Popular Characters Re-invent Traditional Carving

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The popular cartoon characters from the long-running series The Simpsons are breathing new life into traditional African stone carvings.

A traditional craft in many cultures, carving adds value to local resources and provides an excellent source of income for local artisans and entrepreneurs. While wood or stone carvings are a popular tourist souvenir throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, most carvers stick to traditional subjects.

However, a group of villagers in western Kenya have transformed their economy by swapping carvings of elephants and Cleopatra for Homer, Marge and Sideshow Bob.

According to the book Carving out a Future by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), carving exports from the island of Bali in Indonesia total US $100 million per year. India’s industry is worth US $65 million. In Oaxaca, Mexico, carvings earn US $2,500 per household, increasing access to education and health. In Kenya, carving involves more than 60,000 people and provides household income for more than 300,000. In some communities in South Africa, households can earn between US $500 and US $2,000 per year from carvings – 80 per cent of a household income.

Research into carving has identified several factors that are critical to maximising profits: quality is critical, and the best woods and stone must be used. Diversity is an important element: too much of the same thing being made available damages the market. And sustainability: the wood and stone resources must not be used up.

It is this novelty and diversity that The Simpsons carvings address. By tapping into the global market for official licensed merchandise, the Tabaka carvers of the Abagusi tribe – well-known carvers in western Kenya – have significantly increased their income. And they are cashing in on the global popularity of the first Simpsons movie released this year.

Tabaka is a village three hours by bus from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. In Nairobi, the carvers would sell their soap stone carvings to middlemen, often for a pittance compared to what they would in turn charge tourists. Negotiations with these vendors could take days and waste the precious income of the carvers as they waited around for the deal to come through.

Craft Village UK has organised the carvers to produce Simpsons statuettes for the worldwide market. The carvers were able to win the official merchandise license from The Simpsons’ owners, Twentieth Century Fox, after its vice-president saw a video of the carvers. They were initially awarded the license to craft 12 of the show’s characters for the US and UK markets, but last month they gained the worldwide license.

Craft Village’s founder, UK-based Paul Young, had the idea three years ago when his sister returned from living in Uganda with soap stone carvings. Impressed by the quality of the workmanship, he thought they would sell better in a western market if they reproduced popular images from films and TV. In 2005, he made contact with the carvers through a crafts company in Nairobi. He sent initial plastic figurine models and photos to help the carvers get the statues right. He flew to Kenya in 2005 to meet the carvers for the first time and video the carving process.

Initial prototypes were too heavy and some would break. And it took 12 months of trial and error to get the quality high enough to approach Twentieth Century Fox.

“Familiarizing the carvers with The Simpsons was difficult,” said Young. “Making the carvers understand the importance of quality control and the need for benchmark standards and uniform carvings was – and still is – a challenge.”

“I don’t know who they are,” said Pauline Kemunto, who helps her husband with the carvings. “But I like them because I earn from them.”

In a community known for growing bananas, David Atang’a, master carver and former soldier, supports five children. “If this Simpsons project succeeds, I hope to educate my children in university,” he said.

Two groups of 15 members each are divided between Tabaka Master Carvers and Tabaka Classic Carvers. Women take over and wash, polish and shine the pieces. Each piece is numbered and signed (Craft Village UK products).

The carvers now make 450 Kenyan shillings per statue (UK £3) – between four and six times what they would have got for a traditional carving. Where work before was sporadic, it is now regular and employs 80 people. The extra income means the carvers can now send their children to secondary school.

Enosh Onsombi grew up with no electricity and no television. But since the community started carving the Simpsons characters, “Life has changed so much,” he told The Independent newspaper. “The Simpsons has changed everything.”

Published: October 2007


Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.

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Freaky – The 70s Meant Something

By David South

Watch Magazine (Toronto, Canada), June 8, 1994

It was the decade of the happy face, bell-bottoms, avocado fridges, disco and the Bay City Rollers; in short, the 70s was a pimple on the ass of history, better evaporated in a pot haze on a waterbed. Not so says 70s-obsessed author Pagan Kennedy, who believes the much-maligned decade is the victim of a bum rap perpetuated by the idolization of the 60s.

Kennedy says the 70s saw all the radical ideas and culture of the 60s go mainstream and mutate in a way the hippies couldn’t imagine.

