March 5, 2021

As Controversial As YouTube Has Become in Rwanda, It Is a Cash Cow For Many

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For every video that actor and comedy producer Gratien Niyitegeka posts on YouTube channel with his name, he is assured of more than 100,000 views within 24hours. Every week, Niyitegeka produces ‘Papa Sava’ series that tells a story of family relations, love affairs, friendships and neighbours in an ordinary Rwandan community setting.

The characters in it have become so popular in Rwanda that Niyitegeka is assured of adding at least 300,000 views and hundreds of comments onto his YouTube channel every week. With this viewership has come the money; lots of it that is paying up to 30 actors and production team.

As Niyitegeka entertains, he forms one segment of content producers that contrasts many others that have lately emerged to depict society and tell the Rwandan story on the web. Different from mainstream media, it is on YouTube that you will find spirited criticism of government from people inside Rwanda. It is also here that you will find a growing phenomenon noticeable to only Kinyarwanda language speakers; which is plenty of sexual content, much of it too graphic to be reported here.

As a result, authorities are increasingly showing concern over YouTube content; especially since 2018. At least four young men are in jail for content they posted on this channel, as The Chronicles has extensively reported before. Others have been arrested, but later freed without charges while some have been invited for interrogation by RIB without incarceration. The authorities want and are calling for some form of regulation, but are struggling to strike a balance between letting the population freely enjoy the benefits of the global platform, and keeping an eye on what they consume to debar harmful and dissident content.

So far, there have been at least two attempts to control the use of YouTube. In December 2019, it emerged that the University of Rwanda had since 2017 been limiting access to social media on its campuses, particularly YouTube, on the free WiFi provided to students. Basically, there was free internet, but YouTube wasn’t accessible, unless the students bought their own internet bundles.

After this story appeared in this publication, the University explained at the time that the reason why YouTube was blocked is because it consumed so much internet bandwidth, which the institution couldn’t keep up with. It was too expensive for the public university, the administration said.

Another attempt at controlling YouTube access came in the form of proposed regulation by the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) last year. As par its statutes, RMC is supposed to be an independent self regulatory platform for the media. In 2011, government agreed to stay out of newsrooms, in exchange for the media committing to RMC scrutiny. As a result, no journalists would end up in jail for professional mistakes, at least that was the intention.

In December last year, RMC issued a set of guidelines that required YouTubers to register. To get the badge, one would pay Rwf 50,000 ($52). RMC said the move was only meant for YouTubers who wanted to practice as journalists. When the project became public, the reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that RMC abandoned the idea altogether.

As the authorities remain uneasy at the growing use of YouTube, we explore what is driving Rwandans to YouTube. The money it offers, is what those we interviewed unanimously said is the key driver. In a society where opportunities are scarce and traditional media paying peanuts, yet thousands are graduating from university every year, YouTube is offering some reprieve.

It is a daunting task earning $70

Niyitegeka, highlighted at beginning of the story, opened his ‘Papa Sava’ channel in September 2018. “My intention was not to get money from YouTube, but to make content for entertainment,” he told us. After five months, he started the YouTube monetization process. He received $800 as his first pay in six month. Since then, Niyitegaka has been smiling to the bank every month, as cash flood gates have opened up.

Like all businesspeople, Niyitegeka avoids speaking about his YouTube success in penny-by-Penney details. ‘You and I know that’s a business secret (ibanga ry’akazi),’ is how he responded when asked about incomes related to his business. But then added: “There is money in YouTube! Some make not less than Rwf 5.6m monthly. The most important thing is start by displaying your talent. Soon, people will be rushing to you. The money shouldn’t be your starting point.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Semana Alexis was a music mixer in clubs based in eastern Rwanda, or, among those commonly known as Deejays. Semana said he earned Rwf 60,000 monthly. With the clubs closed since March 2020, and no other employment option on the table, Semana convinced four of his friends and they launched ‘Gasikiri ComedyStyle’ YouTube channel. He had Rwf 22,000 ($23) that he spent on drinks and other basic expenses.

Months later, Semana tell us his channel is still small but its monetization brings him enough money to share with his four colleagues, and still remain with money three times more than what he earned while deejaying. He is not sure if he will go back to playing music in clubs when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

From the many successful YouTubers we approached, it is difficult to find anyone willing to give a step-by-step process of how to grow a YouTube channel up to monetization. From the beats they shared, we have gathered that some get money via pay from YouTube from the number of views and subscribers. Here, the moment a channel reaches 1,000 subscribers and at least 40,000 views, YouTube automatically sends you requests to start the monetization process. The starting amount, if you meet the criteria, is unusually $70 (Rwf 70,000).

