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The digital creative industry in Uganda, like in several other African countries, remains a greatly untapped sector, not only in regard to its structural organization but also in terms of revenues to both digital creatives and the government. Recognizing the immense value this sector holds ought to guide efforts towards its actualization.
Towards understanding the sector
Digital Creative Industries (DCIs) are a subcategory of the larger Cultural and Creative Industries (CCIs), whose terminology stems from the global development agenda's specialized language. Due to the relatively new scholarship in the area as well as the rapid and ongoing technological changes, no single definition of the industry exists.
However, much of DCIs can be understood and viewed as those subcategories of the creative industry that utilize information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their creation, production, and distribution, some of which include advertising, fashion, film, games, music, publishing, architecture, immersive technologies, and the visual and performing arts, among several others.
In Uganda, sector trends indicate a greater occurrence but also a greater proneness to low-level production of digital creative goods and services such as graphics or digital illustration, videography, photography, music, and online content creation as opposed to the sporadic high-level production that includes gaming, film, 3D animation, and the like.
Although data on DCIs in the country remains both scanty and ambiguous, the conditions of the industry starkly stand out as reminiscent of its informality. This is critical to note since this presupposition speaks to the overall experiences and state of affairs of the sector, particularly concerning the possibility of better livelihoods for many young women and men once the structural barriers in the sector are prevailed over.
Sectoral enduring blind spots
Research done by Pollicy in 2022 to map DCIs in Uganda shows that the sector has a lot of structural barriers that have been there for a long time and are still there today with no clear solution, so they are called "enduring blind spots."
Taking into account global estimations of the industry, which point it out as one of the fastest rising components of global trade, but also the fact that the industry employs more people aged 15–29 than any other sector, as well as the Uganda government's revenues from the industry, all in all show the potential the industry holds for both citizens and the government.
For that potential to be realized, however, a number of these critical barriers have got to be addressed first. Key among these challenges is the issue of access to the technologies necessary to create digital creative goods and services, which is predicated on the widespread socio-economic constraints in Uganda that have resulted in the sectoral trends elaborated earlier. Unfortunately, the consequence of this limited access and the resultant predominance of low-level production of digital creative goods and services is low returns since higher-level production, which requires greater investment, still dictates a higher return on investment. It is therefore no wonder that much of the industry remains stagnant at the start-up stages. Access is also hard because the internet and not just the devices are expensive, and sometimes the internet goes down, making it impossible for digital creatives to do their work.
Other crucial barriers include a lack of formal training or professionalism in the industry in Uganda, which is seen along with challenges in the usage of different software and devices. The informality of the industry also contributes to the difficulty in accessing funding for the sector since it's mostly small and medium enterprises that don’t qualify for commercial funding, yet there is barely any government funding for the sector either. In addition, the informality of the sector also renders untenable working conditions for the digital creatives, who barely have any social protections given the absence of or slow response by the government to regulate freelance digital work commonly termed "gig work." This ties in with the public policy surrounding the sector, which is weak and, in some cases, nonexistent or unenforceable, for example, in regards to the current intellectual property (IP) laws in the country.
Lastly, there is a developing issue, which is the emergence of new technologies, which, despite being of some utility in some ways, are also working to further entrench some barriers to the sector in Uganda, like in much of the rest of the world. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), which are disrupting the creative space with, for instance, the capability to generate original art, are proving an issue since much of the data used to train these AI models infringes on the copyrights of several digital artists, in addition to a number of other emergent issues on that frontier. In the absence of an efficient data protection jurisdiction, any chance for the protection of these artists becomes elusive.
Proposed way forward
Even with the problems listed above, there is still a lot of untapped potential in the many opportunities, as pointed out in Pollicy's report on DCIs, which, among other things, has the potential to jump frog the DCI in Uganda. A turn to more high-level production of digital creative goods and services has been posited as one of the key opportunity areas to realize the full potential of the DCIs in Uganda, primarily through greater revenues to both creatives and the rest of the economy. The gaming industry, for instance, is fast growing in the east African region, and tapping into its estimated significant outputs also requires considerable investment. With barriers to accessing funding that limit the growth of gaming and other high-level digital goods and services, the government and other stakeholders, including the private sector, ought to increase funding in this direction. Commercial banks should also make it easier for this mostly informal sector to get money.Aside from the money, though, the country needs to improve its ICT infrastructure so that more people can use the internet. The government also needs to avoid doing things that could hurt this sector a lot, like shutting down the internet, which is a violation of the rights of digital creatives.
Finally, rethinking and enacting more flexible and enforceable IP laws is key to safeguarding the rights of creatives and, in turn, enabling more sustainable ways the industry contributes to the economy. In addition, we need to change our data protection laws to protect this mostly unregulated sector. This is because the deregulation of gig work and new technologies like AI are changing the way data and digital rights work.