Creative Entrepreneurship: Resilience

By Kalkidan Getnet

Picture by Izzat Amanuel

Different times, Different challenges

Art has a long history of being used to speak truth to power as a potent weapon for social transformation, serving as a voice for the oppressed, political propaganda, and a rope in a tug of war between classes. Therefore, naturally, challenges analogous to their surroundings and community emerge.

When we come to Ethiopia, the creative challenges have been influenced by geography, climate, religion, and political instability. Ethiopia’s geography, as a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa bordered by culturally distinct nations, climate, religion, and political history have all shaped the way Ethiopians have represented themselves creatively. Back then, one of the most substantial creative barriers that Ethiopians faced was retaining their culture and identity in the face of foreign dominance without losing their anti-establishment qualities.

Picture by Izzat Amanuel

For instance, Zera Yacob, an artist from the 16th century, used his paintings to confront the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He portrayed the church as corrupt and authoritarian, and he demanded reforms. Afewerk Tekle, a 19th-century artist, used his paintings to highlight the plight of the underprivileged and downtrodden. His paintings were also used to promote Ethiopian nationalism.

In the 16th century, when the country experienced restored wealth and stability, Ethiopian artists created a wide range of works, such as liturgical paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and metalwork. In the 19th century, when the country was exposed to new ideas and influences from the West, a new surge of innovation in Ethiopian art occurred, with artists experimenting with new shapes and styles.

Total Liberation of Africa, 1961. Afewerk Tekle
Picture by Eric Koch

Change bearing challengers.

Before the 20th century, Ethiopian creatives were predominantly influenced by cultural, social, and political factors. Whereas Ethiopian artists today are inspired by a broader spectrum of cultures, including the West, other African countries, and global art, and challenged by the same factors inspiring them, mainly globalization, technological development, and social conservatism. While the political, cultural, and social construct factors remain, today’s generation of creatives is mainly battling economic oppression. With a change in what influences the creative part of the community, the approaches taken towards battling their respective obstacles to produce potential solutions also changes.

What Are Today’s Creative Challenges and How Is The Creative Community Fighting It?

Ethiopia’s creative economy is growing with the increasingly young and urbanized population, a rich cultural heritage, and the rapid advancement of digital technology. This has created new opportunities for creative entrepreneurs to promote their work, reach a wider audience, and interact with others in the field. Social media platforms, e-commerce websites, and digital streaming services have changed the way creative content is consumed and delivered in the country.

Regardless, innovations that serve as a driving factor for the larger global community can also be restrictive to local creatives. How? Globalization is providing Ethiopian creative businesses with a new opportunity to reach a larger audience and engage with foreign partners. Globalization, on the other hand, is growing competition from international innovative enterprises. This is because foreign creatives generally have greater access to resources, support, and opportunities than Ethiopian creatives. Furthermore, while technological innovation is opening new possibilities, keeping up with the latest technology can be costly, time-consuming, and, at times, inaccessible.

Today, the main challenge is sustaining a stable life. For creatives, working a full-time job with Low wages, Lack of opportunities and support is oppressive. As a result, many are choosing to carve their own career path creating businesses out of their art– a practice known as creative entrepreneurship.

Creative entrepreneurship as a means of resisting economic oppression

As a means of responding to today’s challenging times, creative entrepreneurship seems to be this generation’s way of resisting and challenging oppressive socio-economic structures. It is becoming a powerful force for resistance among Ethiopian youth providing a way to make a living and contribute to the economy without relying on traditional forms of employment. In a continent where young people are often faced with limited opportunities, entrepreneurship can offer a way to create their own jobs and livelihoods. It can also be a way to challenge the status quo and create a more just and equitable society. By providing income, promoting creativity, and challenging dominant narratives, creative entrepreneurs can help to build a more just and equitable world.

In addition to this, creative entrepreneurship can build community and communities often increase resilience in the face of oppression. It’s empowering.

“Amidst these gloomy movements, there is by far a more sustainable Me-Us Movement, a meaning-seeking, service-centred youth group that’s into volunteering and community building, and only if we nurture this alternative can we envision a brighter future. And it is because of these circumstances that I believe we are at a pivotal moment to save our community from what lies ahead, and the best we can do as a team is to realize our engagement-centred projects.” Shares Dagmawi Bedilu, a serial entrepreneur with a passion for helping societies solve their own problems.

Modern creatives are among the most potent agenst of change, integrating the abilities of both old and new generations to draw on their extensive knowledge of Ethiopian culture and history while also remaining open to experimenting with new technologies and trends. They are not afraid to question the status quo or to think outside the box. They are also more likely to be exposed to new ideas and cultures, which may make them more receptive to change. This aids their confrontation of established norms which reshapes Ethiopia’s cultural environment by employing new technologies, methods, and ideas. All the while diversifying and enriching the country’s artistic and cultural offerings, making Ethiopia a more vibrant and exciting place.

