Posted on

Trace takes Nigeria’s Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters global — Quartz Africa

Afro-Urban entertainment powerhouse, Trace, has begun distributing “Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters”—a Nigerian feature-length 3D animated film—after inking a deal with Hot Ticket Productions to distribute the film globally.

In May this year, Trace’s distribution arm inked a deal with Hot Ticket Productions to distribute Nigeria’s first feature-length 3D animated film, “Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters”, worldwide – opening the door to a potential global audience for an animation that was conceived in the home of a Nigerian geologist.

Securing this circulation channel gave the animated movie a new lease of life at a time when Covid-19 has kept millions of people from stores, restaurants, and movie theaters.

Trace markets itself as a studio and distributor that collaborates with both emerging and established talents to generate premium afro-urban content for leading digital platforms with a potential audience of 400 million fans in 160 countries.

Distributors like Trace, who hold rights for television channels, mobile operators, video platforms, aerial, and maritime video services and cinema are a critical component of Africa’s movie industry and Trace’s acquisition of “Lady Buckit” was a vote of confidence for the quality of the animation film, which has now been nominated for Annecy Festival 2021.

Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters joins other African animation projects that are attracting global interest

Trace asserted in the film’s admission that “the animation film is booming in Africa thanks to the determination of real enthusiasts for drawing and animation.”

“The release of the first Nigerian feature-length, cinematic animation film, Ladybuckit and the Motley Mopsters, opened the doors to animation in Nigeria,” Trace said.

With “Lady Buckit” gaining industry traction, the film’s executive producer Blessing Amidu is chalking up her first win in the animation industry. For Amidu, however, making the movie meant a lot more than just the production. It also meant an entire career change, pivoting from geologist to filmmaker.

“They may seem like two separate worlds but in fact, they are not. The ‘Art’ is who I am and the ‘Geologist’ was whom I had to become to survive,” she explained in an interview.

Amidu launched the groundbreaking film in December, 2020. Set in pre-colonial Oloibiri, Delta State in South-South Nigeria town where crude oil was first discovered in commercial quantities in the 1950s – a curious eight-year-old gets accidentally gets transported through time only to encounter a band of highly unusual characters who change the course of her destiny.

The movie’s premiere wowed Nigeria, and has been winning global accolades from both movie buffs and critics. Despite its relatively low budget, the anime grossed more revenue in Nigeria than the well-oiled, Pixar’s animated fantasy comedy-drama film, Soul, which hit the cinemas around the same time.

Adebisi Adetayo, who directed the movie from the story developed by Stanlee Ohikhuare says that the animation movie is proof that a great film doesn’t have to mimic Hollywood to be phenomenal.

“Lady Buckit” transcends generations, with both kids and adults able to relate with both the storyline and the characters.

Its success, despite being released in the midst of a raging global pandemic suggests a coming of age of a new genre from Nigeria’s much-touted “Nollywood” film industry.

“Lady Buckit” also came hot on the heels of backlash of Disney having very few Black characters. The animation features Black characters in their different shades of skin tones. The movie’s dialogue also proudly incorporated Nigeria’s vernaculars Ijaw, Pidgin, and Yoruba in addition to English.

The animated film featured voice actors including veterans, Patrick Doyle, Bimbo Akintola, Kalu Igweagu, newcomers Kelechi Udegbe, Awazi Angbalaga, and child actors, Jessica Edwards, David Edwards, and David Akpapkwu.

Every story coming out of that place [Niger Delta] has been that of violence, deprivation, suffering, and poverty for people living in that region. So coming up with this story sort of changes that narrative.

Amidu narrated how one evening while watching a cartoon with her children she felt inspired to create.

“It all began with just spending time with my kids, just having family time…I began to discover real-time that my kids exhibited the same mannerism as the cartoons,” Amidu recalled.

“I began to have ideas just play around in my head and that is how ‘Lady Buckit’ was born.”

From a young age, Amidu had always been mesmerized by the animated fairy tales of the world like the 70s’ Voltron: The Defender of the Universe, and her favorite Bigfoot and Wildboy. To create her own was a special feeling.

But it was not smooth sailing. The film production suffered several hiccups, top being cash crunch and assembling a team to breathe life into the movie. After about two years and around $40,000 spent and no progress made, Amidu miffed but determined, considered paying American or Asian firms to produce the film, but then Adetayo emerged.

“It had two production failures. I was meant to direct the movie while it was being produced in India. But then I asked an I see the script of what I am going to India to direct…When I was showed the synopsis of the story, I told them point-blank that this movie can be produced here in Nigeria. He was cut out of the project immediately,” Adetayo recalled.

“I was told we have we have already spent cash and there was nothing to show for it and now you are telling us it can still be done in Nigeria?”

