COVID-19 Meme Project: Creative Sector’s Response to Societal Issues
I was asked to speak at the UNDP’s COVID-19 & the Creative Sector webinar. I spoke about our COVID-19 Meme Project that we launched in March 2020. The conversation explored the role of the creative sector in the pandemic response.
Since 2017, I normally take a social media break in November. Last year, during my break, I was watching news channels, and reading long-format articles from across the world.
There was this disease coming out of Wuhan, China. It wasn’t something the world was to be worried about. However, I remember thinking we’re directly connected to China in many ways, let me listen in.
Until February 2020, there was sporadic news of this disease. But at that time it was facts based on what was known & shared by scientists mostly. There were conspiracy theories but they didn’t gain enough traction to cause much worry.
When COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic, everything went into overdrive including the proliferation of fake news. It’s like immediately everyone started paying attention, everybody became an expert, an opinion leader, a news reporter. Basically, fake news started making its way on social media & beyond at an alarming rate.
By the time COVID-19 landed in Kenya, in March, it was purely about fear and fear-mongering. No one was sharing facts, because no one really knew the facts. Everybody was sure once you got Corona, you died. It took the Government a while to start putting out content that was desperately needed.
It was then an idea popped into my head. To create factual, vibrant content that could be shared on Whatsapp. Why Whatsapp?
My concern was for the people who used Whatsapp as their holy grail platform for information. I felt that people on more than one social media platform could work through all the contradictory information; and to make a judgment on what was wrong or right.
But our WhatsApp Aunties & Uncles tend to fwd memes, screenshots, and other things. For some reason become more viral than truthful content. The initial idea was to translate all the content into as many languages in Kenya and Africa as possible.
Once I got the conviction, I figured I wasn’t the only one who was concerned. I also needed help because I had my regular work to get done.
I went to the one place I know where people are most likely as concerned about things I was. Twitter.
I did a call-out tweet at 2:18 pm on day zero of COVID-19 in Kenya. Immediately I got responses, if someone wasn’t interested to come onboard themselves, they tagged someone.
The team was made up of a nice mix of talents and expertise:
I want to give ALL the credit to the COVID-19 Mem Project team. They showed up and did the work on the general premise that their contribution would help greatly. There was no demand for payment upfront or at any point, it was pure volunteer work.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.Margaret Mead
In the back end I was reaching out to different people, applying to different grants & funding opportunities,. I was looking for ways to find finances and pay them something for their time.
Once enough people were on board, we moved the conversation to Whatsapp group. Everything happened quickly, and within the weekend,
The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Friday 13th March. By Monday 15th March we had our COVID-19 Meme Project content ready. We spread the word on Whatsapp and in our personal pages on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & LinkedIn. We simply provided a link to Google Drive where the content was (is still) stored. Our main tag was: #SpreadInfoNotPanic
The initial 1-2 weeks were hectic as we tried to see what the information gaps were. Then gather content and fact check with the medical team. Then the content would be written out, translated to Kiswahili & artwork created.
We were also using Whatsapp voice notes to record voice-overs for the GIFs & animations that we created. We would later get Meru translations but didn’t get to work on that content.
Initially, we made the mistake of restricting access to the COVID-19 Meme Project folder. At some point, I was dealing with over 100 requests in an hour. So we made the decision to make it accessible to all.
If we had kept the folder restricted we’d have had better statistics on how many people accessed and downloaded. However, because Google Drive doesn’t keep track of such analytics; we had to let go of that area of impact assessments and just work on the content.
However, on Twitter, just top-line stats between the period of March 15th and April 15th. On posts related to COVID-19 Meme Project on my personal account garnered 240,938 Impressions & 11,104 engagements.
At the end of March, we opened an official account for the project dubbed Pashana (meaning share information). Within 90days it had garnered 81,200 Impressions and had a 0.8% engagement rate.
The account’s Top Tweet was about the article UNDP wrote about our project. The stats were as follows 8,333 Impressions, 189 Engagements, and a 2.3% engagement rate.
Coordinating the COVID-19 Meme Project took up so much time. At some point, I had to drop my regular work to get this done. I dropped two projects, one that I eventually lost entirely; and another that I caught up on to finish much much later.
The thing to talk about was burn-out. Not just from doing the work but also because of the overwhelming nature of the pandemic. Everything was taking a toll on everyone. We were all at home, we didn’t know how this pandemic would truly affect us. I even knew of a few people who were getting suicidal about the new norm. Mental health was taking a beating!
