HIVEWIRE #11: Divine Verkijika from Mutumbu on Unlocking Cameroon's Musical Landscape

In our recently published market report that surveyed Cameroon's musical landscape, we highlighted the industry's challenges and opportunities.

HIVEWIRE #11: Divine Verkijika from Mutumbu on Unlocking Cameroon's Musical Landscape

In our recently published market report that surveyed Cameroon's musical landscape, we highlighted the industry's challenges and opportunities. Our publication titled ‘Cameroon Music Opportunity’ is the first in a series of Hivewire Reports in which our platform sheds light on the unique qualities of various emerging markets to promote a comprehensive approach to identifying gaps and encouraging optimisation of opportunities through informed decision-making.

‘Cameroon Music Opportunity’ was produced through the sponsorship of Mutumbu, a leading music agency in Cameroon. To parse through some of the observations of the report, assess the need for such interventions and predict its intended impact, we spoke to Divine Verkijika; founder of Mutumbu, director at Lionn Productions Record Label and digital licensing & international relations lead at Cameroon’s collective management organisation SONACAM

(The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)

Mayuyuka Kaunda: Greetings. Thank you for joining us to share a summary of the Cameroon report and, I suppose, lend it a more human voice.

Divine Verkijika: Thanks for having me.

Mayuyuka: So we’re going to ask a few questions about the report just to contextualise it, but before that, tell us a bit about your story and your journey in the music industry.

Divine Verkijika: So I started in about 2007. Like most young people, I guess. I was first recording as an artist. Somewhere along the line, because of an added urge, I did a lot of work with civil society and got active with collective management issues. From there, it was music publishing and artist services. Today we have Mutumbu, along with other projects I’m involved in. 

Mayuyuka: When did you establish Mutumbu… when on that journey did you realise the need to make it a formal thing?

Divine Verkijika: I've made it a formal thing a couple of times! It was first fully formalised in 2013.

Mayuyuka: And why did the process have to be done a couple of times? 

Divine Verkijika: Sometimes it's education, the choice of collaborators and the foundations of the business structure itself so, yeah. 

Mayuyuka: That's actually a great segue as we begin to talk about the actual report. One of the things that stood out - that maybe a lot of emerging markets share - is the lack of quantifiable data. From your standpoint, what can be done to solve this?

Divine Verkijika: I try to look at it from a very practical point of view. I don't know if it's in everybody's business that data is properly available. But I mind my business first with is for the acts I work with, and whatever project I'm on, I try to ensure that we have that at the minimum I’ve tried to engage with the CMO a couple of times on projects geared towards in the data related space - whether it's membership registration or registration of works. In Cameroon, the CMO doesn't really treat that as a priority, sometimes because of limited funds and sometimes because of limited resources. For example, it's quite difficult to train CMO staff in Cameroon, but I think it begins with every artist ensuring that their data is well done, at least for themselves. What comes after that is what we’re working on. 

Mayuyuka: Some of these processes still need to be updated and require in-person engagement. Would it be easier if they were just made digital?

Divine Verkijika: I think it's a little bit more complex than that! I'll give an example: I currently handle digital licensing and international relations with our CMO. The current software solutions we have don't permit online registration. We’re using the WIPO, and it’ll still be a while before they add a public front-end to their system. A while back, we reached out to SAMRO, (Southern African Music Rights Organisation), who have a great system and were open towards maybe leasing it to us. The whole concept was for experienced CMOs like them to be able to help us because building from scratch makes no sense. 

Mayuyuka: That would be great, and they can probably benefit from it too, by opening up the markets they serve, right? 

Divine Verkijika: Exactly, because we are already in reciprocal agreements with them, and it just makes business easier for everybody.  

Mayuyuka: That brings us to our next point in terms of the idea of unified efforts. There’s a divide between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon. How does this backdrop affect the cultural sector?  

Divine Verkijika: Unfortunately, really, I think there's a problem of diversity management by the government. I believe the bilingual nature of the country could actually be a strength for the country. I think, practically, it's the only English and French-speaking country in Africa. The English part of Cameroon was administered through Nigeria for about 50 or more years, and the French part of Cameroon was within the French market. It's sad because it's also geographically separated.