Coming back to Africa, no part of this production was done out of Nigeria. You can take this production anywhere and it will be able to fly. Nobody thought we could do animation, leave alone 3D animation.

Three months later, he received a call from the director of M-Net’s Shuga series, who set up a meeting between him and the “Lady Buckit” producers, for him to demonstrate how the film could be produced in Nigeria. He did so and less than a year later, the movie was on the country’s big screens.

African animations can help change the narrative about the continent

The movie is estimated to have cost about $1 million to produce, a negligible amount compared to “Soul”, which gobbled up $150 million.

Adetayo asserts that big budgets are well and good but don’t always translate into quality. He insists that “education is the future of the industry. Throwing money at things doesn’t solve every problem”

For Amidu, the importance of “Lady Buckit’ is also how it is able to change the narrative in and on Nigeria, with its setting in the country’s southeast.

“Every story coming out of that place [Niger Delta] has been that of violence, deprivation, suffering, and poverty for people living in that region. So coming up with this story sort of changes that narrative. Here we get to see Oloibiri in a different light. It shows that this girl despite all the challenges is able to overcome them and excel,” she said.

The animated feature also, she believes, has the power to change the narrative on Africa’s film industry.

“Coming back to Africa, no part of this production was done out of Nigeria. You can take this production anywhere and it will be able to fly. Nobody thought we could do animation, leave alone 3D animation,” she said.

Today, when Amidu picks up the remote to watch “Lady Buckit and the Motley Mopsters,” it is like watching tiny bits of her children’s ‘character’ displayed on the grand screen.

Following the success of “Lady Buckit”, Amidu and her new production studio are just getting started, with an idea for a sequel is already in the works.

Animation—which was projected to reach $270 billion by 2020—is still a budding industry in Nigeria.

According to UNESCO Nigeria’s Nollywood is the second largest film industry in the world, with Africa’s movie industry making impressive strides as audiences on the continent increasingly choose made-in-Africa movies over foreign ones.

This, the African Report said, was made evident in 2010 when Chineze Anyaene’s film, Ijé: The Journey, became the second highest-grossing film in Nigerian cinemas, behind Avatar, the highest-grossing film worldwide.

The original version of this article was published by bird-Africa no filter

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox.

Posted on

Vaccine mandates would show business can lead on social issues — Quartz at Work

Business leaders eagerly took on a much broader remit when they redefined the purpose of corporations in 2019. “A company serves society at large,” was the cry from Davos in early 2020. The message, plainly, is that business can address social problems just like governments and other institutions.

Now it’s time for business to cash that check by taking the lead on mandating Covid-19 vaccines.

In rich countries where vaccine supply now far outstrips demand, the remaining holdouts threaten to prolong the pandemic for everyone, including the majority still awaiting vaccines. This tragedy of the global commons will not be solved through persuasion alone.

Governments, which once saved the world from smallpox by mandating inoculation for everybody, have made clear they aren’t interested in repeating the feat. Most have opted for limited mandates among public-sector workers, as the US is doing. In Europe, the trend now is to require vaccines in stores and restaurants, but not workplaces. Where are the private-sector employers, who could do so much to add to the ranks of the vaccinated?

Using their influence

Perhaps most telling about the politics of vaccination is that the only country thus far willing to impose a truly broad mandate on its people is Saudi Arabia. But the public service announcements and eccentric incentives preferred by most democracies to cajole people into jabs are clearly not getting the job done.

So it has to be the private sector.

The remarkably rapid development of coronavirus vaccines is already a capitalist success story, arguing strongly for the role of private investors making risky bets that could help solve huge social problems. Moderna will rightly lead every impact-investing slide deck for years to come, along with for-profit carbon capture projects and crypto wallets for the unbanked.

But if the business world wants to be seen as leaders of society, not just herders of capital, it needs to deploy some influence as well.

Amid declining faith in most other institutions—governments, media, even non-profits—companies still broadly enjoy the public trust. Over two-thirds of people in Edelman’s 2021 survey agreed that “CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems.”

No institution is more trusted than one’s own employer. In most countries, Edelman found, employers are the most trusted “to do what is right” and to provide reliable information.

Employers ought to requite that trust by mandating that their staff who work indoors with other employees are vaccinated for Covid-19. Public health experts agree it’s the only safe way to operate an office, factory, or warehouse right now.

Making tough calls

Legal ambiguity is frequently cited by businesses reluctant to impose mandates, but often doing the right thing—in this case, saving lives—requires taking on some risk. (Also, vaccine mandates are clearly legal in the US, and very likely to be upheld by Europe’s human-rights court.)

Businesses in tech, finance, and media tend to be the most progressive on employee relations, and many of us (including Quartz) have started to require that employees coming back to offices are fully vaccinated. But even in these industries, a lot of big companies are opting for half-measures instead, such as segregating unvaccinated employees or requiring weekly Covid tests.