One of our core members, a Health professional, was drafted to take care of COVID-19 patients. I remember thinking that things have hit the fan, this is no longer in the background but a reality. We kept her in our prayers as much as we could, it was a really scary time.
At this point, we had created all the content we could have. Team members were now grappling with the reality of work slowing down. Since there was no funding for the project, I made the decision to let it sit on the back burner. I was not willing to ask these brave & selfless volunteers to do more than I could remunerate them for.
I have over time become a firm believer in Africans, and especially artists, documenting our work. Art & artforms from concepts, ideas from conceptualization, collaboration to completion. Future generations should find what we did, how we did it. And know what sort of impact it had in our time.
So while I was licking my wounds from the burnout, I started thinking about sustainability for the project. I was working on how the project could go beyond us on the Covid-19 MEME Project.
The idea was to capture everything and anything done in this period. From wall to street art to music to photography, and even conversations between experts across Africa. The platform was set up but it lost momentum when after applying for funding & support nothing came through. Also at this point, the government was doing a good job with the dispensing of information.
I noted that while some people were losing jobs, projects and everyone had no clue what next. Right at the beginning HEVA put out a survey that later on garnered 510 applications. It felt good that someone knew my plight, wanted to understand it in a bid to try, and agitate for some sort of solution.
In the spaces where Creatives were having conversations, I noted some sort of rejuvenation. Which later that then has blossomed into work output that we are seeing coming out now. It’s like talking about the dilemma gave some sort of hope & restoration.
One of the places where this was happening was with a friend who was having conversations with various friends, myself included. The culmination of these conversations was the calling of a meeting for all those she had been chatting with to meet.
Long story short, 6 Women met at a restaurant on a Saturday morning, and Meza Yetu was born. We talked about how in the dry spell of our time in 2020 and before we were always trying to join or be included in other people’s tables for work, projects, inspiration and money.
We thought why not bring together our various creative skills namely Project Management, Graphic Design, Writing, Social Media Management, Production, Photography, Fund Raising and so much more to create for ourselves space for ideas and projects that we want to work on.
Our first campaign has just concluded. It’s the #16DaysofActivism on Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls. We started on Instagram and have had reach on TV and Twitter.
I’ve taken you through a few stages that I went through to come up with the COVID-19 Memes Project in collaboration with Medics & Creatives. They are not just steps for this project but for everything we will ever get to work on.
You have to always be aware of the topic or issue we are dealing with. This is built by doing research, such as talking to people who are well versed with the topic. Always read reliable sources of information, and read different ones so that you can understand beyond just one person’s perception. If you can get experts on the topic on board your project, to fact check, even better.
You have to be inspired enough to start doing it. Without inspiration, you might not go the long haul. You might get the money, the reception, reaction, and impact you might desire but to keep the project going, remaining inspired to the cause is important. You can put a time frame to the project allowing you a period in which to push through your inspiration. Finally, get people who are as interested and inspired as you are on board to keep that flame burning.
You might have to collaborate. From experience, I know that previous collaborations might not have gone well, but you dust yourself off and keep trying. Collaboration brings ideas to the table that you might have not thought about or had thought about but cannot execute. Collaboration helps with not only content but reach, and impact. Two things needed to build awareness, and inspire action regarding a societal issue.
You have to do the work. Always start with what and who you have. Don’t wait to have it all picture perfect because that never comes. Also, societal issues need action not perfection. Perfection is the cause of most cases if not all of procrastination. The world needs to see, hear and experience your contribution, so just start.
You have to consider how to document the project you’ve created is it via a micro-site such as Instagram YouTube or Twitter. Choose the best platform for the content you generate, for example, video content sits best on YouTube, while highly visual content would be best on Instagram. However, the best way to document is preferably on your own multimedia website. You can even create a reporting website such as
Finally, you have to think about sustainability. Sadly we’re tasked with this deliverable right at the beginning of most projects. Yet we really don’t know how everything will turn out. Hence the need for incubation, accelerator labs such as the one hosted by UNDP, and artist residency spaces to allow for experimentation, learning, and reworking of ideas.
When the creative process is allowed to thrive unfettered without repercussions such as undelivered KPIs, we might see more experimentation of ideas & solutions. I bet you before Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he had a place to image, sketch, and build the dream.