“Madam, did I not see you on TV last Saturday night, live from Nigeria?”
This was 7.00 am Monday morning, and I was making a Board presentation at a leading government public institution. A consortium of leading Management Consulting Firms were carrying out a well publicised national job evaluation and salary structuring project across all Kenya government institutions. This Board member had been staring, perplexed.
“You won an Award? Did you not?”. She was referring to my Best Indigenous TV/Film Award at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards, the OSCARS of Africa broadcasted live on DSTV from Lagos. My original TV series Mama Duka had scoped this award.
I made a casual affirmative comment and continued on to the next slide on the Kenya uniformed forces job grades.
I am a dual career individual. I am a Management Consultant or a Filmmaker. For a long time, those who knew me recognised me in one and not the other, until recent years.
I have enjoyed the enigma status of dark business suits and heels coupled with business speak in Board rooms and the rugged black jeans and sneakers glazed with slangy language of film sets.
‘Did you always want to be in the creative industry and were not allowed by parents?’. That statement annoys me to no end. Why this stereotyping? This is a narrow-minded approach to life. What about if I always wanted to be both?
I am not struggling with choices, I have no external powers or social obligations pushing hither and tither. My influences come from within. They are mine and I enjoy both careers. I have been cornered once and it won’t happen again. The restrictive schooling system determined I choose either arts or science subjects. And my best and subjects of choice were Physics and Literature. At age 16 years I had to choose one. I will no longer be restrained.
I am both an awardwinning filmmaker and a leading Management Consultant.
“What happened to literature? Are you not going to study that?”. My father had just discovered that I intended to study Business and not Literature at university. That was a surprise. You see, at age 14, my father failed to compliment me on my greatly improved school report card. I complained. His response was instant. “You are not schooling for my benefit!” That sorted it. I was personally responsible for my school work and academic choices. I got it.
Fast forward to this day when I was ‘booking’ him to transport me to college. I thought this was a glorious opportunity for daddy and his girl career moment. So I asked him “… bachelors degree and career do you think most suitable for me?”
“If you decide on sweeping streets for a career, sweep the Nairobi City Council streets so squeaky clean that you write a Best Seller on how to keep the City streets clean.” “But should you decide to be a Bank Robber…..” You see Nairobi had just had its first bank heist! “Be a real good one and never get caught by the authorities”, said my father, a stout Catholic to the core.
That was the sum total of career advice from my well educated and informed father. It shaped me on what I wanted to be and the reason the question ‘Did you always to take a creative idea and was not allowed’ tops my list of ridiculous.
I was free to do whatever I wanted so long as I did it well. And if I did it badly, that was also solely up to me. I learnt to do self analysis from a very early age.
I entered college when my hero Ngugi wa Thiongo had just gone into exile. His prowess in literature was his undoing. I love my country to the sky, so what was I going to do about my two loves? Literature and country. If I got so good in literature and authoring books, would I get into trouble with the government and have to leave my country? Well, I decided a Business degree was safer and I convinced myself, with business bachelors, I was likely to get good jobs and get rich.
Within months of graduation, I was working for my dream employer, Price Waterhouse as Management Consultant Trainee. Young, female and black at a time when consultants were Old, White and Male – three things I could not change, but worked hard to circumvent the challenges and stereotyping.
From left to right Renee Sewe, Pierra Makena, Cleopatra Koheirwe, Susan Nalwoga
The work hours and travel were insane. The challenges of being a young African woman in a male dominated environment could be measured in rector scales. I found sanity in watching movies for relaxation. I built a library of VHS tapes that at one time had six hundred and fifty movies in my library at home. I was also simultaneously, a member of 3 different Video Shops. Those were the days when you subscribed to the neighbourhood shop where you hired tapes for a small fee.
‘I could write a movie!’ I kept telling myself. My hobby was fast transiting into a career.
The industry was still in its infancy. I knew no film maker. Had never seen or read a film script. But I had many stories stored in my head.
Then MultiChoice Mnet entered the market and swiftly announced a competition called ‘New Directors’. They were looking for short film script submissions. I rushed to their offices and asked “Do you have a category for beginners?”. The answer was both troubling and pleasant. “The general standards are low, so we assume everyone is a beginner. We do not have categories, but we have a starters pack. Read it carefully and off you go..,”, said the officer.
Words like ‘Treatment’ puzzled me. The only treatment I knew of is what you received in hospitals. ‘Action lines’ sounded like swaying swords on the paper. ‘Fish out of water’ is an understatement.
But I was certain of one thing. I was a good story teller. So, during my long drives and frequent flights on consultancy work, I occupied myself by working out a story and storyline.