Social relations and culture were profoundly reshaped during this decade as the non-traditional family took form, women flooded the workplace and unions became rich monoliths.

The social turmoil spawned blue collar red-necks with Confederate flags customizing fuck trucks – vans complete with waterbed, eight-track stereo, bong and sleazy airbrushed exteriors of naked women –  to cruise the nation’s highways enjoying the liberal sexual values while keeping conservative political views. Sexual liberation for these clowns consisted of bumper stickers saying “Ass, gas or grass – nobody rides for free!”. Kennedy remembers it all too well.

“This was the midst of the energy crisis, so big cars that wasted a lot of gas were really cool,” she says. “I guess it came out of the whole drug culture, sex culture thing. It was like a basement kids have, only it was on wheels – a party on wheels. It’s not just the mattress for the fuck truck, you’re supposed to be doing your bong hits in there – so the police can’t see you.”

Sex holidays

“Our lives are much more constrained than they were in the 70s,” continues Kennedy. “I think the 70s must seem like an exotic time to grow up in. One of my favourite parts in Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is when the characters want to take a sex holiday to 1974.

“There was a lot of obsession in the early 70s with swingers and wife-swapping. It was the one time when suddenly the sexual revolution was kicking in, not just for white, privileged college kids, but for everybody – for the working class. There were discos and orgy clubs. There was Plato’s Retreat in New York City where you would go in and there was an orgy in full progress.”

In music, the 70s rocketed between extremes. There was nauseating soft rock, concept albums and “progressive” rock. There was the outrageous glam, with artists like Slade and Gary Glitter jacked up on elevator shoes in sequin one-piece flare suits. There was disco and punk. But the sickest phenomena says Kennedy was corporate rock.

David Cassidy

“In the 60s, people were just learning how to package rock and make it a big corporate thing. By the 70s they had learned a lot. The Partridge Family was a group that was entirely fabricated. David Cassidy had a bigger fan club than Elvis. This was a guy who didn’t become a rock star until he went on TV. In the 60s, FM was alternative radio – you could play anything. Corporate guys got their hooks into FM by the 70s. They were formatting. It was no longer what the DJ wanted to hear. You were getting playlists. The money came from big rock concerts, so there was a desire to push these mega-groups and superstars.”

Another truly 70s phenomena was TV as social conscience. Before the 70s, TV variety shows focused on pure entertainment. But now writers, directors and producers schooled in the 60s political milieu were in control.


“All in the Family, Maude and Good Times were all part of the same world. All in the Family acknowledged the deep rifts in American society – America was at war with itself. Yet it did it in a soft enough way to not offend people.”

US blacks had been ignored until the civil rights struggle of the 1960s woke up a dopey white America. In the 1970s, blacks were being portrayed like never before in the media and popular culture. But all of this awareness took a twisted turn.

“I think what happened among blacks was they saw their leaders either killed or put in jail. And that was devastating. Blacks really turned to electoralism in the 70s. A lot of black people started running for office. While trying to change things from outside the system, they realized the price was too high. A lot of black people were involved in making those blaxploitation movies, but so were a lot of white people. Shaft and Superfly are like the bookends of the genre. They were really made by black filmmakers. But then there were all these ripoff versions starring football players – whitebread ideas of what black culture was like.”

Pagan Kennedy’s latest book, Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s, is published by St. Martin’s Press and available in most book shops. She’s got a really cool collection of eight-track tapes and drives a yetch! 1974 Plymouth Valiant.

Her website is here:

“Tripping on 70s Culture”: Watch Magazine was published in Toronto, Canada in the 1990s. “The Bi-Weekly Student Perspective on Culture, Issues and Trends.”
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Riverwood: Kenyan Super-fast, Super-cheap Filmmaking

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The African film-making success story of Nigeria’s Nollywood has been joined by another fast-rising star: Kenya’s Riverwood. Both are beneficiaries of the digital revolution in filmmaking over the last decade, and both are using low-cost digital filmmaking and editing to tell local stories — in the process making money and creating thousands of jobs.

The power of creative industries to create jobs and wealth has been a focus of UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity. UNESCO has been in the forefront in helping African countries re-shape their policies to take cultural industries into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

What is particularly attractive about this phenomenon for the poor in the South is its rough-and-ready approach to filmmaking: combining low-cost digital cameras and film editing software on personal computers, with small budgets and fast turn-around times. Films are made on location using local people. These factors make getting into filmmaking accessible and within reach of more people.

