The Africa Centre continues to support the local community by refocusing their services online


The Africa Centre, which is based in Southwark, offers an inclusive space where African culture and diversity is celebrated. The charity’s premises at The Old Union Yard Arches would normally be a hub for cultural, social, educational, intellectual and entrepreneurial activity, but since lockdown these activities, which help fund the charity’s development, have come to a stop.

A successful bid to Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund recently secured a £35,000 grant to improve and expand the organisation’s digital engagement, and build a new website which is helping them navigate through the Coronavirus crisis.

Director Kenneth Tharp said: “All current programmes are on hold or redirecting to online community engagement. When we realised the community couldn’t come into our space, we swiftly re-focussed our energies on what else we could do for them. We have helped to link them to resources they may need, to what government and charity support there is. We have provided helpful online activities such as weekly live DJ and fitness sessions, delivered via Instagram, and we’ve been piloting discussion on the important subject of mental health. A recent survey has helped us learn more about what our followers want from us right now.”

When lockdown was announced The Africa Centre had already stopped its face-to-face activities. They initially planned for a shutdown of only two weeks. Three months later, and two of their team of six were furloughed, leaving the remainder to cope with the pressure of trying to meet community needs and keep a major capital project on track.

Thanks to a rent-free period offered by the charity’s landlords, The Arch Company, the Centre has been able to continue its vital work. Director Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp said: “Rent is one of our biggest outgoings. The rent holiday took a huge burden off us immediately. It was incredibly welcome. Not only did it ease the pressure on the four members of the team who weren’t on furlough, it also eased some of the conversations we had with our trustees about our immediate sustainability.”

The Africa Centre first opened its doors in 1964 in London’s Covent Garden. When they later had to move from the property they bought a new four-storey building which is due to be redeveloped later this year in Great Suffolk Street, Southwark, the borough with the largest Black-African population in London. The new building will have a café, bar and restaurant across two floors, a dedicated gallery and event space, learning and research centre, global classroom and a business suite.

Two neighbouring railway arches were leased so the Centre can continue its work while the building is redeveloped. When all three spaces are open, they hope to offer a ‘mini African cultural quarter in the heart of London’.

Usually the Centre is a vibrant hub of activity with hot desks and entrepreneurs coming and going. It is even host to an independent  commercial radio station – Colourful Radio. Kenneth said: ‘Day to day, Covid19 has had a huge impact. We have no regular public funds so we rely on earned income and fundraising. We hire our spaces commercially for events and regularly work with others in the community to run events, and we were working hard to grow that. But like theatres and cinemas, all our income stopped overnight with almost no prospect of holding events of any size in the near future.”

Now the Africa Centre’s arch spaces may have to be completely reconfigured, with no hot desks and fewer people in the hub, which will directly impact on its income. Kenneth said: “This changes the dynamic. The Centre is an incredibly vibrant place. For our long term survival we are looking at all options and will leave no stone unturned looking at new sources of income. It’s not all doom and gloom but fundraising is a lot more challenging in these times.