Back in December, when a bunch of top CEOs discussed the pandemic at a Yale summit, mandates were not particularly controversial: 78% agreed that coronavirus vaccines should be required (pdf, p. 8) at offices, whenever they reopened. In the months since, the same CEOs have surely consulted their more-cautious lawyers and seen how contentious vaccination debates can get. It’s a hard call to make, no doubt.

CEOs love to wax heroic about making the tough decisions. And some, like restaurateur Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, are making them. But the vast majority of employers, large and small, are for now just taking the same laissez-faire approach to science as their governments. What an opportunity this could be to show that the public’s growing faith in business to solve societal problems may actually be warranted.

Posted on

Why Robinhood shares fell in their first day of trading — Quartz

The debut of Robinhood—the controversial brokerage that ignited an explosion in retail trading—on the public stock market was expected to be a wild ride. Instead it fizzled.

Robinhood wilted 8.4% to $34.82 per share yesterday after the company’s IPO initially priced the stock at $38, which was the bottom of the expected range. CEO Vladimir Tenev, whose eight-year-old brokerage helped introduce a new generation to financial markets, made as much as 35% of the shares available to retail investors (normally, institutional investors get dibs on fresh shares), but only ended up allocating some 20% to 25% of the stock to them, according to Bloomberg.

Tenev’s brokerage is far from the only company with a lackluster first day. About a quarter of IPOs in the US have fallen in their debut this year, according to data compiled by University of Florida finance professor Jay Ritter. He said subdued volatility in Robinhood’s stock is surprising, but understandable—the offering’s pricing at the bottom of the expected range suggests that demand from institutional investors was weak.

How Robinhood discourages customers from flipping IPOs

Some expected a frenzy of small-time traders darting in and out of Robinhood shares. But the brokerage has incentives for customers to hold IPO shares instead of turning around and selling them right away: executives seek out patient, long-term investors for their stock who are more likely to stick with them through ups and downs, rather than hot-money traders who immediately flip the company.

As such, Robinhood customers who sell shares within 30 days of an IPO may be prevented from participating in an offering for the next 60 days. That’s why Ritter didn’t expect heavy selling from the retail crowd. “In general, institutional investors are more likely to flip than retail investors are,” he said.

For all the enthusiasm for Robinhood’s brokerage app, which continued raking in new users despite technology outages and dust-ups with regulators, there are signs that individual investors weren’t as keen on its IPO. As Bloomberg reported, the retail allocation was smaller than it could have been.

Wallstreetbets wasn’t keen on Robinhood’s IPO

Some commenters on Reddit’s Wallstreetbets forum, an unofficial town hall for day traders and retail investors, were sour on the offering. Many retail investors were outraged early this year when Robinhood restricting trading in GameStop shares, which were at the center of a battle between hedge funds betting against the video game retailer, and individual traders trying to pump up the price. While the episode led to conspiracy theories, Robinhood’s trading restrictions appeared to have more to do with market plumbing than some effort to protect hedge-fund elites.

Alas, there are signs on Reddit that some retail traders haven’t forgiven Robinhood’s executives, with comments on Wallstreetbets disparaging the brokerage’s commitment to small-time investors. But at least one big-time money manager thinks Robinhood has promise: ARK Investment Management, the firm run by stock-picking legend Cathie Wood, bought about 1.3 million shares yesterday, a chunk of stock valued at about $45 million.

Posted on

Christie’s is riding the NFT wave beyond the Beeple sale. — Quartz

Founded in London in 1766, art auction house Christie’s is a symbol of yesteryear—and yet the company appears to be on the cutting edge. In March, Christie’s sold a collage by the digital artist Mike Winklemann, better known as Beeple, for 42,329 Ether, at the time the cryptocurrency equivalent of $69.3 million.

The artwork was sold as a nonfungible token (NFT), a sort of certificate of authenticity minted on the ethereum blockchain.

The sale was part of a larger boom market for NFTs that peaked in February and March, which has somewhat subsided since. But Christie’s remains long on NFTs. The auction house has this year sold a series of Andy Warhol NFTs for a combined $3.3 million, a digital version of Banksy’s street art for $100,000, and a collection from the 18-year-old digital artist FEWOCiOUS for a combined $2.2 million. In short, Christie’s is embracing an emerging market, as is its counterpart Sotheby’s. So Quartz caught up with Noah Davis, Christie’s NFT lead to see where things are headed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: What’s the state of the NFT art market today?

Davis: It is still in very rude health. The market experienced a correction that aligned with that of the crypto market, but that was a necessary and welcome change. We’re still seeing way too much rushing to market, but the prices being paid for great work are still really impressive.

Most recently, we sold FEWOCiOUS, who is a darling of this space and definitely a hero to many in crypto and the NFT community. We saw his sale perform extremely strongly, especially considering Fewo is 18 years old, this is his first outing with a major auction house, and just a year ago his works were trading for $100 or less.

