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Africa is the last frontier market for games, and it’s starting to pick up a lot of momentum, according to game-focused managers at graphics and AI chip maker Nvidia.

I spoke about the emergence of Africa’s gaming ecosystem with Kate Kallot, head of emerging areas at Nvidia, and Ike Nnoli, senior product marketing manager for graphics and simulation at Nvidia. And they’re encouraged at what they see, with the continent’s studios surpassing $500 million in value in 2021.

They’ve been helping educate game developers in the fledgling market, and they’re identifying game studios that are advancing the industry in Africa. Andreessen Horowitz and Google recently led a $20 million investment in South Africa’s mobile game publisher Carry1st. But Nvidia has also identified mobile game studios such as Ghana’s Leti Arts and Kenya’s Usiku Games, which were highlighted in a recent Nvidia GTC event.

Kallot joined Nvidia in October 2020 with the aim of focusing on the African market.

“We wanted to expand to developers in regions we had not really touched before including Africa,” Kallot said. “We started to engage with African developers at large. We originally started with AI and data science developers. And we quickly realized that the AI innovation other grassroots innovation was coming from developer communities.”

These studios and others are connecting with the hyper-connected African youth population, which uses mobile phones as their primary computing devices. These topics will be highlighted at Africa Games Week in South Africa on February 23 to February 25.

Nvidia signed up more than 30 developers in Africa. But as Omniverse — the metaverse for engineers — emerged, Nvidia started reaching out to communities in gaming and animation.

“Africa in general is a mobile first emerging market. It’s recently been exploding in the past few years, due to a convergence of many things, with mobile technology proliferating through the continent, as well as the the group of gamers coming of age with the wealth to buy games,” Kallot said.

Last year, the communities met with Nvidia at the Siggraph graphics online event and discussed what was happening in Africa. They told Nvidia they needed support and other encouragement in Africa, Kallot said. The communities included African game developers at the Nairobi Game Development Center, the Digital Arts Living Lab in Tunisia, and other organizations. Kallot’s team runs a monthly educational meetup.

“Everything was starting from a grassroots standpoint. So we opened that program to them and started to engage and organize educational opportunities,” Kallot said.

Clear potential

A character from Africa’s Legends Legacy, an upcoming game from Leti Arts,
based on the Moroccan character Aisha Kandisha.

Africa is the youngest region in the world. Sixty percent of the continent’s population is under 25, and by 2030 the UN predicts the youth population to Africa will increase by 42%, Nnoli pointed out in a blog post. Disposable incomes are rising and high-speed internet connections are proliferating, too. 

He wrote that Africa is projected to have more than 680 million mobile phone users by the end of 2025, driving a surge in the number of gamers. Across the region, 177 million, or 95%, of gamers use mobile devices. As a result, Africa is the fastest-growing region for mobile game downloads, according to mobile insights firm App Annie. 

Usiku Games and Leti Arts are among the new generation of African game developers who are pioneering games that connect with the experiences, challenges, and histories and cultures of these gamers. More studios are being formed in Nigeria, Morocco, Uganda, Zambia, and Madagascar.

“What we’ve actually started to do is engage with most of the thought leaders on the continent,” Kallot said. “And we realize that those gaming studios are pretty small, and it’s very fragmented as a market. But we have a WhatsApp group that has more than 500 people on it. And that’s how we congregate. So it’s all grassroots.”

12% annual growth rate

Sponge Bob: Krusty Cook-Off is a hit for Carry1st in Africa.
Sponge Bob: Krusty Cook-Off is a hit for Carry1st in Africa.

But the potential is clear. Each is developing mobile games aimed at educating youth on a continent where 41% of the population is under 15. 

The timing couldn’t be better. Market research firm Mordor Intelligence expects gaming revenue on the continent to grow at a 12% annual rate through 2026 compared to 9.6% for the entire world. 

The progress is built on the backs of the pioneering companies. In Africa, those are new. In places like Finland, companies have been working on games since the 1980s, and they have a huge ecosystem now with thousands of game developers. In the U.S., the legacy goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s a huge industry. But I’ve seen regions around the world develop home-grown game businesses, and wrote a story on where the game jobs are in 2017.