Haimanot Geremew, founder of Afthoro, makes bold cultural statements from her designs inspired by the Arsi Oromo culture. The design concept came from cultural items such as butter and meal pots made of bamboo and leather containers used in the earlier 1980s, modernizing and making these tools accessible for those even outside the diverse Ethiopian identity spectrum.

Picture courtesy of Afthoro

Creative Entrepreneurship: empowering the next generation

The field can be quite beneficial in terms of empowering young creatives. By giving them access to resources, networking opportunities, exposure to new ideas, encouragement, and support.

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in creative collaboration, fueled by art collectives and other organizations trying to promote the arts in the country. These collaborations have resulted in a wide range of initiatives, including exhibitions, performances, workshops, and more, which have contributed to the art scene’s strong sense of community and innovation.

Zion Yaynu and Naflot Gebeyehu are two creatives who share a passion for art and photography. This passion led them to start the creative space, Studio 11. This was initially intended to serve as a safe space for Zion and Nafkot to practice their craft. However, they soon realized that there were many other creatives in Ethiopia who needed a similar space. They decided to expand the vision of Studio 11 to serve as a platform for all creatives to promote, sell, and become visible. Studio 11 hosts a variety of programs to support creatives. They host seasonal pop-up markets and exhibitions where creatives with small businesses can sell their products and grow their networks. They also offer workshops and training on topics such as marketing, design, and business development. Studio 11 has quickly become a popular destination for creatives. It is a space where they can come together to share their work, learn from each other, and build a community.

Picture Courtesy of Studio 11

Similarly, Dagmawi discusses Chewata Awaki, an initiative that seeks to bring about change through games, as follows “Taking our industry as an example, when we started five years ago, our first game developer’s meetup brought together eight people, including the organizers. Fast forward five years, the recent game jam (game developers meetup) we hosted had around 100 registered participants, showing the exponential growth of the ecosystem. Five years ago, on our game days, a maximum of ten people would come, and only in 2022 have we hosted gaming spots on more than 70 events (we’ve been in all major concerts and parties that have been hosted in Addis) and as of this moment, it has become a culture to see a game section in any public event. Five years ago, there was one game studio in the city, in comparison to the seven-plus studios in 2022. Our Enter Africa initiative brought together youngsters from 15 African countries to develop a pan-African game (Busara) and launch and showcase it at the biggest gaming event in the world (gamescom) in 2019. And it’s only been a few months since a game developed in Ethiopia (Gebe’ta by Qene games) was bought by an international publisher (Carry First).”

Picture courtesy of Chewata Awaqi

Challenges Vs Solutions

Ethiopia’s creative industry is becoming increasingly competitive. This is brought on by a variety of factors, such as: the increasing availability of resources and support for creative entrepreneurs. Still, Ethiopia’s market is still quite modest. This means that creative entrepreneurs have fewer potential customers to reach. As a result, creative entrepreneurs may find it more challenging to expand their enterprise.

“I intended to investigate ready-made garments when I initially joined African Mosaic as a resident because that sector isn’t being explored as much as it should be. The staff urged me to do so, and I pushed forward. Following the completion of the program, I joined with another creative working on leather bags and accessories to launch a shop, which allowed us to lessen the risk of beginning your first business, split responsibilities, and share our consumer base.” Kunjina Tesfaye, the founder of Kunjina Designs shares.

Picture courtesy of KUNJINA.

Poor infrastructure also makes it difficult for creative entrepreneurs to obtain the resources they need to work; materials, tools, and trainings. It can be challenging for creative entrepreneurs to find markets for their work such as obtaining financing to establish or expand their businesses through loans, grants, and investment.

Kunjina adds how most challenges they face as designers are due to a lack of resource, skilled labor, and balancing the brand’s unique vision with community demands. The lack of resources limits production of the desired number of products when hosting shows; investments are neccesary and profits are always a gamble. In addition, as there are very few skilled laborers in the sector; this can compromise their products as they share and sell one client’s designs to another. Aside from these, balancing the brand’s unique vision with community demands is another struggle. When products are too outside the norm, they have a harder time selling. This results in the creation of more subtle designs in order to sell.

Yet, the industry persists. Ethiopian creatives make use of their imagination to solve problems enhance enterprises and change things for the better. They defy conventions and explore new possibilities. This is fostering a new generation of Ethiopians who are self-confident, inventive, and ambitious. A group of people who aren’t afraid to take risks or to dream big. They are a big part of Ethiopia’s future.

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