Digital Lab Africa Looks to Incubate Next-Gen Talent

French media partnerships aim to boost digital, multimedia production

JOHANNESBURG — When Greg Kriek and John DeVries arrived at Discop around this time last year, they were developing a transmedia project for an ambitious series that merged interactive game-play with traditional narrative storytelling.

The South African duo took part in the pitching competition hosted by the Digital Lab Africa, a new initiative that was established as an incubation platform for African creatives working in digital and multimedia production.

Forged alongside partnerships with some of the biggest names in French media, the 2016 edition handed out awards to projects in the categories of virtual reality, web creation/transmedia, digital music, video games, and animation.

After winning the web creation/transmedia competition, Kriek and DeVries received mentorship, development support, and a cash prize to help jump-start “Reborn: The Triptych,” their action web series. Mentored by the likes of Arte head of digital development Gilles Freissinier, the duo traveled to France, took part in incubators in Paris, and were the first African project ever selected for the prestigious Cross Video Days. Returning to Discop a year later to discuss their experiences with the DLA, Kriek says, “In the space of less than 12 months, it’s been an incredible journey for us.”

The duo aren’t the initiative’s only success story. The first edition of the DLA has also led to a Lagardère-produced animated series, Ayodele Elegba’s “Area Daddy,” which is in talks with major broadcasters, and the first French-South African VR co-production, Yetunde Dada’s “The 7th Turn,” which was developed with NY-based artist Shariffa Ali and is on its way to Tribeca and Sundance.

A year later, the initiative is focused on “bringing in new partners, enlarging the concept, and developing the international cooperation,” according to Erika Denis, regional head of media, film and music at the French Embassy in South Africa.

The DLA announced its second call for applications in Johannesburg this Wednesday, with Christophe Farnaud, French ambassador to South Africa, marking the official launch, alongside Véronique Briquet-Laugier, cultural and cooperation counselor for the French Embassy; Olivier Laouchez, CEO of urban music net Trace; Christophe Thoral, president and CEO of Lagardère Studios; Alexandre Rideau, of Dakar-based Keewu Productions; as well as 2016 winners Kriek and DeVries.

The deadline for applications is the end of February 2018, although details for the next pitching competition have not been finalized.

While French support has been a driving force behind the DLA in its first year, Denis says its ambitions have a wider scope. “What we are trying to achieve is to create a real network and allow those projects to get strong visibility internationally—not only in the French market,” she says.

Along with expanding from five to 12 winners in its second year, the DLA is determined to bring more local partners into the mix. Each of the selected projects will have both French and African mentorship, so that they’ll be able to benefit from “the expertise of two different ecosystems,” according to Denis.

That expertise was invaluable to the development of “Reborn: The Triptych.” “The incubation was quite vital, not only in terns of developing the concept, but also focusing on a lot of key features that are relevant to the market,” says DeVries, noting how the process allowed them to refine both narrative and technological challenges for their interactive, choose-your-own-adventure-style series.

“We were able to chat to actual key players in the market…who have made interactive films before,” adds Kriek, allowing them to see where past attempts have failed and then “go back to the drawing board.”

The result is a hybrid that includes gaming elements for audiences who want to interact with the series, as well as a traditional narrative for those who want to watch as a linear series. The duo also decided to incorporate elements of virtual reality. “We want to put ourselves at the forefront of where digital media is going,” says DeVries.

For all the challenges facing content creators in Africa, there are advantages to working on a continent where “mobile technologies are taking over,” according to Keewu Productions’ Rideau.

The content ecosystem in Africa is tailored to mobile; on a young continent with less of a reliance on traditional distribution platforms than other parts of the world, content producers are already thinking “digital first.”

“Where are you going to find [African audiences]?” says Rideau, who is mentoring Elegba through the development of “Area Daddy.” “You’re going to find them on the web. You’re going to find them on mobile.”

As delegates bustled around the Sandton Convention Center this week, Denis talked about efforts to develop an African Silicon Valley in Johannesburg, centered around the University of the Witwatersrand and its digital hub, Tshimologong, which has forged a partnership with the DLA.

Launched last year, the hub is an effort to encourage tech innovation, as well as foster collaboration between the public and private sector. Tightly integrated with a recently established IBM Research Lab, Tshimologong is positioning itself as a start-up incubator and business accelerator in the economic engine of the continent’s biggest economy.

Through the DLA, Denis envisions a partnership that will connect Tshimologong to French companies, academic programs, workshops, and incubators. “What we are trying to achieve is build bridges between the two markets, and foster co-productions and collaborations,” she says.

CREDIT: Daylin Paul

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