By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegalese start-ups are testing a fledgling market for online music platforms in French-speaking West Africa, where interest in digital entertainment is growing but a lack of credit cards has prevented big players from making inroads.
Long celebrated in Europe for their contribution to "world" music - with Mali's Salif Keita, Senegal's Youssou N'Dour and Benin's Angelique Kidjo household names in trendy bars - West African musicians have struggled to make money back home, where poverty is widespread and music piracy rampant.
Online music providers such as Apple's download store iTunes and streaming service Spotify are either unavailable - no one can sign up for Spotify in Africa yet - or require a credit card or bank account, which most West Africans lack.
But smartphone use is surging and entrepreneurs say there is latent demand for platforms tailored to Francophone West Africa, whose Malian "desert blues", Ivorian "zouglou" and Senegalese "mbalax" cross African borders but are only profitable in Europe, via download and streaming services.
"We started by saying, look, there is a void. Because digital distribution products are made in Europe or the U.S., for Europeans and Americans." said Moustapha Diop, the founder and CEO of MusikBi, "The Music" in the local Wolof language, a download store launched in 2016.
MusikBi, like its rivals, is small and cash strapped, but with more than 10,000 users, Diop sees potential.
The company received a boost in May when Senegalese-American singer Akon bought 50 percent of it, which Diop says will allow the company to start a new marketing campaign.
MusikBi and rival JokkoText allow users to purchase songs by text message and pay with phone credit, mobile money or cash transfers. Both want to expand throughout West Africa.
Many of the new industry entrants like MusikBi and JokkoText are based in Dakar, which is an emerging tech start-up hub for Francophone West Africa, partly thanks to the fact it has enjoyed relative political and economic stability compared with most of its neighbours.
On the streaming front, Deedo, created by a Senegalese national in France and backed by French bank BPI, will launch in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and France next month, and will offer similar payment options. Senegalese hip-hop group Daara J plans to start a streaming platform next year.
There is scant industry presence elsewhere in the region except in Anglophone Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.
PIRATES TO PAYERS
Every evening young people jog down Dakar's streets with headphones in their ears. Most download music illegally online or buy pirated CDs and USB memory sticks in street markets.
Convincing them to pay for content is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, analysts say.
"Experience shows that people are willing to pay for convenience," said David Price, director of insight and analysis at London-based industry federation IFPI.
"If you give them something attractive and affordable, they stop pirating," he said, adding that local platforms have gained followings in Latin America and India.
France's Deezer has also targeted the region in partnership with mobile operator Tigo, but has not gained a large following. Deedo meanwhile plans to launch a version of its site in Pulaar, one of West Africa's most widely spoken a languages, founder Awa Girard told Reuters.
Senegalese singer Sahad Sarr told Reuters he had sold some songs on MusikBi and was excited about Deedo, but added: "The culture here is not to buy music online. Change will be slow."
Most of his listeners on Spotify and other platforms are Senegalese people living in Europe or North America, he said.
At Dakar's main university, students showed Reuters the many websites they use to download music illegally.
Some said they would pay for a good service, but others were less convinced, like 22-year-old Macodou Loum. "Between two choices, free and not free, we will choose the free one," he said.
(Editing by Tim Cocks and Pravin Char)