A role for universities in building a creative economy

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the creative economy is an evolving concept based on creative assets. It embraces economic, cultural, social and technological activities, linking at macro and micro levels with the overall economy.

[This is one of a series of articles being published by University World News following a workshop in Tanzania in late 2015 hosted by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, CODESRIA, to conclude its Higher Education Leadership Programme, HELP.]

The creative economy – in which higher education has a key role to play – fosters economic growth, job creation and export earnings while promoting social inclusion, cultural diversity and human development. It is a feasible policy option to diversify economies and improve trade and development gains in developing countries.

The creative and cultural industries have been defined as a set of knowledge-based economic activities, making intensive use of creativity as the primary input to produce marketable value-added creative products and services that are centred on, but not restricted to, arts and culture.

They are tangible products or intangible services with creative content, economic value and market objectives. Since these products are able to generate income from trade and property rights, the creative and cultural industries are a new, dynamic sector in world trade.

The Kenyan context

In Kenya one of the major challenges facing analysis of the creative and cultural industries, or CCI, is the absence of hard facts and figures to authenticate the size and scope of their economic impacts.

In a study for the World Intellectual Property Organization, The Economic Contribution of Copyright-Based Industries in Kenya, University of Nairobi economist Dickson Nyariki and others indicated that the total value of copyright-based industries in 2007 amounted to about KES85.21 billion (around US$834 million), which represented 5.32% of Kenya’s gross domestic product or GDP.

The contribution to the country’s total economy by the core industries was KES36.94 billion (2.3%), the interdependent industries KES34.78 billion (2.17%), the partial industries KES6.56 billion (0.41%), and the non-dedicated support industries KES6.92 billion (0.43%).

The entire copyright-based industries contributed KES114.23 billion to the national gross output, representing 3.76% of the gross output. The contribution of the copyright-based industries to GDP in 2007 was higher than that of the agricultural sector (2.3%), education (2.5%), and healthcare (3.9%); and compared favourably with the contributions of the other main sectors of the Kenyan economy such as fisheries (5.4%) and manufacturing (6.2%).

The report lists some of the core copyright-based industries as: press and literature; music, theatrical productions and opera; motion pictures and video; radio and television; and photography, visual and graphic arts, among others.

These industries form part of creative industries that are not featured in any of the Kenyan government’s policy documents reviewed. This illustrates the potential the creative industries have to offer and yet they are only considered as a side sector in government policies.

Numerous challenges

Despite strong evidence of the contribution of CCI to the national economy, the industries face a number of challenges that require attention.

The sector struggles for recognition and support in policies, research and development. But the contribution of these industries can no longer be ignored by higher education leadership and governance. This also calls for new strategies that will make higher education dynamic in the development of the creative economy in Kenya.

A large number of Kenyan youth engage in the creative and cultural industries as an accessible avenue towards financial and economic empowerment, projecting CCI as a new form of youth development and empowerment in a country where youth restiveness and (graduate) under- and unemployment have reached alarming proportions.

One core issue is the need for professionalism, further compounded by limited opportunities for specialised training that could lead to professionalism and career sustainability within the industries.

The educational challenges include: most CCI subject areas are not taught any more as core-curricular subjects in primary school and are not examinable, thereby receiving minimal attention; most of the key subject areas of CCI are not part of the curriculum at secondary school level; CCI does not occupy a significant position in tertiary education; and indeed few higher education institutions train in CCI.

This need for higher education training and consequent professionalism presents itself as one of the major challenges regarding youth empowerment.

Subsequently, the need for institutionalisation – which in this case will refer to the breaking down of the industry into specialised sectors, with a well-equipped human resource base – becomes the next challenge.

For instance, income generation and distribution in the popular music industry is broad-based and far-reaching.