Like talking about Afrobeats, we have some crazy good young Anglophone artists who do Afrobeats and ’till now, we haven't figured out the formula for them to survive within the country because the general Afrobeats culture is in English, and the Anglophone population is only 20% of the country. So, it’s always like, do you sacrifice to win over the rest of the country or do you try to see if you can succeed beyond its borders? Apart from things like that, I think our diversity could be an asset.

Mayuyuka: How was this problem dealt with in the past (before Afrobeats took over)?

Divine Verkijika: Back in the days for the older generation of this Afro thing, as we can call it, was simple. We just added a bit of French, mixed French and English, and that was the pop music of the time. But Afrobeats went global, and people are now like, ‘Why should I add French to it when, practically speaking, no French song has gone global?’. And with the colonial thing, France maintains its world position through Francophone countries and sees them as extra provinces of France, if I can put it that way. So, even the way their policy is designed is to make sure that we represent France in whatever sense. It does have its advantages, though. For example, I'll bet you it's far easier for professional musicians to get into France, even compared to other African countries. 

Mayuyuka: I guess the idea of what language and culture look like speaks to the branding of a nation. But let’s talk about brands in the traditional, commercial sense.  Can you share a little about the role alcohol brands play in the cultural ecosystem?

Divine Verkijika: Basically, they and telcos are the first to really sponsor big events.

When you compare it to other countries, it sounds like nothing, but looking at the context of the country, it makes a great difference. There are also ongoing talks on how these brands can get more involved with CMOs to make collections easier. 

Mayuyuka: This brings two aspects of music together - both brands and artists are sustained by fans, so let’s touch on what role fans play in Cameroon.

Divine Verkijika: The report talks about interacting with platforms, interacting with playlists and stuff. Cameroonian fans are passionate - they are really hungry to see the industry grow and see music from Cameroon be part of the global conversation. As small as the country is, from time to time, we do get to be part of these conversations. Whether it's recently from boxing with Francis Ngannou, Joel Embiid in the NBA, Kylain Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain or in music through Manu Dibango or LIbianca’s song “People”.

These are great successes but tend to lead to a lot of pressure from fans on artists.

The reality is a little bit complicated for artists because getting that far requires a lot of resources to move at a global scale, and by resources, we also mean human resources. So, on the side of the artists, we have a lot of challenges because we build audiences easily, but moving to a fully dedicated fan base is always tricky. 

Mayuyuka: The report highlights the role DJs used to play in helping spread music and also connect to the fans in a real way.

Divine Verkijika: Exactly. I think that's a whole challenge for this generation of artists: how to get people from the internet, evoke emotions and form those lasting physical connections.

Mayuyuka: And it's not gonna get easier with the explosion of technology like AI, is it? Do you see that as a threat as well? 

Divine Verkijika: Yeah, but I don't think we have a choice. Changing is always going to be difficult, but we have the obligation to build those communities. I think whoever subsists to build out of that space is going to be the person who wins market share.

Mayuyuka: Now that we've discussed a bit about what the report covers, tell us about your overall goal. Why did you commission this market report, and what were you trying to achieve?

Divine Verkijika: I think we are in a very unstructured market, and while the report is useful to me, I think it also helps to start placing clear discussion points on the table as compared to the regular random unfounded discussions that never lead to anything.  Something that's also addressed in the report - one of the things we are trying to do is build business models, companies or artist case studies that can become a reference for other generations to come.

Mayuyuka: Were there any surprises while you were going through the final report? Things you maybe hadn't thought about or paid much attention to before? 

Divine Verkijika: It’s made it easier to pitch our market so fast! I can now make quick references to specific things and pull things of interest—also, the potential for Makossa as a sound to sell the country.

Mayuyuka: All in all, you sound quite upbeat…

Divine Verkijika: The future can only be better! I’m very optimistic.

Mayuyuka: On that positive note, we’d like to say thank you for sharing your time and insights with us, Divine.

Read The Full 'Cameroon Music Opportunity’ Hivewire Report Here

Listen To The ‘Makossa Revival’ Playlist Here