Riverwood is named after River Road, a bustling creative and business hub in Nairobi. Riverwood operates at a furious pace, with 20 to 30 films made every week. It adds up to 1,000 films a year selling 500,000 copies at 200 Kenyan shillings (US $2.60) a piece: 1 billion shillings (US $13 million) in the past two years.

The whole industry is totally self-sufficient, and is following the well-trodden path laid down by Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

One of Kenya’s woman directors is leading the renaissance in filmmaking. “Movies are very important because I think they are the most important art in Kenya – in Africa,” said Wanjiru Kinyanjui in the film, “Riverwood, the Blooming of a Film Industry,” by the World Intellectual Property Organization ( “Basically, because Africans have an oral tradition, and a visual one, there is a huge market for local films.”

Riverwood films share a common characteristic of on-the-spot sets and a resourceful and cheap approach.

“They are shot in two, three days and edited in a week,” she continued. “They are selling because people can identify with them. The films being in Riverwood are basically the lives of people, reflecting the Kenyan way of life and entertaining Kenyans. “

And it is a new form of employment for many people:  “When I am making a movie, I need people: you employ very many people. And you also employ yourself. It is a real way of getting rid of poverty. Because all this talent, which is untapped, could be working.”

And as Riverwood rising star director John E. Maina puts it: “Hollywood is the model for any society that wants to develop.”

While still in its infancy compared to Nigeria’s Nollywood, Riverwood is already pioneering ways to protect the creative rights of filmmakers and build a financially-sustainable industry. Inspired by Hollywood’s ownership of creative material, Kenyan filmmakers have come up with some ingenious solutions. Each production company has a rubber stamp and signs on the sleeve of the DVD (digital video disc) – even if it is 1,000 copies.

If a director finds a pirated copy, and even if pirates have forged the rubber stamp, the signature will look like a forgery.

“It is based on a business model,” said director John E. Maina. ”It is commercial. So it is self-sustaining. This is how Bollywood is growing, this is how Nollywood is growing, this is how Hollywood developed.”

As pioneers in copyright protection, Riverwood directors strongly believe they are an important part of the country’s development.

“When you pirate a product, and the resources are not channelled back to the person who created that product, he is losing out on creating a new product for you tomorrow,” said Maina. “So you are the loser: tomorrow you will not have another product.

“Riverwood, Nollywood, Hollywood, are the model for any society that wants to develop. No society will develop without an audiovisual industry. And I think the way to protect an audiovisual industry is through strong copyright laws,” he said.

“If you go to most of the cafes and the pubs in Kenya, people only turn to TV at 7 o’clock, watch the news, after the news is over, they tell the management to put for them the local DVDs from Riverwood. Because they see themselves, they identify with those images. They don’t identify with the foreign American films, the soaps from South America.<

“The audiovisual industry is a mirror. If you don’t have a mirror to see yourself, you don’t know who you are. If you don’t have that mirror to see yourself, you are lost.”

Published: November 2008


  • The global charity Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and empowerment of women) has projects to teach women filmmaking skills. Website:
  • Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Television de Ouagadoogou 2009: Africa’s biggest film festival. Website:
  • Naijarules: Billing itself as the “largest online community of lovers and critics of Nollywood”, an excellent way to connect with all the players in the business.Website:
  • A film by the World Intellectual Property Organization about the Riverwood phenomenon and an introduction to its up-and-coming directors. Website:


Cited in The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film by Sonja Fritzsche (2014).

Accentuating the positive: Building capacity for creative industries into the development agenda for global intellectual property law by Sean A. Pager, Michigan State University College of Law, American University International Law Review, 2012

Cinema as cultural discourse: A study of cultural symbols in selected contemporary Gikuyu comedies by Stanley Mbugua Njoroge, School of Creative and Performing Arts, Film and Media Studies, Kenyatta University, 2019

Other Film Stories

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Boosting Tourism in India with Surfing Culture

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Tourism has experienced decades of growth and diversification and is now considered one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world. According to the UNWTO – the United Nations World Tourism Organization – modern tourism is “a key driver for socio-economic progress.”

The scale of global tourism means it rivals other sectors, such as oil exports, food products and automobiles in terms of economic clout. With such an important role to play in global commerce, it has become a top income source for developing countries in the global South.

