storytelling which keeps young developers out of the industry.

African games are not only themselves victims of a lack of effective storytelling; they are themselves untapped storytellers. If harnessed properly, they could not only be a booming sector on an increasingly digitalized continent, but also one of the main bridges through which outsiders could learn more about Africa’s progress at a time when it is especially important that the world knows Africa is open to business.

By Thomas McEnchroe, Switzerland