Yonatan Assefa is a freshly minted 23-year-old college graduate living in Addis Abeba and an enthusiast of mobile phone games.
Kukulu, the local 3D mobile game, is one of the games he was introduced to by his friend and he enjoys playing it a lot. His first impression about the game was how familiarly it looked Ethiopian.
Kukulu is a game about a chicken on its way to being slaughtered on a holiday morning by her farmer owner. The chicken, played by the gamers, escapes and runs for its life away from the small farm, roams through a suburban city and finally enters an enchanted forest.
The character, scenery and the music in the game are wholly local and familiar to Yonatan, which tempted him to download the game on his phone.
“The hen and the old farmer, I felt like I knew them already,” said Yonatan.
The app is created by Qene Technologies, an 18-month-old local software startup founded by Dawit Abraham, Henok Teklu and Samrawit Demeke.
The young trio hail from visual arts, music production, software development and marketing professions, and it took the team almost a year to develop the game.
“I grew up watching animations and cartoons with foreign characters,” said Dawit, the CEO of the company. “This was very unfortunate for me.”
This is what triggered Dawit and his colleagues to create content where Ethiopian children can grow up learning and understanding Ethiopian values from media and digital platforms.
Since its launch in April 2018, the game app has been downloaded over 1,000 times on Google Play. But the figures from Google Play do not give the full picture as many Ethiopians share apps through Bluetooth and other sharing platforms like Xender.
According to Dawit, 60pc of the downloads are performed by local players.
“People from other African countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa have downloaded the app,” he told Fortune.
Beyond creating local characters, the developers of the application aim to generate revenue by monetising the application.
The game is downloaded for free, enabling gamers to play the first level, but anyone who wants to download the full version has to pay 0.99 dollars.
Kukulu is not the only digital platform to have brought local characters on board. There are other comedy sketches, cartoons, animations and short videos sprouting up and turning the art form mainstream.
Jember, an Ethiopian comic book, is another entrant to hit bookstore shelves portraying local characters.
Jember, produced by Etan Comics, tells a story that’s very familiar to the local young generation. The story follows the footsteps of a young college graduate named Amanuel, a character who goes through life looking for a job and trying to build his career.
Etan Comics is an entertainment platform dedicated to providing African superhero stories.
“Most of our stories are based in Ethiopia and feature Ethiopian characters,” said Beserat Debebe, founder of Etan Comics. “Through the day-to-day life of the characters, we present Ethiopian values.”
It took between six to nine months for Etan Comics, based in the United States, to finalise the 32-page book. The book, printed in both Amharic and English, is sold for 150 Br.
“Since we are a small team and our resources are limited, a project usually takes us longer,” said Dawit.
Many bookstores, like Jafar Bookshop in Leghar, have displayed the book, which has become very popular since its publication in April.
“A lot of people are buying the book, not because they see it on our display,” says Million Girma, a salesperson at Jafar bookshop, “rather, after they have heard about the book through word of mouth and social media.”
The store displayed the book two months ago and sold 50 books until mid-month in September. This is despite a slow trend in the market for comic books, according to Million.
Though the first animation with an Ethiopian character, Sinzero, was released two decades ago, there were scarcely any releases with a local touch and tone.
In recent days, however, it has become commonplace to see artwork with local themes and characters. Companies now have Ethiocentric logos and use local art in their advertisements.
Habesha Brewery uses an image of one of the most iconic and ancient painting images as its logo.
The first ever 3D (three-dimensional) Ethiopian animation is Ethiopiyawinet, a movie made for kids by Prism Film Production in May 2017. There are many other funny or humor-based animations with adult themes.
AZG TV, a YouTube channel dedicated to making funny Ethiopian jokes, is one of the players in these creative art forms.
The channel has 14,000 subscribers and its videos have been viewed over a million times. The episodes at AZG TV usually place Ethiopian celebrities in odd situations.
The animators of AZG TV started animating as a hobby, working out of their dormitories while studying at Meqelle University. After graduation, they focused on their creative work and opened an office in Addis Abeba.
“We grew up watching shows like Family Guy and South Park,” said Robel Birhanu, one of the founders of AZG TV. “Those TV shows inspired us to show the Ethiopian audience that animation is not only for kids but can also be for adults.”
“It can address social issues and send a message,” he adds.
He believes that YouTube has encouraged and created a big platform for content creators all over the world, especially for artists.
They are working to monetise their animations by uploading them to YouTube and using the income to support their animation work and develop the company.
YouTube roughly pays up to 2,000 dollars for a million views of a video, based on the number of ads run on the uploads.
From the sidelines, experts state that this new art with local characteristics and branding elements play an enormous role in representing the country’s culture and tradition.
“The sense of our identity has been inscribed in us at an early stage, and the culture and environment were big factors,” said Seble Haile, a counselor and a psychology lecturer at Addis Abeba University. “Whenever we experience images that represent our identity, we will be moved to gain a sense of pride.”
Various players in the Ethiopian digital industry agree on one thing: the need to create a platform where artists, IT professionals, gamers, story writers and investors can meet and work together.
Qene Technologies, in partnership with IT hub Gebeya, hosted a hackathon game on September 15 to 16, 2018 at Gebeya Academy Sinan Building in Bole District.
The two-day Hackathon, named EthioHacks V, provided the attendees with a chance to network with professionals and industry leaders from different fields in the gaming sector inorder to collaborate and create games.