It has job opportunities for song writers, publishers, composers, arrangers, producers, recording and marketing companies, printers, hardware manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of music recordings and instruments, studio and stage sound engineers, musicians, singers, dancers, promoters, talent scouts, entertainment writers and showbiz consultants, stage designers, lighting crew, structural engineers, advertising practitioners, media houses and many more professionals.

Well-developed, professionalised and institutionalised creative and cultural industries will boost tourism potential. The Kenya music festivals and the Kenya drama and film festivals, among others, are tourist attractions that can generate revenue.

Potential interventions

There are various levels of intervention aimed at enhancing the role of the creative economy in Kenya:
  • • The most important responsibility for the government is to facilitate the development of creative and cultural industries. Most developing countries are strapped for cash and thus unable to finance facilities required for sustainable industry development.

    But the government could: enforce legislation for streamlining the industry; provide tax incentives for investors in local CCI; establish systems to ensure investors feel comfortable and safe in the local operating environment; eliminate corruption and other forms of extortion; focus efforts on bilateral trade agreements to ensure greater and easier access to markets for local CCI; and include creative and cultural subject areas in education to provide for talent development from an early age.

  • • The role of educational systems throughout the process of developing creative and cultural industries is threefold: technical training; preparation for professionalisation; and preservation of heritage. There is need to train both the practitioner and the educator, because it is in professionalism that many creative and cultural practitioners in Kenya fall short.

    While creative talent may be in abundance, professionalism in creative expression is often in short supply, hence a need for teaching the particulars of business in the CCI, including contracts, performance rights, scheduling and punctuality, marketing and general administration. It is important for creative industries practitioners to understand the critical link between professionalism and their ultimate success as artists.

  • • Research and development will lead to improvement of the creative economy. Effective programmes will only be informed by data on both tangible and intangible creative and cultural products. This will guide the formulation of a systematic way to refine the industry within the context of economic development for sustainable growth.
The preservation of heritage is an often-overlooked aspect of CCI development. Local artists tend to adapt to the creative style of artists who originate from larger markets, thus stifling or completely eliminating the creative output of indigenous populations.

This places the artists in a difficult competitive environment. Additionally, apart from the commercial and economic importance of preserving indigenous creative heritage, a clear link has been demonstrated between societies that possess a strong sense of national pride and a reduction in other social ills, such as crime.


Our research observes that despite their great potential, the creative and cultural industries are not adequately explored as a form of economic empowerment in Kenya. It concludes that the process of empowerment should begin with training, which will lead to professionalism and career sustainability.

Professionalised creative and cultural industries will ‘midwife’ institutionalisation of specialised sectors, which research has shown will become an engine for growth, development and economic empowerment for industry players.

In tandem with the research of Mark Schultz and Alec van Gelder into the creative development of poor countries, this study contends that the Kenyan government can support creative and cultural sectors primarily by providing a stable legal foundation and business environment.

This role in fostering an enabling environment is crucial, but creators and creative industries must do most of the work. Ultimate success will come from unleashing the genius and initiative of individuals. Based on the knowledge that talent flourishes in difficult conditions, there is every reason to believe that it can help transform local economies if properly encouraged.

Visionary leaders of higher education institutions must design institutional frameworks within their academic discourse and governance systems that will become an enabling environment for exploiting creative and cultural industries.

A focus on grass-roots solutions is in keeping with much recent thinking on development, which calls for more context-specific, results-oriented, entrepreneurial projects that empower locals.

Improvements in the following areas would remove many obstacles to building local creative industries: prioritise creative industries; foster private capabilities; enact copyright laws that benefit local creators; implement and enforce intellectual property laws effectively; privatise and enhance royalty collection; and reduce taxes and regulatory burdens on the music industry.

Dr Donald Otoyo Ondieki is chair of the department of music and performing arts at the Technical University of Kenya, vice-president of the Pan African Society of Musical Arts Education and coordinator of the Kenyan Creative Arts National Working Group. Professor Emily Achieng' Akuno is executive dean of the faculty of social sciences at the Technical University of Kenya.