May 21, 2021

Creating the Digital Infrastructure for Zambia's Music Industry

Mvesesani Store is a digital music marketplace where customers can purchase and download music from Zambian artists.
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The transition of music consumption from physical to digital hit the music industry hard as the internet gave way to illegal music sharing. It’s estimated that worldwide revenues for recorded music fell by 50% between 1999 and 2009. 

The light amidst the darkness, Apple’s iTunes Store, brought music online in 2003, allowing consumers to purchase and download music digitally. Then, the 2010s brought the rise of streaming, which now accounts for over 50 percent of global recorded music revenue.

Africa’s music industry also fell victim to the internet and piracy. And while fintech and other industries could leapfrog traditional infrastructure, the music industry is a bit nuanced. Several challenges make it difficult to transition from physical sales to streaming.

Most African countries have weak recorded music distribution networks and relatively unregulated digital markets. And with data plans relatively expensive, the cost of streaming goes beyond a monthly subscription.

Understanding Zambia’s music industry’s needs, Mvesesani launched its online digital music marketplace in 2016 to service the Zambian market. On the Mvesesani Store, customers can purchase and download music from their favorite Zambian artists.

I spoke with Twaambo Haamucenje, co-founder of Mvesesani, about Zambia’s music industry, building Mvesesani payments and integrating it with the mobile money providers, and his thoughts on tech in Zambia. 

Journey to Creating Mvesesani

I’m Zambian, was born here, but I also lived in Zimbabwe and South Africa growing up. I went to university in SA and had my first couple of jobs there, and then I came back to Zambia. Since then, I’ve tried to build a couple of things at the intersection of music and tech, but Mvesesani was the first thing that took off.

My first attempt at a startup was in 2010. I had just signed up for Twitter, and I saw a lot of Southern African artists using the platform to promote their music. I remember a friend sharing a link to his SoundCloud and other music profiles, this was before link-shortening, so it took five tweets to do it. 

On reflection, I should have built something along the lines of a Linktree. Instead, I built something called Rolodecks. It was a digital rolodex for African artists. The goal I had with the website was to allow users to find every African artist on the continent and see everything about them. The tech behind it was interesting. I integrated maybe 12 APIs. But Rolodecks eventually ended because I didn’t know how to monetize it. 

I was also part of the team running the African HipHop blog (AfricanHHB). We won a couple of awards, but again there was a monetization issue. If I’m honest, monetization is the biggest pain point. In Zambia, we aren’t at the point where you can start from zero, build something over the weekend, and make money on Monday. 

Fortunately, with Mvesesani we’ve overcome the monetization issue. We’re at the point where we have gained some traction and in 2020 we grew revenue by nearly 500 percent.  

What value does Mvesesani provide to the marketplace?

In Zambia, musicians have had a real problem monetizing. Piracy hit hard here compared to other southern African countries. Our copyright law was last updated in 1994. It doesn’t mention anything digital or even the word CD.

We also have no infrastructure to distribute music. When we launched the Mvesesani store, there were two shops across the country where you could buy CDs. So if you were a fan who wanted to purchase music, there were only two locations you could buy physical music in the country. And today, there are none. This forced artists to sell their music themselves. Even the biggest names sell music out of their trunk.

While the world is excited about Spotify and Apple Music, Spotify has not launched in Zambia, and Apple Music only launched last year. And as much as people say physical is dying, anyone who somewhat knows about the music industry globally is aware that vinyl is making a huge comeback and that CD sales are still in the millions of dollars. Today, if you go to South Africa or Malawi, people are still buying physicals.

Aside from how we distribute and consume music, the other challenge for Zambian artists is receiving payments from streaming platforms. If a Zambian artist wants to put their music on Spotify and Apple Music, they have to go through an aggregator, none of which pay directly to Zambia. 

The most popular aggregator is DistroKid, and they only pay through Paypal for people living outside the US and mainland Europe. But we can’t receive Paypal in Zambia. So musicians typically get a friend in the US or another supported territory to sign up for a Paypal account and receive the money. Then, they’ll wire the money here or send the Paypal debit card. Those are the kinds of gymnastics that people are doing.

Some artists can’t even afford the 20 or 50 dollars to pay upfront to be on an aggregator. So our musicians are stuck in this place where their best option is to put their music out for free and hope to get some return on their investment, which isn’t fair because studio time and producers aren’t free.

Add to that, if you wanted to charge for your music online, your fans would need a debit card to pay, but most people don’t have debit cards. In Zambia, the most accessible way for people to pay for things is through mobile money, which none of the international platforms support.

Understanding the various challenges and the needs of our local economy, including the high cost of paying for internet data, we saw the best solution as allowing consumers to buy and download music.

When you say, “creating the digital infrastructure for Zambia’s music industry,” what do you mean? 

When we started, we wanted to tackle two problems. Aside from the need for distribution, Zambia also has a reporting and statistics problem. Unfortunately, there are no official numbers for how many plays or spins an artist gets on the radio. They’re paid based on an estimation of their market share at the end of the year.

