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YouTube has changed our lives forever

16 years ago three former PayPal employees gave the world it’s best internet startup yet, YouTube. The platform was launched on Valentine’s day back in 2005 and to say it has revolutionalised the way we make and produce media is an understatement. It’s especially true for us Zimbabweans and our solitary national TV channel.

The potential of YouTube was apparent right from the start. Only a year later, in October of the following year, Google snapped up the company for $1.6 billion. That is more than a third of Zimbabwe’s yearly budget but it’s nothing from what the company is worth today. Its market capitalisation stands at around US$160 billion a 100 times what it was worth back then.

We all know that data is not very affordable in Zimbabwe given what people earn. This has led to some people living exclusively on WhatsApp and the creation of an entire ecosystem but make no mistake, even though it naturally consumes a lot of data, YouTube is very popular here too. How popular you ask? Let the statistics speak for themselves.

While Google.com is easily Zimbabwe’s most visited site on the internet YouTube is not far behind that and is comfortably the second most visited site. Yes, it’s much more popular than IG and Facebook. People spend more time on YouTube (17.48 minutes on average) compared to Google.com’s 15 minutes according to Alexa.com. On average people who go on YouTube end up visiting about 10 pages which probably means they end up watching 10 videos per day. Facebook is a distant number 28 on the list of most visited websites, it’s old people internet tag is sinking it perhaps.

Life in the Kingdom of ZBC

The most marked change that YouTube has brought for me has been freedom in the way we consume and produce media. Now anyone can get into that field and many have already ventured. For you to see the contrast consider the times before YouTube.

It’s almost hard to imagine now but there was a time before YouTube and those of us who were alive during that time had to make do without it. If you wanted to watch music videos you had to wait for the gods at ZBC the sole TV station to do their weekly Mutinhimira weMimhanzi/Ezomgido. There, for about an hour, videos from favoured musicians would play in between the ads for things like Olivine cooking oil, Panol and Chibuku.

Often you were left disappointed as your favourite musician would fail to make the list that week. There were even rumours, mostly spread by my drunk uncle who came every Thursday for the show, that the two Czars in charge were on the receiving end of many a favour from artists desperate for their songs to get some airplay.

On the media production side, Radio and TV DJs could make or break your career as a musician or a local drama maker. If your song or drama failed to play or radio or play on TV you were doomed – that was it.

Then the content on ZBC became heavily politicised and that made the channel just worse. There was an intense effort to make sure that only the government’s viewpoint made it on the airwaves. Any artists who made songs that could be remotely deemed offensive was effectively banned from the airwaves. Local content became an excuse to banish international music from radio and TV.

It should be mentioned that without the local content push we may not have seen urban grooves and the dancehall revolution.

Jingles became the order of the day and you just had to sit there and take it or fork out money for DSTV. That might have helped you as a consumer of media but those who produced were effectively shut down and a lot of such musicians like Thomas Mapfumo and Leonard Zhakata never recovered their glory. Getting airplay on platforms like DStv is pretty nigh impossible. Have you seen Channel O and Trace Urban- it’s South African house music from dawn to dusk.

YouTube has brought us liberty

YouTube has changed all that. First, it was those who left Zimbabwe and are living in the diaspora who made airwaves and set up successful channels. It made sense, they were living in countries with better and cheaper internet. But they also showed us the way. There was a place for local content on YouTube, you didn’t have to pander to the English speaking world to be successful.

From 2015 onwards we have seen an explosion of locally focused YouTube channels. We have YouTubers who have now attained national fame although most producers now choose to place their eggs in more than one basket by uploading content on other platforms as well.

People like Gonyeti, Maggie, Comic Pastor, the actors from Wadiwa WapaMoyo among a host of others are now household names thanks to YouTube. It’s almost unthinkable that these people who have been so successful had they been made to rely on the goodwill of ZBC which has done very little to help the fortunes of local producers in decades. In fact, some of the content produced by these people is often at the expense of our esteemed leaders-something ZBC actively polices and tries to avoid.

It does help that YouTube makes monetisation easy. You just have to click and button and add your bank information and you are done. YouTube makes use of Google’s vast Adsense machinery to pay content makers. Google pays on time every time, unlike ZBC which often spends months sometimes even years without paying content producers. Google also pays in the coveted US dollar whose value is relatively stable compared to the wild ride that is the Zimbabwean dollar.

This has allowed people of my generation and the emerging generation to actually make careers out of being a YouTuber. Savy music producers and musicians themselves have come to rely on YouTube to make a regular income and sometimes to spread their music in anticipation of them making even more money via live shows. They also enjoy relative creative freedom.

Take, for example, the case of Tocky Vibes who has been fairly prolific on YouTube when it comes to uploading new content. His very popular song Binga was banned from the airwaves by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe for being supposedly offensive even though a lot of people and I didn’t see the offence. Prior to YouTube this would have almost but killed the prospects of the song and sometimes even Tocky’s future. Thanks to YouTube, the baffled musician was not bothered at all. Anyone who wants to listen to the song can easily do so and the musician is probably still making money off it.

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have seen dancehall artists being more successful in the age of YouTube. They have a platform upon which they can showcase their talent. It’s hard to imagine their radical music and the defiant message it carries would have made it past the invisible censors that guard the gates of our national airwaves. As its popularity grew thanks to YouTube, the older generation that seems to be in charge of every apparatus in our country would often sneer at the new genre of music labelling it insolence accompanied by noisy music instruments.

The men in the broadcasting castle

I sometimes imagine a Man in the High Castle moment for YouTube. Imagine if it had never been created. Where would we be? I shudder at the nightmares that I see in my mind’s eye. I do however hope one day Zimbabwe will have it’s first millionaire YouTuber.


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