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.

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 across Africa.

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

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.

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.

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. A picture is worth a thousand words. The most powerful tool in human history is the story — and Africa needs a new story.

You Decide

  1. Do emojis shape the way you think?


  1. Design the emoji you would like to see released next if you had one choice.

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?
Wether 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.
A confederation of 19 independent charitable organisations focusing on the alleviation of global poverty.

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