International tourist arrivals grew by 4 per cent in 2012, reaching a record 1.035 billion worldwide (UNWTO). Emerging economies led the growth in tourism, with Asia and the Pacific showing the strongest gains. Tourism outpaced growth in the wider world economy in 2012, contributing US $2.1 trillion to global GDP and supporting 101 million jobs (WTTC).

“2012 saw continued economic volatility around the globe, particularly in the Eurozone. Yet international tourism managed to stay on course” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. “The sector has shown its capacity to adjust to the changing market conditions and, although at a slightly more modest rate, is expected to continue expanding in 2013. Tourism is thus one of the pillars that should be supported by governments around the world as part of the solution to stimulating economic growth.”

One country that has found tourism becoming a key contributor to its national income is India. The country’s travel and tourism industry is now three times larger than its automotive manufacturing industry, and generates more jobs than chemical manufacturing, communications and the mining sector combined (World Travel and Tourism Council).

Indian Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai called for the sector to create 25 million new jobs over the next five years and it is hoping to grow the market by 12 per cent by 2016 (The Economic Times).

Travel and tourism now contributes 6.7 billion rupees (US $124 million) – or 6.4 per cent – of the country’s total GDP (gross domestic product). The sector supports 39 million jobs directly and indirectly.

But competition for global tourist dollars is fierce. As more flight routes open up – Africa for example, is seeing new airlines and routes emerge every year – a person looking for somewhere to holiday has an ever-growing range of options to choose from. Will it be Africa this year, or shall we go to Asia?
One way to attract tourists and gain an extra edge in the global travel marketplace is to show imagination and innovation. Being different and novel can be the clincher for a tourist, especially one who is widely travelled and is searching for new experiences.

In Southern India, the state of Kerala is well known for its ayurvedic medicine ( and food tradition going back centuries, combined with its laid-back beach culture. It is a heady combination that successfully attracts many people, who come to relax and boost their health.
Now, Kerala is offering a new dimension to this experience: surfing. Surfing is a water sport involving a person riding ocean waves (, usually on a long board. India has enormous and mostly untapped potential as a surfing destination, with its hot weather and 7,000 kilometres of coastline.

Soul and Surf ( in Golden Beach, Varkala is within walking distance of the Varkala Cliff tourist area and an hour away from the closest major airport, Trivandrum International Airport.

The founders of Soul and Surf, Ed and Sofie Templeton, were captivated by “surfing warm, empty waves, eating wonderful fresh, cheap seafood, practicing yoga and receiving ayurvedic treatments”, according to their website.

“Enchanted by India’s magical, spiritual atmosphere, the warmth of the local people and the raw natural beauty of the area,” they set up a combined surfing and yoga retreat in 2010.

They have become part of a growing surfing scene in Kerala, and an increasing awareness in the country that its long ocean coastline is perfect for water sports.

As surfing grows in India, the owners wanted to create a business that supported the local area, particularly coastal fishing communities surrounding Varkala.

They have also expanded to run a luxury surf and yoga retreat in Sri Lanka and guided trips to the Andaman Islands.

Soul and Surf was inspired by the Surfing India Surf Ashram (, a 12-hour trip up the coast from Surf and Soul in Karnataka.

Their so-called “Surfing Swamis” have discovered the best places to surf in India and are spirited champions of the whole surfing lifestyle. A swami ( is a Hindu male religious teacher.
Surfing India promotes adventure sport in India and was started in 2004. At the time, surfing in India had a very low profile. Surfing India offers a sophisticated experience to travellers, including Wi-Fi Internet access, vegetarian food and all the equipment required.

All the staff are volunteers and work for room and board. Profits are plowed back into keeping the surf ashram going and helping its activities, which include adventure tours, a surf camp, surf school, yoga retreat, bodyboarding, snorkelling and wakeboarding.

The Surfing Swamis Foundation is a non-profit organization whose goal is to “teach surfing and environmental awareness to children, orphans, and handicapped persons of any age or gender.”

It also sponsors the All India Surf Team for boys and girls across India.

Published: April 2013


1) India Surf Festival: Taking place at the beginning of the year. Website:

2) A guide to the best places to surf in India. Website:

3) Surfing Federation of India. Website:

4) United Nations World Tourism Organization: The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. Website:

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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