I think that we are still just breaking things and figuring it out as we move forward, which has always been the ethos of people in tech.

That’s not usually the ethos of the art world.

No, this is a weird Venn diagram. NFTs exist in the overlap between tech and art. NFTs are really just decentralized applications that are running on a blockchain. But it’s particularly well suited to representing digital art because it is more of a concept than it is a physical object. This is a way to give objecthood to ideas or ephemeral commodities.

What does that mean, to “give objecthood to an idea” or to something as ephemeral as digital art? Who needs to buy in?

I like the way that [Yuval] Noah Harari, the philosopher, talks about money in [his book]  Sapiens. There’s a whole chapter devoted to money and he describes money as the most successful shared fiction in a long history of human-made shared fiction. A five-dollar bill is only worth five dollars because of consensus. There’s nothing that intrinsically makes a five-dollar bill valuable or more valuable than a one-hundred-dollar bill beyond the collective agreement that that is.

Nonfungible tokens make the not collectible inherently collectible. That’s the way we’re using it as a utility in the art world right now. It’s a really dynamic technology and I can’t wait personally to see it completely absorbed into the way we do business in the art world.

When did you and Christie’s start paying attention to NFTs?

I came to art out of interest in absurd theater. That was my study in college. I focused on postwar French theater, particularly the absurdist strain, which is funnily enough a great preparation for working in the art world. There’s something ritualistic and performative about art at auction and something also inherently absurd about the entire art industry. And definitely for NFTs too. I have been running the online sales for the contemporary art department in New York City at Christie’s for about four years now. And in that capacity, I was the obvious person to evaluate the Beeple NFT because it translates well in an online-only venue.

I became aware of blockchain more generally speaking in 2018, when Christie’s sold the Barney Ebsworth collection. We did some work with [art-focused blockchain company] Artory back then to record the sales and all the information on the blockchain.

But it wasn’t until Beeple sold his first suite of super valuable assets at Nifty Gateway in December that NFTs popped up on my radar. I was in the office in early 2021 when the opportunity came across my desk and I ran with it. And lo and behold, I could not have told you how radically different my life was going to be after that sale.

Why did you think this was something anyone would want to buy, and that Christie’s should sell?

I thought it was just fun and different and weird and interesting. And it was the end of a very, very terrifying chapter in human history. When everything shut down, when life just came to a standstill for the entire world, our lived experience was necessarily really cut down to size. Lived experience no longer had this sort of primacy over virtual experience. People needed to find some way to replace that part of their lives that was now completely inaccessible or at least unsafe.

With what happened with GameStop and that sort of activist investor approach to the stock market, I also see a parallel to what happened with Beeple. It’s a group of crypto-native people who believe in the technology, And they all banded together to support this moment in time where everyone was ready for something to shake everything up.

Christie’s, by the same token—pardon that terrible pun—we were also ready to take risks. Our appetite for risk-taking was worth more than it usually is, just by nature of needing to keep the lights on and needing to be ambitious to try new things. And it helped that we had this $6 million result to reference that recently took place at Nifty Gateway.

With GameStop, there’s a narrative of activist investors taking on Wall Street through collective action. What’s the analog here?

Beeple is GameStop. Beeple is the artist that’s not supposed to succeed. He is now the third most expensive living artist at auction and he just skyrocketed to that position from obscurity. The other artists we’re talking about, Jeff Koons and David Hockney, are practically household names at this point. And then you have Beeple. And that is not supposed to happen. So there is something about the system being almost hijacked in a way by outsiders. We had more than 40 bidders in the Beeple sale and only three of those bidders were previously known to Christie’s. So this is a price that was driven pretty much completely by crypto-native people who had never interacted with Christie’s before.

My impression is that a lot of the people bidding on this digital art are in the crypto world and had some sort of vested interest in it succeeding. 

Very true.

That seems to run a little bit counter to what you’re saying. Is there an element of “crypto propping up crypto” puffery that should shine skepticism on this whole thing? 

Skepticism I don’t think is the right word because it’s definitely real. The money might be fake in that it doesn’t exist. But it has real power. And everything that these guys are doing in space has real reverberations throughout all of the creative industries that are out there.

After the Beeple sale, I was contacted by all sorts of famous musicians and movie studios and you name it, if they have intellectual property, they were trying to figure out new ways to use that artist to create new verticals and revenue streams.

And definitely, the people bidding on [Beeple] were coming from the crypto space. But MetaKoven [the buyer] is a really committed collector of NFT-based art. And Justin Sun [the runner-up in the sale] too, and all the other bidders who didn’t make their bidding public but helped to get the result to where it was. There’s a strong number of really sophisticated collectors out there who are driving the results in this marketplace, but it’s no different when you compare it to the kind of small cadre of people in real-life art that we sell. I don’t think it’s a mirage or there’s any sort of tomfoolery going on with the results you see.

