Non-Fungible Tokens about to disrupt Africa art scene

Sacred items, known as vigango, were returned to Kenya and received by Sports, Culture and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed on July 29, 2019 in Mombasa. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

At a time Covid-19 has forced education to the digital platform across the globe, art is moving there by design. Art, on many occasions referred to as a stable currency, is now being tokenised — a process of transferring rights to an asset such as artwork, film and song into a digital token on a blockchain.

Collectively this representation of art in a non-tangible form is known as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) or crypto art collectibles.

But unlike bitcoin where the value of each token is the same and can be used to buy goods and services, each NFT has a different value and cannot be used to procure any goods or services. This emerging digital representation of art provides us with an opportunity to not just transfer ownership in an efficient manner but also create a secondary market in what has been seen as a traditional industry.

In the past concerns about objects of cultural heritage centred around their deterioration, or destruction due to conflict, disasters or vandalism and many got lost in the process. As a result, a 3D reconstruction method for digital preservation of cultural heritage was devised. Therefore, art is becoming a token, its information will be kept in a blockchain ledger and can be bought by a third party who will own the rights. These rights can also be sold in the market.

NFTs are changing the story of these treasured artefacts and that of other creative works. Entertainers, artists and athletes are now finding new opportunities to sell NFTs that have been authenticated through reverse traceability of blockchain transactions.

In Kenya, for example, thousands of priceless pictures, films and stories of sports legends that define Kenya’s history are still being stored in media houses, with some rotting away.

Yet they could easily create wealth for the country if they are digitised. This should also be extended to artists who created the content. It must be emphasised that not even the media houses or artists had anticipated that their arts would gain value at some later stage.

However, seeing how the digitised works of local artists like Vioja Mahakamani, Mother In-Law and other similar works are being shared in multiple channels without regard to intellectual property, it brings an additional concern. Although it was the right thing to do by offering such works free of charge on some online platforms, the emerging scenario of monetising old creative works demand a recognition of the creators irrespective of the contracts they had with broadcasters.

Another concern that requires redress is Africa’s stolen artefacts in Europe. Such art should be digitised for the peoples of Africa to partly share the resources from partial sale through NFTs. It makes no sense for Africa to borrow from Europe when technology has created new opportunities for the continent to recover part of what was clearly stolen in the form of arts. Now that this technology has been embraced, there is need to protect and digitise the past history of Africa before it is stolen by profiteers.

Like any other new technology, NFTs have some weaknesses especially when combined with artificial intelligence (AI). The big challenge ahead therefore is the authenticity and integrity of creators, tokenisers and buyers of the rights. As we say “garbage in garbage out,” the likelihood of recording counterfeited works is likely to increase.

And the role of blockchain in this regard is to record sales and transfers of digital objects and not to authenticate the original representation about the creative work. Already we are witnessing online thieves selling counterfeits of third party works that have been refined with AI applications without knowledge of the owners. With so much creative works out there, it is a near impossibility to trace each one of them to the original creators.

In spite of all these challenges, there is still good value in NFTs. There is need to develop regulated registries that can be used to validate sources and provenance of the works. And, possibly protect the buyers against fraudsters and this can disrupt the creative sector in a positive way.

Ndemo is a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi's School of Business.

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