24/05/2017 10:50 SAST | Updated 25/05/2017 09:37 SAST

From Nollywood to New York, African Vloggers Are Changing The Digital Game

African markets have seen 100 percent growth in terms of viewership in each of the last two years, says YouTube's EMEA Director Ben Wilson.

African vloggers are "killing it", said Nigerian-British online personality Emmanuel Olaniyan at a YouTube4Africa gathering in London. Musicians and entertainers from across the continent and diaspora are "getting millions of views on their videos and leveling out withs with people abroad who have PR behind the channels," he said.

Sharing their personal journeys to digital stardom, vloggers and bloggers spoke of the growing global resonance of Africa-based content and its "game-changing" potential.

Olavian says part of the motivation behind his successful online platform is to show "youngsters that it's cool to be African, to be who you are and live your life... to be proud of your culture and heritage".

"Growing up in the UK, being African wasn't seen as cool. African kids were pretending to be Jamaican. There were times where I tried to celebrate my culture and people would ask why I'm doing it," he said. "I used to hide it and feel the need to pretend I was from the Caribbean, but now I broadcast loud and proud. I incorporate my culture as much as possible," he said.

London-born and Lagos-raised fashionista Esther Areola says a culture shift online is taking hold, adding that it's "about time, on Instagram and YouTube for example, that millions of followers are showing Nigerian food, music, fashion". "It's about time that people recognise you don't need to hide away from saying 'I am African'."

Kenyan, and also UK-based vlogger, Lydia Dinga said she is continually learning about different African cultures and countries but also about her own. "I have only been to Mombasa once. I recently started watching a guy's channel about this place and it's allowed me to discover a totally different space I didn't know existed in Kenya," she said.

A South African YouTube channel mentioned at the gathering as a "creator of note" is Cape Town-based Papculture. The 'proudly South African platform' created by Nwabisa Mda, Thembe Mahlaba and Bongeka Masango features content ranging from how to cook pap and beans to fashion, hair and politics.

Despite access barriers, "individuals and business have reached millions of users in Sub-Saharan Africa and abroad producing videos online,"YouTube's Head of Content Partnerships for Sub-Saharan Africa Teju Ajani said. "Online video is now a key vehicle for self-expression, social and economic development," she said.

'Kids seeing characters that look, sound and sing like them'

Content designed specifically for children has also boomed on the platform, Ajani said. The significance for African children in particular, she said, is that what is emerging is "language appropriate and specific content".

"You have shows in Yoruba, Igbo, Afrikaans, Swahili and more. For children to have this content in their own language is fundamental. The characters look like them, sound like them and sing like them," she said.

Most interesting about the platform is that not only children are watching this content, she said. "People of different ages in the diaspora and all around the world are watching this content for children and even using it to learn new languages," she said.

'All you need is a camera'

"We've seen huge changes in Africa in the last two or three years," Ben Wilson, Director for YouTube's EMEA division, told HuffPost SA.

"There has been over 100% growth in terms of viewership and views in each other the last two years in African markets, most of it on mobile," he said.

"The stories of successes in Africa have been around people who have found global audiences for their content. Exporters like Murphy Ben who work with Nollywood studios in Nigeria are exporting content to the diaspora in London, New York and Munich, developing a business that wasn't there in the past," he said.

He said YouTube has also allowed "anybody to cut through on the basis of their talent" rather than financial or geographical positioning which he says has been "so powerful for the democratisation of creativity".

"All you need is a camera," he said.

'Data costs a major obstacle'

Wilson said, however, he wants to see much more growth for creators who have local audiences in Africa. "The biggest creators still see the majority of their viewership coming from outside Africa," he said. This is not unique to African countries, he said, but a 'rebalancing' is crucial.

The high costs of data and inaccessibility of Wifi, to various extents, across the continent is a major obstacle for the company and creators who are hampered by these issues, he said.

"We have introduced Wifi partnerships with telecommunications operators in African countries and wish to roll out more of these. We are also looking at creating data plans with operators to reduce costs for consumers and producers," he said.

'YouTube Space' in Africa?

Wilson said YouTube is looking into the possibility of setting up YouTube Space facilities in Africa in light of the massive growth in viewers and viewership on the continent.

YouTube Spaces are facilities featuring hi-tech studios, cameras and a range of technical equipment designed for creators to produce content and develop skills. Currently, these facilities have been setup in cities including Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and São Paulo, and -- first in 2012 -- London.

"Setting these up a are a big gamble but they are hugely beneficial," he said. Before a YouTube Space is setup in Africa, Wilson said the company will consider setting up pop-up events similar to what were done in Rome, Paris and Dubai to "test the waters". The events provided workshops, showing people how to build audiences online, use equipment and monetise their content.

"We are always thinking about where the next YouTube Space can be opened. We are looking for potential for huge creators and also opportunities for consumers. So as we look at Africa, these are the two lenses through which we are looking," Wilson said.