So why is an NFT more than a JPEG? And what does the buyer get when they buy an NFT? 

They get an indelible entry on the blockchain where that NFT is hosted. Most NFTs are hosted on the ethereum blockchain because it has the capability to run decentralized applications.

An NFT is linked back to a smart contract that explains how the NFT interacts with the blockchain in perpetuity. So what you’re getting when you buy an NFT is indelible proof of your ownership that cannot be augmented. It cannot be faked in an impressive and convincing way. You’re buying an absolute unequivocal assurance that you own this work. It cannot ever belong to anybody else unless you decide that it’s going to move. Otherwise, it’s just going to stay in your wallet and be yours forever.

But it’s not like buying the Mona Lisa where the atoms are unique. Why would someone spend that Warhol money on a piece of digital art? 

Why is it important that Duchamp’s urinal is a work of art and an icon of modernism, whereas the one you and I use in the bathroom every day is just a thing that’s there for us to pee on? It’s because the community has decided that it’s important. I often ask people when they have this question—they are usually of a certain age—and I say, do you have kids? And if they say yes, I ask if they play Fortnite. More often than not, they say yes. And I ask if they’re familiar with the concept of owning a “skin” in Fortnite, which gives you absolutely no competitive advantage in the game but is the reason why Fortnite is so incredibly lucrative. People are buying these things via microtransactions constantly. If they can understand where that desire comes from, then you start to understand the draw of NFTs.

You said before you can’t wait till NFTs are completely absorbed into the art world. What does that look like? 

I was researching the CryptoPunks [art project], which vividly illustrates what the blockchain can do. And if you apply the Cryptopunks model to any of the markets that exist out there for bluechip fine art, it will radically change the way we conduct business.

If a user makes an offer to buy a Punk, that’s recorded. If a user buys a Punk, that’s recorded. If a user lists a Punk for sale, that’s recorded. You can see the path that every Punk has taken since 2007 when it was released on the ethereum blockchain. You can trace it back to its origin, because that’s what a blockchain does. It’s just one reliable, truthful record.

So if a compendium of information on every authentic Pablo Picasso was out there, it would totally, radically, and forever change the marketplace for Pablo Picasso’s work. It would solve for authenticity testing, because if the work you’re about to buy is not recorded on the Picasso blockchain, then it’s not a Picasso. But you would also know how much the person is trying to sell it to you for, how much they paid for it. Do they actually own it? What else do they own? Who owned it before then? What’s its price history? What are the prices being paid for comparable work? It would just be a radical tool for the art market. And I think that it’s inevitable that it’s going to be useful for every industry that sells things where the price is a combination of objective, subjective, or licking your finger and sticking it in the air. The utility just can’t be ignored. It’s that revolutionary.

Posted on

How Covid-19 has changed the way we use emojis — Quartz India

Over the past decade, emojis have become an integral part of the way we communicate and have attracted attention from scholars in subjects ranging from linguistics to psychology. Just as the pandemic has impacted so many other parts of everyday life, so it’s also left its mark on the way we use emojis.

Here are some ways these colourful icons have come to reflect our new, Covid-centric culture over the last 18 months—and what this tells us about trends in modern online communication.

1. Masks

Emojis were originally a Japanese invention, and this is reflected in many of the symbols which were included in the first batch of symbols released by Unicode, the organisation that manages emojis, back in 2010: the preponderance of Japanese food 🍣🍢🍱, for example, and the inclusion of landmarks such as Mount Fuji 🗻.

One of these original emojis was “face with medical mask” 😷, representing the fact that in Japan, as in many other Asian countries, it’s been standard practice for years now to wear a face mask in public when you’re down with a cold or the flu. As Covid spread across the globe, so did the practice of mask-wearing, and this was reflected by the surge in popularity of the previously neglected mask emoji.

Such was the focus on this one symbol that in November 2020, when Apple released its annual batch of new emojis, it incorporated a new design for the face behind the mask, tweaking its eyes, and blushing its cheeks to make it look as if it were smiling a bit more.

2. Anti-maskers

In the west, of course, mask wearing hasn’t been universally accepted, and has somehow become a key battleground for opposing political views and allegiances. As so often happens these days with polarising debates, emojis were then co-opted as part of this political conflict.

A movement called #SmilesMatter has been encouraging people to add a smiley emoji in their social media profiles as a protest against the compulsory wearing of face masks. On the other side of the ideological divide, Twitter ran a pro-mask campaign in US cities based around its version of the mask emoji.