About four hours to the competition deadline, I left the office. Told my Manager I had to go home and do the most drafty script and submit it. Submission was the target and not the quality. Even the longest and toughest journeys start with a first step, I told myself.
I submitted. I forgot all about it. Six months later I was announced the national winner!
The greatest fluke or hidden talent was my summation. I promised myself that I would work even harder, save up good money then take a not less than 3 months sabbatical. I would go and learn with the very best in the industry then resolve the dichotomy of ‘Fluke or Talent?’.
Four years later, I exited Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and I went “Girl, you are nuts… but here we go?” I had arrived in USA on a Tourist Visa for a 12 months filmmaking course with New York Film Academy based at Universal Studios. I knew not where I would be spending the first night, neither where Universal Studios was.
I returned home 10 months later convinced, the New Directors win was not a fluke but identification of real and potential talent. I wanted to be a film scriptwriter. And I was also broke like a church mouse, having spent all my savings.
Back to consultancy with the belief that sooner rather than later, I will re-enter the film industry. Barely a year later, as I struggled to balance Management Consultancy and Script Writing I had a call from Mnet. I was going to supervise the first East Africa high end drama Changes. My connection to the project was that the story was created by my first cousin’s daughter, Serah Mwihaki. She had invited me to her pitching session at Mnet. Little did I know it would be the winning project.
“The story is great. The team very young and technically great but a little green on managing large budget etc. …This is why we need you as Executive Producer,” the Commission Editor from South Africa explained.
Hold on, now I am a Producer? I expressed my concern. The response was fast. “Think about it, what is the difference between managing a large Management Consultancy assignment and a film production project?”. Same principles!
Thus my journey in film industry began by climbing the tree from the top.
I am now the founder and Executive Producer of Zebra Productions. We have won more than 11 awards and nominations for our productions. In the inaugural Women in Film Awards, I was awarded the Most Influential Woman Personality in Film. I have taken role of Chief Juror in several Pan African film awards which include: AMVCA – the Oscars of Africa, Kenya Kalasha International Film Awards (The Kalashas), Kenya International Sports Films Festival (KISFF), The Uganda Film Festival awards (UFF) and was also Patron to the Burundi International Festival of Cinema and Audiovisual (FESTICAB – Le cinéma burundais peine à plaider pour la paix.
I am also quoted in the New York Film Academy as a ‘Notable Alumni’ and represent NYFA in East Africa.
I am a member of the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and a Juror with their International Emmys Awards.
I a Founder and first Academy Director for the MultiChoice Talent Academy, a multichoice fully sponsored film academy covering Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia from a hub in Nairobi.
In Management Consultancy, I now limit my work to Executive Recruitment, Psychometrics Profiling, Change Management and Culture Change programmes. I choose and pick the assignments based on limited travel and potential for working with a team and delegation and supervising majority of the tasks. I feel very privileged to have recruited some of the leading national figures.
The chickens are coming home to roost. My two careers are culminating into the strategies and key strategic thrust of my company Zebra Productions Kenya Ltd. I am currently producing a commissioned TV Telenovela which is possibly the largest in East Africa. I employ 180-240 cast and crew, operate from 4 physical locations and with over 23 sets. Over 75% of the cast and crew are below age 34. It’s a youthful production and employment. That comes with challenges of managing the GenZ lot. There are many productions happening in Kenya today. The country is fast running out of well experienced Crew and Cast. We have become the school after school.
The TV/Film industry in Kenya owes its genesis to high end TV commercials of the 70s/80s when Nairobi was the hub for East and Central Africa. Nairobi became the supplier for crew on good fees. Now nearly all universities are competing in establishment of film departments. They are grossly underfinanced. They do not have the equipment. Many universities, their lecturers have background in Theatre not Production. The teaching is largely theoretical though there is some progress in this area.
Film schools such as Kenya Film School and the MultiChoice Talent Factory are also providing film training by actually making films. I find the graduates from these two academies ready for hire. However, many want to be independent producers.
Independent producers have to deal with the challenge of financing. Film, unlike other industries have a more uncertain return on investment. Not until Kenya and Africa in general prioritise African-eyes-for-Africa content! Not until we watch more of our productions will the demand and supply formula be more profitable. But you cannot force audiences to watch your productions for patriotic reasons. We producers have to produce well-developed and produced stories that can compete internationally.
Where to Africa? The key players, Producers, Government Policy makers and Training Institutions have to work seamlessly. Currently often, they work divergently. We have a long way to go. Players in the industry also need professional Guilds and Associations. Most important, that these are put under one umbrella. At times, when guilds are finally formed, they spend more time competing against each other. We need a national federation that speaks for all in one voice. We the industry players need to be more professional if we are going to influence policies at national level. And that is what is needed to create an environment that is conducive to the growth of our industry.