Interview: What it Takes to Crowdfund from Inside Sudan
[Above picture is a still image from the OUR SUDAN short film]
Sudanese civil society’s creative and artistic efforts are starting to slowly turn to the internet and specifically to crowdfunding to secure financial support for projects. Recently, we have especially seen this in the creation of short films such as OUR SUDAN and Adam & Howa, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival “2015 Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase,” in May 2015. With Sudan suffering from US imposed sanctions, Sudanese citizens inside Sudan are not able to do any financial transactions online. Hence the support of Sudanese diaspora members with crowdfunding is essential.
Joining us today is Dimah Abdulkarim, who was part of the OUR SUDAN support team that oversaw the crowdfunding process. She is an American-Sudanese, has a background in international development and peacebuilding and has been living in Sudan for the last two years working as an organizer in supporting grassroots civil society environmental organizations.
Sawtna: Can you explain your role as a recently returning Sudanese from the diaspora, and the basic requirements that make crowdfunding technically possible?
Dimah: In Sudan, I worked with development NGOs, and I’ve participated in grassroots work on a volunteer basis with organizations working on environmental issues and peace building. But I quickly realized, soon after arriving to Sudan, and after having become acquainted with people within my own generation (I’m in my 20s), that Sudanese young people, learn of others with similar interests through online platforms. They also contact and mobilize through online platforms, the biggest being Facebook.
Crowdfunding in Sudan is still not yet developed or extensively utilized; or even realized. Most people here are not necessarily familiar with online opportunities for funding. Mainly because crowdfunding sites, such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, are developed in countries that economically sanction Sudan.
So even though in Sudan [there are] great ideas for business projects, or with interesting technological or scientific inventions, or social enterprise and initiatives, who also are aware of these platforms for raising funds online. They however, have no easy access to Kickstarter or Indiegogo or any other crowdfunding online platforms. And they are not allowed to access established, reliable crowdfunding sites.
The short answer is that the sole technical requirement to be able to access crowdfunding sites [from inside Sudan], is to have access to online banking in a non-sanctioned country, so donors can wire money through their accounts. Donors must also have non-sanctioned bank accounts, and as you know Sudan is not one of those countries.
Sawtna: OUR SUDAN chose kickstarter as the platform to execute the crowdfunding. Did you consider or research other crowdfunding platform? Why did you choose kickstarter?
Dimah: We were simply more familiar with Kickstarter at the time. We chose Kickstarter because, after looking at some of the other online crowdfunding options, we decided we simply liked Kickstarter more.
Sawtna: Was it hard to reach your designated funding goal? Was it nerve wracking given that with kickstarter you have to meet your goal or more, otherwise you don’t collect anything all?
“[I]t was nerve-wrecking using Kickstarter. We had to really work to reach our funding goals. We knew from the onset though that it wasn’t enough to simply make the video project cool, upload it to the Kickstarter page; and then sit back and watch the thumbs rolling.”
Dimah: The challenges that we faced came in different forms, and shapes and sizes. It was nerve-wrecking using Kickstarter. We had to really work to reach our funding goals. We knew from the onset though that it wasn’t enough to simply make the video project cool, upload it to the Kickstarter page, and then sit back and watch the thumbs rolling. We had to solicit our friends and family by sending emails, making calls, and redirecting them to our Kickstarter page. We also created a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which generated visibility for the short film, and it sourced a lot of potential individual donors.
The challenge that we faced was that we wanted to source people in Sudan as potential donors, we didn’t want to just stick to Kickstarter page and the Kickstarter account mode of fundraising. We attempted other fundraising options, we approached some of the local businesses here for sponsorship and support. Some of whom have followed through.
Sawtna: Can you speak about the challenges you faced–specific to the technology and also more general to fundraising?
Dimah: We faced challenges, some which we are still facing actually, even after the finishing of the film-making aspect of the project. For example part of the Kickstarter mandate is that people who gave above a certain amount, even a small amount, receive gifts in exchange for their donations. Our gifts came in the form of t-shirts and posters and some other merchandise items. The project team decided that the items must be made in Sudan. Being that we’re operating in a sanctioned country, we’ve experienced (and still are experiencing) the difficulty of shipping these items to all 130 of our donors who are all over the world. It’s not as straight forward as posting the items from Khartoum and mailing them. Just like we had to rely on those of us in the project team to have offshore bank accounts to establish the Kickstarter account, we have to rely on those of us who can travel so they can ship these items from a non-sanctioned country.
This is actually quite heavy; remember we are a small project team. All of us have full-time jobs. Imagine carrying all this merchandise with you from Sudan to the UK, in order to mail it to our individual donors in Canada and the US.
It is a requirement from Kickstarter that you give gifts to your donors. The idea is that you incentivize donors to give to a particular project more money by saying “hey, if you give me a dollar, you’ll get a thanks or a pat on the back maybe. If you give me 10 dollars you might get a bumper sticker. If you give me 50 you’ll get a t-shirt …” It’s like an incentive system with donors to feel gratified in giving. I think that’s the Kickstarter model, I don’t know if Indiegogo is the same, but I don’t know if other crowdfunding sites are necessarily quite as incentivized.
As far as challenges are concerned, regarding the project execution in Sudan, Sudan is not a country known for its civil rights – in fact we’re known recently for quite the opposite. The OUR SUDAN project is essentially a media project, unaffiliated with the state, and it’s also a non-for-profit project. So we knew what dangers there were for us in the making of this film and the risks involved in its message. There were a lot of challenges in that sense, that coupled with the difficulties and obstacles in accessing crowdfunding sites from a sanctioned country like Sudan.