3. Care

The interventions from Twitter, with its pro-mask campaign, and Apple, with its cheerful spin on the masked face, are part of a wider trend for the use of emojis to express attitudes towards health issues. A couple of months into the pandemic, Facebook also participated in this trend, introducing a new “care” reaction emoji. This consisted of a smiley hugging a heart, and was the first new reaction emoji the company had released since it added a handful of additional emotions to the ubiquitous “like” symbol back in 2015.

According to Facebook’s communications manager, the new symbol was “a way for people to share their support for one another during this unprecedented time”. But even without these sorts of interventions, there’s been a spontaneous shift in emoji use along these lines. When India had its huge second wave spike in early 2021, tweets about Covid jumped by over 600%, with the prayer emoji 🙏 becoming particularly popular.

4. Public health campaigns

This all reflects the growing appreciation over the last few years for how emojis can be used as part of public health campaigns. Lots of organisations have been looking into ways in which they can help with raising awareness, for diagnostic purposes or for different aspects of health communication.

This has been particularly the case with mental health issues. Emojis can be a simple way of reaching out to friends or family when you are struggling mentally, particularly when the very act of starting a conversation can feel extremely difficult.

Due to the effects of lockdown, there’s been concern that many people’s mental health is likely to suffer. In response to this, organisations such as CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) have launched promotions which draw directly on the way that emojis are suited to the expression of emotions in order to help overcome communication difficulties.

5. Preparing for a post-Covid world

As the pandemic has evolved, so have the ways in which emojis are used. At the end of April 2021, Apple changed the look of its syringe emoji 💉 to reflect a more positive aspect of Covid-related news—vaccines.

The original syringe design was filled with bright red liquid and was mostly meant to symbolise blood donation. But as vaccination programmes were rolled out across the globe, the company altered the liquid inside to something more colourless when people began using the emoji to signal that they’d had the jab.

Despite the hope offered by the vaccines, we’re still very much caught in the Covid era for the moment, and it’s uncertain what the path out of this will look like. But the likelihood is that whatever shape this takes, it will be reflected in the ways we adapt our language—including the use of emojis—to mirror the world in which we live.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at

Posted on

The Party is roiling China’s billionaire ranks — Quartz

In 2013, Chinese Partners, a movie based on the stories of the three co-founders of China’s largest private education company New Oriental, captured the upbeat sentiment in the country’s business circles.

In the movie, three ambitious university graduates, one of them modeled off New Oriental chairman Yu Minhong, achieved their rags-to-riches dream by launching English tutoring schools across China and eventually listing their company in the US. Partly thanks to the production, Yu, a kid from the countryside who became a billionaire, turned into a living symbol of the “Chinese dream.”

“The movie has conveyed a message: the US is not the ideal land…the success of the Chinese people can only take root in the soil of China,” a commentator wrote about the movie that year on China’s version of Quora, Zhihu.

A decade later, China’s billionaires are facing a harsh reckoning in their country.

Driven by a renewed focus on social equality amid concerns about China’s “unbalanced” recovery from the pandemic, and fears about private entrepreneurs’ increasing wealth and influence, the Chinese Communist Party is suddenly putting in place new boundaries for its largest companies, many of which are seen as having developed too “savagely” in the eyes of the authorities. The regulatory storms unleashed on sectors from tech to education have wiped out billions of dollars of their wealth overnight.

This month alone, Pony Ma, the founder of social media giant Tencent saw his fortune sink from nearly $60 billion to under $50 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, as the value of his stake plunged—the company lost $170 billion of market cap after it suspended new user registrations this week. Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, saw his fortune decline by a similar amount this month. Others are barely clinging on to billionaire status.

Education billionaire Yu, appeared to have fallen out of the billionaire ranks, according to a Bloomberg tally on Monday, after his stake in New Oriental shed $870 million in value following a 61% plunge in the company’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange on  July 23. Similarly, Larry Chen, the founder and CEO of online tutoring firm Gaotu Techedu, also left the billionaire club, and saw his wealth shrink to around $235 million, after shares of the US-listed firm sank more than 60%. The companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“The reduction in the number of billionaires is just a result [of the regulatory crackdown], not its purpose. The purpose is to enhance anti-monopoly push, and preventing ‘disorderly capital expansion,’” said Shen Meng, director of Beijing-based boutique investment bank Chanson and Co, referring to one of the priorities raised at an agenda-setting economic conference presided by president Xi Jinping in December.

How China became the world’s billionaire factory

At times in China’s recent history, being wealthier than others was dangerous, potentially exposing you to being targeted during mass ideological campaigns. But in 1978, Deng Xiaoping ushered in China’s era of reforms with a speech that told the country it would develop faster if those who made more contributions were allowed to become richer than others.

Rong Yiren, who founded the Citic conglomerate a year later and was often referred to in English-language coverage as the “red capitalist,” may well have been one of China’s first billionaires. As the economy liberalized, manufacturing and real estate seeded new wealth. Later, as new tech companies were founded and listed overseas, China arguably became the most active producer of billionaires among all countries.

