Meet the student who designed African Emojis

Meet O’Plerou Grebet, who has created emojis with West African cultural references.

The 21-year-old from the Ivory Coast aims to study 3D design and virtual reality so he can find new ways of honouring African tradition. His invention, known as ‘Zouzoukwa African emojis’ has more than 350 downloadable emojis.

In a bid to create something Africans can relate to, Grebet, a graphic designer was motivated to develop these emojis which comprise images like African food dishes like garba (popular dish made from cassava meal), worô-wôro (communal taxis of Abidjan), national monuments such as the Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix basilica of Yamoussoukro, the traditional costumes of different communities or typical expressions like “You saw, right?” and dark-skinned black people making faces usually used by Africans.

Reacting to the wide acceptance of his invention, Grebet, born to a civil servant father and optician mother, both retired noted that when he launched his project in January 2018, he knew that “it would please, but not so much. “

“Zouzoukwa”, means “image” in the Bété language. He had a simple concept to publish an emoticon (or smiley) inspired by the Ivorian culture and society of today every day for one year, on social networks. 

Each emoticon is numbered, captioned, sometimes explained. The emojis are currently available on android devices.

The Zouzoukwa idea came to him “like that, all of a sudden,” during a conversation with a friend on WhatsApp. “Seeing all the smileys embedded in the application, I thought that I was missing some to describe our Ivorian realities, to make our jokes. And I thought I could create it myself!” he said.

Even when it was barely published in 2008, the first drawings caught the attention of Internet users and local media. More than 1,000 likes on Instagram for the first emoticon representing the inevitable balls of foutou (paste based on plantain and cassava).

He soon got acknowledged for his invention at the meeting place for digital actors in French-speaking Africa, when he won the Young Talent Award at Africa Digital Communication Days (Adicom Days). 

He then went on to collaborate with the French Channel Canal+, which used some of his “made in Ivo” emoticons on social networks during the football World Cup in June and July. He also collaborated with an Ivorian brand of clothing and accessories, Imalk Concept which use Zouzoukwa smileys on bags.

 “My five favourite emojis are the Bissap (hibiscus juice) bag. It is the most beautiful to me. The point-point, a game I played when I was younger in school, You have: You saw that? we say this a lot in Ivory Coast, Senegal’s ‘Car Rapide’, I never took it but I love its design and the Afro brush for my hair,” he told BBC Africa.

“I won two awards for my creations. The next step for me after Zouzoukwa, is to learn about 3D and Virtual Reality in order to create filters and find a new way to pay tribute to the African culture”, he indicated.

His biggest dream he says is to “Create an application through which zouzoukwa can be used by anyone on a phone. And why not, one day, whether they are directly integrated with phones or in applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram or Facebook Messenger. There, finally, the loop would be buckled.”

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