The fight to save a continent with emojis

Emojination: It all began with designs of fried dough balls (bottom left). © O’Plérou Grebet

Could a joyous new set of symbols reverse centuries of pessimism about Africa? One young, graphic design student set out to do just that. Against all odds, he is now on the brink of success.

He started with food and drink. He began sharing designs of foutou (a bowl of mashed plantain and cassava) and gbofloto (fried dough balls) online.

One of his favourite images, showing a plastic bag bursting with purple liquid, represents bissap (dried hibiscus flower juice).

Today, O’Plérou Grebet, a young graphic artist from the Ivory Coast, has created 376 different emoji designs, and he hopes to keep going by creating images from countries all across Africa.

His aim? Nothing less than to shatter the typical Western idea of Africa as a zone of famine and war.

Grebet’s designs are not official emojis because they have not been approved by the Unicode Consortium, a California-based organisation that reviews requests for new designs and sets standards for characters across different programmes and platforms.

But a compilation of his images has been downloaded more than 100,000 times this year. And there is a groundswell of support for his work.

He is a supporter of the campaign group Emojination, which pushes for greater representation among the official set of emojis and helped Rayouf Alhumedhi, then a Saudi student in Germany, get approval for the the hijab emoji recently.

Think of Ethiopia and what do you see? Perhaps a starving child, flies in her eyes and belly distended. Painfully thin adults in raggedy clothes, staring balefully at the camera in a fetid refugee camp. Or possibly a famous self-declared saviour from the West, striding purposefully past the decaying corpse of an animal beside a dusty road.

Think again. See, instead, a booming capital city, its cafes filled with graduates and cranes lining the horizon. A nation that is one of the world’s largest livestock producers and recently became the second country to take delivery of Boeing’s new 787 passenger jet. An economy that doubled in size this century and is growing at 7.5%.

The image of Africa promoted constantly by charities and the media is of a continent full of starving children, corruption, tribal fighting and terrifying disease. These are the stories the rich West likes to read about the “dark continent”. And they are the images that get the cash rolling in for the likes of Oxfam.

But a new Africa is emerging, powered by capitalism, embracing globalisation and finally shaking off the shackles of colonialism and the Cold War that proved so crippling to development.

The global top 10 fastest growing economies includes Ethiopia (in the number one slot), Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Tanzania. Bundle all African countries together and they have grown faster for much of the past decade than East Asia.

This is the youngest continent, enjoying a demographic dividend with a working population growing by around 10 million people each year. An emerging middle class — one-third of Africans — is behind an explosion in consumerism. Already, Africans spend more per head than Indians on goods and services.

Could a new set of symbols reverse centuries of pessimism?

Emojing economy

Not a hope, say some. The problems of Africa aren’t just image problems. Africa is the world’s last frontier in the fight against extreme poverty. Today, one in three Africans —422 million people — live below the global poverty line. They represent more than 70% of the world’s poorest people.

Of course they can, say others. There are 3.2 billion internet users worldwide and 92% of them regularly use emojis. Mobile communications tend to be rapid, and as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. The most powerful tool in human history is the story — and Africa needs a new story. These new emojis will help to create it.

You Decide

  1. Do emojis shape the way you think?
  2. Are the current emojis too narrow?


  1. Design the emoji you would like to see released next if you had one choice.
  2. Make a timeline of some of the most controversial emojis released, since they first emerged in 1999.

Some People Say...

“People of all ages understand that a single emoji can say more about their emotions than text.”

Shigetaka Kurita, the inventor of emojis

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Who does and doesn’t get to be represented in emoji form is intensely political. Unicode 5.0 features a hijab emoji — petitioned for by a Saudi schoolgirl — while Apple began introducing skin shades with its iOS 8.3 update.
What do we not know?
Whether they are limiting our emotional range. If Unicode can change and influence these systems of communication, ultimately for the interests of the shareholders of its member companies, some believe there are potentially harmful consequences.

Word Watch

Ivory Coast
Côte d'Ivoire or Ivory Coast is a West African country with beach resorts, rainforests and a French-colonial legacy. Abidjan, on the Atlantic coast, is the country’s major city.
Unicode Consortium
The global organisation that sets the international standards for internet characters, including emoji.
An increase in a particular opinion among a number of people.
A campaign group that wants to challenge Unicode by making emoji approval an inclusive, representative process.
Swollen from pressure inside; bloated.
With hostility; unfriendly.
Smelling very unpleasant.
A confederation of 19 independent charitable organisations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty.

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