The transformation is captured in China’s official surveys on income, according to a paper by economists including Li Yang, of the Paris School of Economics. In 1988, state and collective sources counted for 80% of the income of the country’s top 5% of earners, but by 2013, private sources had overtaken public sources of income, and elite groups were dominated by professional and business owners.

Even during the pandemic, the country managed to add 257 billionaires as of August last year, for a total of 878, ahead of the US’s roughly 700, according to the Hurun China Rich List.

Of course, China has periodically aimed blows at specific tycoons, via sudden detentions or prosecutions, such as when China sought to prevent “irrational” overseas investments, as in the case of Wu Xaohui, former chairman of Anbang Insurance Group. This week it sentenced Sun Dawu, an agricultural tycoon who often expressed support for rights activists, to 18 years in prison, months after issuing a similarly long sentence to property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who had sharply criticized Xi’s coronavirus response.

Since last year, though, the ranks of China’s billionaires have become financially volatile due to broad regulatory action.

Putting the private sector in its place

There are a range of legitimate reasons for the Party’s sweeping regulatory crackdowns—protecting consumers, guarding crucial user data, and preventing systematic financial risks, among others. In the case of its crackdown on education, it appears that Beijing hopes that by controlling mounting educational costs, it might slow its dropping birth rate.

But there’s also a unifying theme—insecurity in the face of the power of private firms over everything from how people shop and move about, to how they make payments, borrow, and invest.

Take for example the role of tech billionaire Jack Ma, whose Ant Group fintech giant drew the first regulatory fire. It pioneered and now dominated mobile payments in China through its Alipay wallet, then branched out into loans and investing, traditionally the domain of large state-held banks, and last year was about to go public. In October, Ma delivered a bold speech criticizing regulators as out-of-touch with innovations in finance, remarks seen as playing a major role in Beijing’s suspension of the IPO. The Party has since launched a regulatory overhaul of the tech sector, forcing Ant to meet similar rules as traditional banks, thwarting mergers, fining companies for monopolistic practices, launching cybersecurity reviews, and ordering delivery firms to enhance their protection of gig workers.

In recent days, Beijing extended its regulatory focus from tech to education, announcing new rules that ban most private tutoring companies from raising capital, going public, or allowing foreign investors to hold stakes in the firms—leading investors to broadly flee Chinese stocks. At a meeting yesterday, China’s securities regulator assured bankers that its scrutiny of the education sector won’t hurt companies in other industries. But it’s unclear how successful the reassurance will be.

“The [regulatory crackdown] has led to investors’ worries and suspicion about the continuation of China’s market policies,” said Shen, the director.

An apparent turn away from market policies has been taking place for about a decade now, after the government carried out enormous stimulus efforts to keep the economy going during the financial crisis, a trend that deepened under Xi, who seems more distrustful of markets. Last year, the Party said private entrepreneurs must align themselves more closely with Party goals.

In this new phase, it appears that China is clarifying its ideas about how to regulate new internet businesses after a long period when tech businesses experienced relatively more relaxed regulation.

The harsh scrutiny on tech makes those in more traditional sectors, or with more diversified holdings, look safer in their seats in the billionaire club—for now. Zhong Shanshan, the chairman of bottled water company Nongfu Spring who also has investments in the medical sector, remains China’s richest person with a net worth of around $70 billion, with his wealth relatively unchanged this month, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Not a fix for inequality

By knocking a few billions off the net worth of high-flying moguls—though not the main aim of its actions—the Party is also acknowledging rising discontent from the public.

Many on the Chinese internet have increasingly been criticizing the evil ways of “capitalists” like Ma, whom they say exploit ordinary workers by forcing them to work excessive hours. Recently, a newspaper under China’s top political advisory body urged tech firms to refrain from “limitless exploitation” of employees’ labor. Regulators have just ordered food delivery companies to make sure the gig workers they rely on are earning in line with minimum wage, suggesting the government will pressure the private sector to shoulder more social responsibilities.

But circumscribing what private firms can or can’t do, won’t by itself solve China’s growing inequality.

According to the paper from economist Li, the share of income going to top earners went from 13% in 1988 to about 20% in 2013. These high earners also became better educated over time. Yet the ratio of government spending on education and healthcare as a percentage of Chinese GDP remains lower than countries with a similar level of development, which means that there’s uneven access to top-notch education and the advantages that can come with it. On top of that, long standing regulations, such as the hukou household registration system, to which social benefits are linked, create additional divisions between urban and rural Chinese.

Without added input from the government itself to expand social welfare, and reform the unfairness built into the registration system, just how much private companies can bridge the country’s widening wealth gap is in question.

