Microcredit for African art sector: opportunities and threats

June 2008 -

Does micro-financing hold golden promises for Africa's independent cultural sector, or are the two natural opposites? The DOEN Foundation in the Netherlands and Strømme Foundation in Norway are organising a pilot project in 2008 that will study concrete commonalities and test myths.

A meeting was held in Bamako, Mali to kick off the programme on 22 April 2008. Artists and performers met there with representatives from Micro-Financing Institutions (MFIs) to discuss the opportunities and threats of micro-credit for the cultural sector. Some experience has already been gained in this area in Mali, where there is a high demand for more financing for artists and performers. In essence, art there is also less detached from society than it is in many other countries. That makes Mali a good premise for exploring potential. The meeting between these two extremely different worlds was exciting, but their fusion proved to still be far from a matter of course.

There are plenty of needs: a musician hoping to produce a demo, a sculptor who needs a ticket to show work at a biennial, a theatre group that must pre-pay the rent for a theatre. It has been learned from experience, however, that MFIs often find it difficult to assess the quality and potential market for a cultural 'product'. The loans – often short-term – being offered are not attuned to the longer-term demand in the sector. It is also difficult for artists to provide collateral, and that is often the first condition to be met in qualifying for a loan. The cultural representatives and financial institutions energetically brainstormed to find possible solutions.

Inspired by the discussions, Strømme and DOEN are now studying existing experience. Based on that, an actual credit programme will be launched. The results of the pilot will determine whether loans offer opportunities or place too much pressure on the non-commercial cultural sector. Above all, the pilot programme will determine whether obstacles can be overcome by designing new credit products, identifying alternative collateral/guarantees, and training the MFI employees.

Gertrude Flentge is programme manager at DOEN Foundation.