Having a star YouTube channel also comes with another accolade; the YouTube Creator Awards, commonly known as YouTube Play Buttons or YouTube Plaques. When a channel reaches 100,000 subscribers, it will receive the ‘Silver Creator Award’. For any channel, the delivery of this plaque direct from YouTube headquarters, is a huge person PR moment.

It is not easy to attract this number of subscribers and viewers, according to the YouTubers we interviewed. Perhaps, which explains why some have found themselves on the wrong side of the government’s preferred version of social media content. Some of the YouTubers arrested and released, had carried alarming and sensational titles, yet content was nowhere related. According to Police, some of those detained admitted they had posted those videos to attract views.

As YouTube channels grow, some companies are noticing. They pay to have their products or services appear on the channel. Some of our sources said socialites were paying them to appear on their channels, such as to cover their birthdays, weddings and marriage proposals. In some cases, young men and women struggling to make it into the celebrity circles, are reportedly paying YouTubers to popularise them. All channels are, curiously, labelled “TV”.

The opportunities YouTube offers, it seems, are as big as one’s imagination can reach and actualize in content production.

Up until August last year, Yves Nkuyemuruge was working at a broadcaster based in eastern province. He left the media job and now works full-time as a YouTuber. Nkuyemuruge and a friend of his have developed their own niche. They started YouTube channels, grew its subscribers and sold them.

In 2020 alone, they sold 4 YouTube channels, with the lowest of them fetching Rwf 2.9m. For a duo based in an upcountry setting, this amount of money is a fortune. Nkuyemuruge has used his incomes to start a video production business. He struggled as an employee, now he is a job creator.

‘Selling politics’ on YouTube

From our review, we noted that many of the YouTubers are former journalists at local television stations, and radio presenters. With the media unable to pay some of its staff, those unable to keep going, quickly evolve into YouTube content producers. Using the experience of working for a media, such as the ability to look for relevant news and information, journalists have found it less of a challenge especially that Rwandans don’t easily accept to be interviewed.

It is however, not just the young journalists that have moved to YouTube. Some are using their long media experience to hit the YouTube jackpot.

Etienne Gatanazi has worked for nearly every local broadcaster that matter. He also had a stint at Chinese global broadcaster CGTN. Using his access, Gatanazi launched ‘Real Talk Channel’.

He has been in the news lately amid accusations from the national commission for the fight against genocide (CNLG) that his channel promotes narratives that negate and deny the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The commission has put Gatanazi, and several others with similar channels, on notice that they risk prosecution if they keep giving platform to genocide deniers. Supporters of government on social media have harshly attacked Gatanazi and others. Gatanazi has dismissed the allegations saying that whatever he is doing is within his right to free speech and offering a platform to divergent views.

For, Gatanazi, he also confirmed to our reporter that he has also monetised the channel. He was non-commital as to how much he is making from YouTube due to the channel’s popularity.

“It is difficult for anyone to discuss their income,” he said. “What you need to note is that there is no static figure of payment every month. This month you may earn Rwf 5m top, and then much less the next month. The payment depends on content you post. The better the content, the more the subscribers and viewers.”

Rwandan exiles, aware of the power that YouTube has become, have their own channels with thousands of subscribers. Some use their channels to advance their genocide negationist agenda, which they hide behind supposed opposition to the government of President Paul Kagame.

Away from the emotional temperatures Gatanazi’s channel and others have provoked, there are others channels which have been forces for good. One channel recently helped fundraise over $60,000 within days for treatment of a young daughter to a renowned pastor. On another channel, a story of a woman living with body paralysis for years raised Rwf 7m for her treatment. Some desperate poor Rwandans have seen their lives change overnight after appearing in a YouTube testimony.

Former journalist and radio host Emma Claudine Ntirenganya runs another vibrant channel where she conducts sex education. With over 134,000 subscribers, the channel ‘Emma Claudine’ has so far reached 11m views – a huge following by Rwandan standards. In the local media, Ntirenganya has won herself the title of “Shangazi” (aunt or counselor). We didn’t interview her, but considering the popularity of her channel, it is difficult to imagine it isn’t making her bank accounts respecatble.

Like Niyitegeka, the actor and comedy producer, another figure is making a killing from YouTube. Before COVID-19 emerged, Mugisha Emmanuel, widely known by stage name ‘Kibonge’, had endless shows. With no public gatherings allowed in the pandemic, and everyone depending on their phone for entertainment, Mugisha’s “Umuturanyi” series on YouTube is helping overcome boredom. He works with more than 10 people on the channel.

Asked whether they were paying taxes from the revenues earned, most confirmed in the affirmative. We couldn’t independently verify.

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