Posted on

Why central Africa is lagging behind in e-commerce — Quartz Africa

Central Africa lags behind other regions in the continent in e-commerce but the region can progress quickly if governments implement policies to hasten the development of digital and e-commerce services, a new report says.

The report by GSMA—an organization that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide—and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) identifies areas where action is required to increase access to e-commerce services, and digital services in general.

Largely driven by expanding internet access, increasing uptake of digital payments, and changing consumer habits, e-commerce is scaling up in Africa. In the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), a body of 11 countries, mobile subscriber penetration rose from 18% in 2000 to 42% by the end of 2019 and is set to reach 46% by 2025, the report says. The number of mobile internet users was 52 million in 2020 and is expected to reach 86 million by 2025, it adds.

However, ECCAS countries fall behind many of their regional peers in their readiness for online shopping, according to the UNCTAD B2C E-commerce Index, which assesses this measure in 152 countries. The top four sub-Saharan Africa countries are Kenya at position 88, Nigeria at 79, South Africa at 76 and Mauritius at 58. All ECCAS countries are outside the top 100, with Gabon the best-placed at 106.

There are more than 264 e-commerce start-ups operating in at least 23 central African countries. In ECCAS, one way people engage in e-commerce is through the cross-border model, which involves access to global markets through platforms such as DHL Africa eShop, MallforAfrica and KiKUU. Another way is through domestic e-commerce services, such as Rwanda’s Kasha, Gabon’s Enami Shop and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Molato Market.

A third category is social commerce, which is the use of social networking sites to engage in e-commerce. Most e-commerce activity in the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé and Príncipe happens this way. A survey found that in ECCAS, Facebook and Instagram were in the top three platforms used for online shopping in the region, ahead of many e-commerce websites. Another survey in Cameroon found that 88% of respondents had purchased items through WhatsApp, while 68% had purchased through Facebook.

The growth of e-commerce in central Africa is hindered by low smartphone adoption, broadband coverage and weak legislation

The researchers found a number of factors hindering the growth of e-commerce in ECCAS. The reasons include low smartphone adoption and inaccessibility to mobile broadband coverage, which limit their ability to access the Internet. Another is lack of e-commerce and consumer protection legislations in most countries, which causes low trust in e-commerce.

They say that in order to scale e-commerce in the sub-region, governments should implement policies to support and stimulate investment in the sector. They particularly point to enhancing digital and financial inclusion, taking the right approach to data regulations, and addressing challenges in the business environment, and leveraging stakeholder collaboration.

“If governments act now, Central Africa can be more competitive and collaborative for the benefit and inclusion of all citizens,” says Antonio Pedro, Director of ECA’s sub-regional office for central Africa.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox.

Posted on

Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for streaming “Black Widow” — Quartz

When movie studios decided to debut films on their streaming services at the same time as in theaters, they probably anticipated some challenges. It’s unlikely, however, that any executive anticipated it would make an enemy out of one of Hollywood’s biggest actresses.

That’s the situation Marvel finds itself in after Scarlett Johansson, star of four Avengers movies and this month’s Black Widow, filed a lawsuit alleging a breach of contract. Johansson claims the decision by Disney—which owns Marvel—to debut Black Widow on its Disney+ streaming service the same day as it opened in theaters denied her a chance to earn the bonuses tied to box office receipts she says she is due, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Johansson’s suit claims that not only was her pay for the movie largely based on it reaching certain box office milestones but that a Marvel executive noted in a 2019 email that since her deal was based on a traditional theatrical release “we understand that should the plan change, we would need to discuss this.”

Thus far, Black Widow has fallen short of expectations. The $319 million it has earned internationally makes it one of Marvel’s worst performing movies. The film, which cost Disney+ subscribers an additional $30 to stream, earned $60 million in its opening weekend on the streaming service. According to anonymous sources cited by the Journal, the decision to open the movie on Disney+ has cost Johansson $50 million.

In an emailed statement, Disney said the suit had no merit.

“The lawsuit is especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the email read. “Disney has fully complied with Ms. Johansson’s contract and furthermore, the release of Black Widow on Disney+ with Premier Access has significantly enhanced her ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20 million she has received to date.”

Streaming is the future of movie debuts

The decision by studios to move new movies onto streaming services was born out of necessity. With the pandemic shuttering theaters globally, studios needed an outlet for their new releases. But the strategy also attracted attention to the new services like Disney+ and HBO Max, and drove new subscriptions, (Disney+ is well ahead its own estimates), and pointed to a future where streaming, not theaters, would be the dominant venue for movies.

Of course, there were obstacles to be negotiated. Theater owners had to be mollified, and picking which movies get the streaming treatment created a division between haves and have-nots. In some cases performers were compensated for the lost box office. TimeWarner, for example, paid a reported $200 million to actors and actresses. Had Disney followed suit, it might have avoided a messy spat with Johansson.