So artists who were big a decade ago still get some of the biggest checks, even though a new artist might have gotten played more that year. The numbers aren’t there, so nobody knows how many times anybody’s played. When we said building the infrastructure for Zambia’s music industry, it covered the distribution and reporting. 

But when you’re bootstrapping, it’s harder to attack multiple problems simultaneously. Just the distribution issue was a big enough thing to take up all of our resources, energy, and time. And in hindsight, that wasn’t even the biggest thing. It was the payments. During this journey, I spent most of my time building a payments processor that directly integrated with the mobile network providers MTN and Airtel. This didn’t leave much time to solve the other things we wished to.

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What were some of the biggest challenges you faced building Mvesesani?

Trust of Musicians: 

At Mvesesani, the musicians/rights holders are our suppliers, and the fans are our customers. Gaining our suppliers’ trust was a huge challenge to overcome because a lot of artists were burnt by those who came before us. 

In the 2010s, a Kenyan company came to Zambia and cut deals with the mobile networks and ZAMCOPS, our music copyright society, to sell ringtones. But ZAMCOPS doesn’t have mechanical rights. They only oversee performance rights, which is revenue from radio plays and other forms of broadcasting, not physical or digital sales. This Kenyan company ended up publishing a large swathe of the registered catalog of Zambian music onto platforms like iTunes. Till this day, the artists have never seen a cent and some of the music is still up.

So we were hit with a lot of side-eye when we started. Sadly, for many of them, us being a Zambian company was enough not to work with us. If we had paler faces, maybe there would have been less of a push back. But, we’ve won by sticking to our guns and continuously delivering. Halfway through last year, people started coming back and saying, we’ve been watching, and you guys are performing, so we’ll come on board. 


Setting up our payments was another challenge. The mobile networks are old school corporate, everything runs up the chain of command, and decisions are slow. During development, we could run into an issue, and to solve it, the problem could bounce around personnel in South Africa, Zambia, Uganda, and even India.

I was trying to get something small done, but they have to coordinate this behemoth of a team, which meant things moved slower. This also makes it harder to diagnose problems. We had weeks of no progress before because their systems and communications are complex.

Built In Africa? What does that mean to you?

This is a big one for me. Of course, there’s a level of cachet in owning your infrastructure, systems, and processes. But more importantly, our needs, the challenges we face, and what we require culturally are unique. It bothers me that the most commonly used products are not from here.

Recently, we changed our business phone line. My co-founder tweeted about it, and somebody responded, saying, “is this the official Mvesesani account, or is it somebody trying to scam people out of their money?” Deciding to treat it as a joke, I replied with a GIF. They responded, “Why are you making a joke about a serious concern? You’re not even verified. How do we know that you’re legit?” 

Our credibility being questioned because we were not verified on Twitter bothered me because we’re being judged by a standard that’s not ours. Twitter is an American company. They don’t care about a small Zambian startup, so why would they verify us? 

Last week after the inauguration, Biden got his @POTUS handle, and Kamala got @VP. I thought to myself; this is a platform that represents the whole world in terms of who’s on there. Why is it not @VPOTUS? It’s the little thing that tells the rest of us how little importance we have.

It’s with this same mindset that people build products. Companies will always develop features with a bias towards where they are from. But we wouldn’t have these problems when we build our own products as they’ll consider our needs, challenges, and concerns. So Built in Africa for me is empowering because the digital age is a new form of colonialism.

In Zambia, there is an uptake in solutions that are not built by us starting to underpin everything. One of the most frightening to me is Facebook’s plans for payments over WhatsApp because everybody here uses WhatsApp.

They could be coming for our financial infrastructure because there’s no reason to use Paystack, Flutterwave, or a Zambian solution if a business can set up their shop on WhatsApp Business and have people pay them through WhatsApp. Now suddenly, Facebook is in control of our money flow. I would rather we build our own solutions than rely on products built outside.

What are your thoughts on Tech in Zambia?

I think tech in Zambia is still young. The average age of most of the active devs that I’ve seen at developer conferences and on social media is below 30, so I see growth in our future. In terms of companies and products being built that turn into something sustainable, we’re still getting to that point. Companies are trying, but there aren’t enough, for example, compared to Nigeria, even factoring in that they have 10x our population. There was a time when it felt like I would read about a new Nigerian company every two weeks.

For instance, I expected that being in a territory where we didn’t have an accessible payment provider when Flutterwave came into our market, people would take what they had been building in secret and finally make money from it, but it didn’t happen. I can’t overlook the need for capital, but more importantly, perhaps the talent is still at a stage where they’re learning and growing. They haven’t reached the point where they’re skilled and confident enough to build their own products.

Also, more people are starting to work remotely. That experience will lead to people in the industry being more capable and give them the knowledge and confidence to solve our problems in Zambia. I think that’s where things are, we’re still young, and there’s a lot of room to grow.

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