Screenshot: Meta

How an East African cycling team became the face of Meta’s vision

Team Amani are the unlikely stars of a major new ad campaign.

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Spend enough time in front of a screen at the moment, and chances are you’ll see it – a kaleidoscopic, vibrant ad featuring a team of African cyclists riding on gravel roads, on indoor trainers, and in the future. It’s the latest major campaign from Meta – the corporation formerly known as Facebook – and it uses cycling as a lens to view the potential of the company’s technology. It is, a Meta spokesperson told CyclingTips, a visual representation of “the future possibilities of the metaverse … and how the benefits of the metaverse can be applied to togetherness, connection and opportunity.”

While some of the technology portrayed is as yet unrealised, the stars of the ad are very real. They are Team Amani, a collective of cyclists based across East Africa – in Rwanda, in Kenya, and in Uganda – that have harnessed the possibilities of e-racing to reach their goals. The team was originally founded to provide racing opportunities for East African cyclists in the hope of sidestepping the sport’s structural barriers. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the pause was reframed as an opportunity: through e-racing, the cyclists were able to gain experience and overturn entrenched prejudice.

Now that the world is returning to some hazy kind of new-normal, the team’s athletes – male and female, from all three countries – are regular attendees on the gravel race circuit, along with racing on Zwift. The ad that they feature in was produced by the Droga5 agency – a multi-award winning company who’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the world – and is currently screening across social media, TV, and streaming video, “with launch week placement highlights including America’s Got Talent, The Bachelorette, Major League Baseball, MasterChef and the Video Music Awards.”

All of which would be a big deal for any cycling entity, let alone one from half a world away, in East Africa.

Intrigued by this lavish, high-budget ad and what it meant for Team Amani, I reached out to the team’s ‘Head Cheerleader’, Mikel Delagrange – an American human rights lawyer, based in Switzerland, currently working between Palestine and Darfur – for insight into the genesis of the campaign, what its goals were, and where things could grow from here.

CyclingTips: I’m reaching out to you because we saw the Amani and Meta campaign, which raised some interesting questions and was also just a cool video. What can you tell me about how this partnership came about?

Mikel Delagrange: It’s a cautionary tale of not deleting what you think might be spam too quickly. [laughs] Basically – it was around March, I think –  I got maybe a one liner in the Amani inbox that said, we can’t tell you who we are or who we represent or what this is about. But sign this non-disclosure agreement [NDA], and we’ll tell you more.

At that point, it wasn’t even Meta. It was Droga5 that sent me the email, which is this amazing production company in Manhattan. But yeah – that was the email, and I was like, ‘this is likely spam’, you know, and nearly deleted it.

I mean, it sounds like spam.

Yeah, yeah! But then, I was like, ‘NDA’? That’s a new trick for a Nigerian scam-artist … so I thought I’d open it up and see. So I opened the NDA, and I’m a lawyer of course, so I could see that it was a real one. So it was like, ‘let’s just see how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

It was super intense from the get-go, because it was really thorough. And so I was on the phone with my counterpart there, I think for maybe an hour a day for like, two months.

They knew more about us than I think anybody before. It was a really serious production. It was a massive production when they ended up greenlighting it and they came and shot that film with our athletes in Masaka, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; and Iten [also Kenya]. And we negotiated a deal for the athletes, which was really, really beneficial for them individually – kind of life-changing for everyone on the team.

The production itself was completely insane. There were creatives in like three or four different production houses. From South Africa, from L.A., from London … they flew in like 50 people. It was completely crazy – it was awesome. Some of the best people in the world at this thing that they do, to film that little piece. It was really cool.

I was trying to figure out whether this was part of a suite of different ads, looking at the different ways that the metaverse could be used for a range of different applications – music, education, whatever – or whether this is just the ad that they’re doing, ya know? Is this part of a broader campaign?

Well, I mean, it is probably part of a broader campaign, but I think for this year, this was the big gamble. This was the big production. And I think, obviously, they’re trying to use our micro story to tell a macro story about the potentiality of the metaverse. If there is a series, I don’t think it would be coming out this year. I think this was the big thing.

And how broad is its distribution?

My dad says he sees it twice a day in the US. [laughs] They’re playing it in the World Series … it’s all over the place. TV, Internet, social media. I think they’re pushing it pretty hard.

Do you know how they initially came across Team Amani? That seems to require some sort of inside knowledge, or at least an interest in cycling at their end.

No bullshit, I think it may have been your article.

Oh, right! Well. Glad to play a small part!

Yeah, it was awesome. [laughter] But I think, you know, that was the one piece that we really dove deep into that nexus between technology and ripping borders down and all of this. They were pretty well briefed on that topic when in a conversation.

Screenshot: Meta

Is there any indication from Meta on how, specifically, they can create that digital space for the vision that’s outlined in the ad?

My interactions don’t have anything to do with what they’re doing. I have no idea. But my suspicion is that they’re more interested in the platform than they are about the individual applications. It’s like they’re creating a universe – they don’t care about the countries or the planets within it. I think they just want to build the platform, build the universe, and then we do with it what we want.

To shift to something a bit more real –  the ad came out late August, right around the same time as the death of [Team Amani captain] Suleiman Kangangi. [This interview was conducted while Delagrange was in Kenya, having just attended Kangangi’s funeral.]

Firstly – that’s a really horrible thing, and I’m really sorry, and hope you’re all doing as well as can be expected. But specifically in relation to this campaign, which Sule has a starring role in – has that had any impact on the way that it’s been rolled out or anything? Have things been held back or scaled down, or anything like that?

Yeah, for sure. I think if that obviously had not occurred, the enthusiasm and the push of the film would have probably been a lot stronger. It has to be tempered, especially from our side – we didn’t even promote it until yesterday.

But that being said, I’ve been talking with Sule’s wife, and the team and everything. And, you know, once we’ve properly honoured our friend, another conclusion was that everyone wanted to honour the legacy and the dream and push forward. And so that’s what we told [Meta]. And they added a little tribute at the end. That’s the only thing that sort of changed since the event.

A final question, with no judgment attached. Meta isn’t a company with the most sparkling of reputations – I think it could be pretty strongly argued that some of their conduct has been actively damaging to various groups of people. Was there any resistance or reluctance from Amani to be hitching your wagon to Meta in this way?

That’s a good question. And believe me, it’s not just about Meta. It’s about any corporate entity. I suppose all of us are sort of allergic to the idea that we’ll be exploited – or the likeness of our athletes, or their geopolitical situation, or that anything will be exploited without benefitting them directly.

And so from the very beginning, that was a very strong line that we took – that we’re not going to be human rights washing, or greenwashing, or any kind of washing for any corporation, Meta included, unless their buy-in is meaningful for us, for our athletes. And this was extremely meaningful. So. In that way – first of all, it wasn’t just my decision, it was a collective decision of the team, and it was one where all of the facts were made known. And then, even with other partners, [we] had these conversations just so that they knew and that everyone was on board.

Screenshot: Meta

I think on balance, when people could see that they were going to do right by us – that it wasn’t just, you know, slapping the image of disempowered African athletes on a lunch box … that in fact, it was a story that you helped us tell about how, we’ll use any tool at our disposal to kick the door down. The messages were aligned and it wasn’t bullshit. So all things considered, this is a one-time engagement that isn’t superficial and will help us progress and proceed. And, also, them just getting the message out in the way that they have to an audience that doesn’t know about the team and what we’re trying to do – all of those things are super important.

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