A Game Design Pioneer in Ghana Tells of the Challenges and Constraints of His Work | D + C
Digitization is advancing in Africa. Despite many constraints such as poor infrastructure and funding, a new generation of tech entrepreneurs is advancing. One of them is Eyram Tawia, co-founder and CEO of Leti Arts, one of the first companies to develop computer games in sub-Saharan Africa. He shared his ideas in an interview with D + C / E + Z.
What does your Leti Arts business do?
We create digital games and comics in African contexts with African storytelling. We have offices in Accra, Ghana, and Nairobi, Kenya, and we have 10 full-time staff. We are creating superheroes and placing them in fantastic worlds in Africa in the near future. This is the basic idea. We have created a computer game called African Legends which will soon be followed by an advanced version called Africa’s Legends Reawakening. We also have a publishing platform called Afrocomix. It is an application that we use to sell products such as wallpapers, short animations, comics or graphic novels. About sixty creators share their content on this platform. Consulting is our third major activity. You can hire us to design a game or app for you. This is how we fund the development of our games at the moment.
Can you give me an example of an application that you created for an organization?
We have created applications for several organizations. Some are funded by United Nations agencies, civil society organizations, government entities, the World Bank and others. The games deal with serious topics such as malaria prevention or reproductive health education. One example is the myjorley.com interactive story games platform. Players make choices about sexual and reproductive health. This consulting branch is very important, that’s how we generate income. Gambling is still very low in Africa and it is very difficult to make money from it. All the game developers on the continent are still struggling to make money.
So what’s your longer term sales plan?
We are in discussions with partners in the film and publishing industry who are interested in purchasing some of the rights to our superhero games. We have exciting stories to tell and create exciting games. We believe that Africa’s Legends Reawakening, our new game, will unlock revenue once it’s ready. Until then, we have the income from our other products.
Why is it so hard to make money from games? It’s a huge industry in the western world.
Gambling is a new industry here in Africa. So far, a domestic industry hardly exists. We raise awareness of new options and want to help change mentalities in a positive way. To do that, we have to create the right ecosystem, and that takes time. It is really important that our games are created here in Africa, despite all the difficulties. The major challenge is the skills. There are hardly any universities or even high schools that teach game design. Africa needs to train more people. We are part of the change and want our games to compete on a par with American games. We focus on local expertise and talent.
How do you improve skills?
I am a full time game developer. I try to be a role model and want to encourage other people to be role models as well. When we started making games in 2009, we were pretty much the only ones. That’s why I tell my story and even wrote a book about it. I want to be a positive example, encouraging others. My own approach was to learn by doing, which can be very effective. But we also need to train young people in this area. Years ago, I founded a non-governmental organization that focuses on education. It is called “Steam Africa” which means “science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics”. We use the game design process to teach computer science because making a game involves all relevant skills including programming and software design. On the other hand, the arts are also relevant to story writing and artistic work. We teach authors to write stories for a digital product.
How to join your program?
We do not yet have a formal structure. But I am in the process of setting up a partnership to see how we can organize formal vocational training. I have presented the idea at conferences, and I have tested it in several countries, including Zimbabwe, Ghana and Belgium. I have taught different target groups – adults, university students, children. I think my approach is good. Now in the age of Covid-19, I have been teaching online for the first time. Our company also trains interns.
What about the formalization of skills training?
As far as I know, very few universities have started game development courses. I know of one in Kenya and one in South Africa. I think a lot more universities should be teaching computer science and game design. In my university, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), as far as I know, I was the first to create a game. I wanted to prove that it can be done in Africa. After me, more students started play projects. In addition, governments should have a fund for gaming companies, as the Finnish government has. Finland is a giant in the games industry. They are making a lot of money. Africa should do the same. African businesses could become a huge force globally. We have great potential, we have 1 billion people and the youngest population in the world. In the United States, the gaming industry is larger than the film and music industry combined. If it is possible there, why would it not be possible in Africa? The opportunity is now.
Are you not worried that foreign companies will come and take over the market?
No, I am not afraid at all. We think we are going to be partners. Foreign companies cannot succeed without us. We know our people and understand our markets. But it won’t happen overnight, you have to be patient. It will take us maybe ten years to catch up with the world market. But it will certainly happen. We’ve seen it with fintech and other tech industries. They have grown rapidly on the continent in recent years. M-Pesa started making mobile financial transactions possible in Kenya in 2007.
Is the infrastructure good enough in Africa?
No, but things are getting better and better. In some regions, infrastructure is still a problem, especially in the countryside. But devices like cell phones are there. Today we have better access to technologies thanks to 3G / 4G internet and much better coverage than 4-5 years ago. Speed is still a challenge in some places, but it will improve too. In addition, data pricing remains very expensive. But we must stop complaining now and act. We no longer have to sit and wait.
Are you happy with the way the African tech industry has developed?
I am not only satisfied, I am amazed at how innovations spread despite the many constraints. I have colleagues who have made agriculture more attractive through agrotech initiatives. For example, farmers in remote areas can check the weather. I have colleagues who have made healthcare accessible through online applications. The interesting thing about the gaming industry is that it empowers other industries as it takes advantage of all sectors. So, once the game can bring in the money, it will work. And we are on a promising path. The industry is getting very exciting now. We have over 40 design studios across Africa. They are in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria, Uganda and Ethiopia. And we are connected to each other. We are involved in running a project with three other companies and funding from GIZ. It shows how studios can work together and produce great content. It’s a revolution to have a lot of Africans creating African stories.
But funding is still an issue, right?
Yes, this is a problem. Prior to 2009, we tried to secure funding for most of our gaming projects, but it didn’t work because getting funds from traditional banks and individuals into a gaming company is a big risk. However, funding bodies like MEST that invested in us when we started in 2009 have come to set certain standards in the space as we still don’t get loans or other services from most of the players. of the financial sector in Africa. Although it remains difficult as we have never raised funds since 2009 due to the same high risk factors and reluctance to invest in the space. We know it would be difficult, so we are not trying to aggressively raise funds. We operate by generating the money we need from our consulting branch. But from this year, we really want to attract financial investors to develop our business. It makes sense now that we have the right products and generate income. So far, we don’t have a fixed business model, but we need it to grow faster.
So, are you sure your African superheroes will sell out?
Yes. Unfortunately, we had to delay the launch of Africa’s Legends Reawakening for almost a year, in part due to funding issues. But we are confident that we will be able to deploy the first version soon. And we have a real success story. In cooperation with one of Ghana’s leading telecommunications companies, we have released a trivia version of the game. It is called “Hottseat” and is doing very well. I think this will turn out to be one of the revolutionary African business revenue generation games.
Tawia, E., 2016: Passion without compromise. The humble beginnings of an African video game industry. North Legon, BKC Consulting.
Eyram Tawia is CEO and co-founder of Leti Arts.