But Africa got its start late, with the first game developers emerging around 2009. Now its time is coming, Kallot said. Nairobi-based Usiku Games has created a title called Okoa Simba. Usiku Games is determined to reach younger audiences with educational messages that are embedded within compelling games and animations.

“Our games directly influence the knowledge and behavior of youth on topics such as gender-based violence, mental health, sexual and reproductive health, education, and peaceful resolution of conflicts,” said Usiku Games founder and CEO Jay Shapiro, in a statement. “One of its projects includes working in Unreal Engine with Nvidia technologies to
create a 3D game focused on HIV prevention and contraception for teen girls.”

Shapiro is a native of Toronto, Canada, and he has lived in Singapore, New York, Mexico, and Cambodia.

“For game developers such as myself, this is about making something that will capture the imagination and inspire vulnerable youth in Africa, and all parts of the world,” said Shapiro. “I want to  create rich, visually compelling stories that impact and serve the next generation.” 

Shapiro said in an email to GamesBeat that only three regions are big enough to have the potential to have more than a billion gamers: China, India, and Africa.

In 2019, Africa already had 350 million internet connected smartphones. That’s more than all of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico combined. It’s also more than all of Europe. The GSMA forecasts Africa will have 680 million smartphones by the end of 2025. Africa also has the fastest-growing middle class globally. But the region still needs a lot more game developers, as most of its studios have well under 100 people.

Still, they’ve been busy. Shapiro is aware of more than 200 game developers who have collectively made more than 100 games across the Nintendo Switch, Steam, Epic Games Store, Android, and iOS.

Local content

An image from Lual Mayen's Salaam game, which is still being readied for the worldwide market.
An image from Lual Mayen’s Salaam game, which is still being readied for the worldwide market.

As in other parts of the world (eg: Latin America & East Asia) Africans have a preference for locally produced content and games, Shapiro said. Language, cultural elements like soundtracks, colors, and characters make a big difference, he added.

As the first gaming studio in Ghana, Leti Arts, founded in 2009, uses Nvidia graphics chips to help build mobile games and digital comics based on African history and folklore. 
 
“Games with African settings made by Africans are the best way to cultivate a sense of cultural authenticity,” said Leti CEO Eyram Tawia, in a statement. In 2016, Tawia wrote a book Uncompromising Passion: The Humble Beginnings of an African Game Industry (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform). 

A comic and computer game enthusiast since junior high school, Tawia was a Mandela Washington Fellow, the flagship program of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative. He wanted to turn the stories he’d heard and drawn as a child into immersive experiences. 

“Art and culture contribute just as much to an economy as jobs,” Tawia said in a statement. “They help increase a community’s social capital, attracting talent, growth and innovation.” 

The nine-person company’s most successful games include Africa’s Legends (2014) and The Hottseat (2019).
 
The long-term vision for Leti Arts is to make games from Africa for the world. Tawia says the high quality of its games enables gamers to better relate with the games and content being produced. 

The continent is home to a growing number of game studios. In addition to Usiku Games and Leti Arts, the studios include Maliyo Games, Kirro Games, Kayfo Games and others. 

More games, and game developers, are coming. Tawia and Leti Arts have worked to mentor talent through internships, boot camps and workshops. 

Last year Leti trained and supported over 30 game developers in partnership with ITTHYK Gaming and sponsored by Microsoft. 

Both Usiku and Leti Arts, which are members of Nvidia Inception, a global program designed to nurture cutting-edge startups, are also exploring Nvidia Omniverse for real-time 3D design collaboration, AI-powered animation and game development. Inception started for AI developers and it has expanded to include game companies.

As part of Nvidia’s emerging chapters program, the developers get hardware grants, they get access to tools, they get special educational opportunities, hands-on trainings, workshops, and access to Nvidia’s Deep Learning Institute. Developers also get a lot of free software.

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