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South Africa Leads Continent’s Cartoon Boom

Expansion in African animation serves up world-class toons to international audiences

When the South African delegation arrives at the Annecy toon fest, members will be looking to cement their growing reputation for world-class animation.

“For South Africa, it’s a great year,” says Veronique Encrenaz, head of projects at Annecy’s film market, noting that the country has a feature in competition for the first time, a special territory focus, and a case study for the animated feature “Khumba” as part of the fest’s conference program.

The country’s emergence reflects a broader trend across the continent, as animators from Morocco to Madagascar are showing increasing sophistication in a range of animation, from traditional cel animation to CG, stop-motion and 3D.

“I’m surprised with the results I see every day,” says Mohamed Ghazala, head of the African chapter of the Intl. Animated Film Assn. Despite a lack of formal training, little government support and difficulty in getting private investors onboard, “Young people are using the digital tools they have on the computer and they (are starting) to make their own animation,” he says.

There have been successes both big and small. “Tinga Tinga Tales,” which was produced by the U.K.’s Tiger Aspect Prods. and the Nairobi-based “Homeboyz Animation,” aired on the BBC’s children’s web, CBeebies. Nigeria’s “Bino and Fino,” by the design studio EVCL, has shown in the U.S., U.K. and South Africa.

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“The Adventures of Zambezia,” from South Africa’s Triggerfish Studios, was submitted for Oscar consideration and has so far grossed $23 million in more than 70 countries; the studio is following up with “Khumba,” in competition at Annecy this year.

Another South African hit, Sunrise Prods.’ TV series “Jungle Beat,” is being distributed in more than 170 countries.

Still, few countries have managed to build viable industries. Egypt is a regional powerhouse in the Arab world, exporting content across North Africa and the Middle East. South Africa is finally beginning to tap into the international co-production market, and could soon secure a competitive niche alongside more established industries in Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The waters are murkier between Cairo and Cape Town, however. In recent years, Annecy has highlighted features and shorts from Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and other nations — but “nothing is organized yet in (most) countries,” says Annecy market’s Encrenaz.

Still, there are signs that governments are slowly coming around. In Kenya, a tech-friendly administration introduced a $4 million grant to support the development of local digital content. Across the continent, governments are increasingly incorporating animation software into their school and university curricula, addressing the lack of formal training institutes, according to Harry Ravelo of Toon Boom Animation.

The bigger challenge now is securing the type of investment that would allow the pockets of activity to coalesce into sustainable industries. Risk-averse investors, who across Africa have traditionally shied away from more proven cultural properties such as live-action film, are unlikely to put their money into animation until it can offer returns.

As animators begin to develop their own intellectual properties, they’ll look to tap into the growing demand for homegrown content across Africa, where new television stations are constantly appearing and pay-TV subscriber bases continue to grow.

“Our primary market is Africa, because we think it’s a viable market,” says Kenya’s Kwame Nyong’o, who will be pitching a TV series, “Meet the Jembes” (pictured).

At the same time, the large number of Africans in the diaspora — and the fact that “humor is universal,” as Nyong’o puts it — means that African animators can have a global outlook as well.

“If Africans can watch ‘The Simpsons,’ why can’t Americans watch our shows?” he asks.

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