O’Plérou Grebet from Cote d’Ivoire — or Ivory Coast — wants people to see that there is more to Africa than what is so often reported in the Western media.
While representation in official emoji sets has been improving in recent years, for the 21-year-old graphic design student, simply having the same set of emoji in different skin shades wasn’t enough.
Using his love for drawing and graphic design skills, Grebet began a project in 2018 to create a whole series of emoji to better reflect his own culture — as a challenge to himself and to the wider world to think more deeply about representation.
According to the Guardian, for every day of the year, Grebet designed an emoji that for him reflected West African culture.
“I wanted to create a project to promote African cultures to change the image the Western media have of Africa,” he told the Guardian.
And what better starting point for shattering stereotypes about poverty and hunger than showcasing his home country’s cuisine?
In the first week of the challenge Grebet shared designs of different types of food and drinks on his Instagram.
“People love to eat,” he added.
Some of the designs included foutou (mashed plantain and cassava), and bissap (a plastic bag filled with dried hibiscus flower juice), which is reportedly one of his favourite images because of his memories related to it.
“Women sell it in little plastic bags outside of schools, and I bought it from kindergarten to high school,” he explained.
Grebet now has a collection of emoji called Zouzoukwa (meaning "picture" in the south-western Ivory Coast language, Bété) made up of more than 375 emoji.
The young designer wants to see more tech companies create products that are representative, but he says social media has made it easier for people to make their voices heard and to impact what these companies create.
While this project is aimed at educating people about West African culture more broadly, Grebet told creative media platform It’s Nice That that he had noticed a lack of relatable emoji for Africans to use in daily life.
“When we talk to our friends using instant messaging, there are local expressions we want to use but can’t because they are not there,” he said.
So Grebet's emoji also have another purpose — providing a platform to help showcase and communicate those localised expressions.
This inspired the first facial expression in the collection called “You Saw That”, which he says helps fill the gap in communication.
The emoji shows a popular gesture in Cote d’Ivoire that is used as a way of saying “I told you so”.
“I love it because it’s exactly why my project is useful to an African,” he explains.
Grebet isn’t the only one who thinks this representation and localised communication is important.
He was also gifted an Apple Macbook by an advertising agency to enable him to create designs that are compatible for both iOS and Android phones.
And earlier this year, he launched a collection of his designs as stickers on the Google app store — which have now been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
While Grebet is working on a submission to the Unicode Consortium — an organisation that sets the standards for characters across different platforms, and has to approve an emoji before it can become official — to have the designs approved as official emoji, the designs can for now be used as stickers or standalone images.