FOR JUST over a year now, Henley Business School Africa has been busy training filmmakers across the continent, 60 of them in fact, drawn from 13 countries.
It might seem a strange fit for a business school, but it actually makes perfect sense. If creativity and innovation hold the key to Africa’s development, then film making is one of the best places to start: making sense of the fourth industrial revolution, a world which is unfolding in uncharted and often unpredictable ways right in front of our eyes.
Multichoice Africa had chosen to invest in developing local talent rather than keep on spending millions buying ready-made international content. It was a decision that made both creative and commercial sense developing content that would be unique and resonate with local markets. They chose Cheryl Uys-Allie to drive the project and she came to us to help design the academy that would develop the film-makers identified by the talent factories she was setting up in Lagos, Lusaka and Nairobi at an academy setting in Johannesburg at our campus.
Henley’s task was to blend the left brain with the right brain, to meld creative acumen with commercial acumen to let these incredibly talented though formally unschooled filmmakers understand how money works to vitalise a project rather than make a profit, to understand that money is energy for a creative force that needs to continually grow itself to be sustainable rather than spend itself. We brought in our design thinking, systems thinking, business skills to work with
the young filmmakers in a really rigorous process that included techniques of filmmaking, story presentation, narratives, all aspects of production as well as how to run a business, finance and entrepreneurship.
I have had the privilege of knowing Cheryl for years, she’s a powerhouse documentary maker and adventurer who’s flown herself across much of the world. We met when she did her MBA at UCT’s Graduate Business School where I was the director for the Executive MBA. We put our most dynamic people in the room, like Puleng Makhoalibe, our head of Henley ICE (Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship) who had an immediate rapport with the young filmmakers while I enjoyed great chemistry with Bobby Heaney who ran the Talent Factories and well-known Nigerian filmmaker Femi Odugbeni.
The hallmark of the process was a lot of reflective learning, a lot of conversation and a huge amount of immersion. Innovation is critical for Africa’s development but all too often it’s handled in the most perversely un-innovative manner imaginable. People tend to create panels which hear the ideas and then immediately filter them into achievables, killing the entire process. When I ran an innovation hub in New Zealand, I learnt that innovation doesn’t work like that. It’s only by tussling and understanding the limitations of your own knowledge – and kicking against the establishment in the
process – that you actually start to learn. Part of that journey by definition might involve failing in what you attempt, but that’s when you start to succeed.
We found initially that many of the students were worried about not impressing us so they limited themselves – and did fail, turning in substandard work until we enjoined them to serve the creative gods not the course leaders. When they started doing that, the results really were breath taking – in every sense of the word – and inspiring. The thing about creativity is that you can’t predict the outcome, otherwise it wouldn’t be a creative process. How you manage this is often quite problematic for business schools, corporates and indeed governments.
If you want to be able to stimulate creativity you have to understand the complex drivers that make the emergence of creativity more likely. Treating it like a mill where you put something in at the one end, crank the handle and expect stuff at the other, only guarantees that you will waste a lot of money. Real innovation is a little like having a nuclear reactor with endlessly controlled explosions, the question is how you generate the energy and channel it without suppressing it.
But if creativity and innovation are so critical to the development of Africa, and indeed South Africa, how do we go about inspiring it? American urban theorist Richard Florida, who wrote the Rise of the Creative Class, did a lot of research trying to find out why some regions were more creative than others – and he found it had nothing to do with incubation centres or the money spent trying to encourage creativity, but rather what he calls the three T’s: the availability of talent and technology and the prevalence of tolerance in any given place. Where all three of these exist there’s a great possibility that you’ll find a melting pot of creativity.
He further showed the level of tolerance in a region could be revealed by three more indices: the presence of a bohemian community, an alien community and a gay community. When you look at this you can see how America was great once and how Australia and New Zealand are great – all three being predominantly immigrant societies, unbound by the expectations of legacy and needing to flourish to survive. It also helps explain why Africa has the problems it has because of colonialism and the suppression by one group of another, rather than groups of people who made new lives for themselves.
Increasing tolerance, increases diversity which in turn inspires creativity, but you can also have societies like South Korea, Singapore and Rwanda which put a very high premium on the technological structure, while limiting the creative disruption. The economic successes of these states speak for themselves. In Africa, where you want to stimulate creativity you look for cities where these indices exist and the obvious answers are places like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi – and probably Kigali, albeit for different reasons. It’s infused what we tried to achieve with the talent factories; you need provocation and conflict to inspire creativity, because without it there is none.
Everyone has learnt so much out of this project, us academics and educators as much if not more than the young creatives. All of us have been imbued with the same goal: to prove that there are great filmmakers in Africa and to shout the greatest heresy of all from the rooftops that they are as good, and one day soon will be better, than their peers in Europe, Bollywood or Hollywood. We have been able to show that there can be magic in logic and vice versa – in fact, if we are to thrive in this brave new connected world, there has to be both.
Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director Henley Business School Africa