“I believe as a Kenyan, as an African, that we’re all waking up to an era where we’re realizing the power of culture again through the arts. It’s the kind of future that will create a currency for us, more valuable than money”
Described as a ‘serial media entrepreneur’ Marie Lora-Mungai is our first feature in our African Creative Entrepreneurship Series. Lora-Mungai represents one of the many pioneers who are working across the continent revolutionizing the African creative sector. She shares with us her experience founding a media company, she gives us practical advice and inspires us to take on opportunities across the continent.
I was most interested in was the economic boom that I could see coming at the horizon, way before any talk of ‘Africa Rising’.
You began your career as a television journalist for CNN, Reuters, BBC, what led to your transition into media entrepreneurship in Africa?
I moved to Kenya in 2006 to become a foreign correspondent and over the following 4 years I traveled to some 15 African countries, covering the usual conflicts, elections and disasters. But what I was most interested in was the economic boom that I could see coming at the horizon, way before any talk of ‘Africa Rising’. And so I started focusing on stories about innovation, business, creativity and entrepreneurship. At the same time, the business of journalism was slowly dying. Then I met Gado, a prominent editorial cartoonist in Kenya who became my business and producing partner as we embarked on a crazy journey to launch a puppet political satire show in Kenya, The XYZ Show. The success of the show led us to build a whole company around it to start producing other types of content. In many ways, this is the continuation of my vocation as a journalist by other means: I am still motivated by the desire to tell compelling stories that say something true and important about the world we live in. I just do it now through satire, fiction, or animation, rather than through traditional fact-reporting.
You founded your own media company in Africa what would you say were your greatest challenges?
Every entrepreneur will tell you that access to capital is very challenging in Africa – almost impossible, especially in a creative field like media production. We found a solution to that problem by raising soft money – grants from foundations and other institutions. The other main challenge is human resources: finding people qualified to do the job you need them to do at a very high standard. There are just very, very few of these people on the continent, and everyone wants them. But again, we’ve found a work-around: every year we take in between 15 and 25 young trainees in various fields, and teach them everything they need to know. We hire the best and the brightest of them, and it is not uncommon for a high potential at Buni Media to move up from intern to head of a department in 2 years.
Every entrepreneur will tell you that access to capital is very challenging in Africa – almost impossible, especially in a creative field like media production.
Tell us a little about BuniTV the inspiration behind it and how it came about?
I came to think about the issue of distribution from the producer’s side. Although we had been very successful at distributing The XYZ Show (it is now followed by more than 10 million people on TV, radio, transit networks and online), it had been a challenge. At some point it became obvious to me that if Buni Media were to grow as a producer of African content, we needed to find ways to better distribute our products across the continent and across the world. Two years ago, I could see the early signs of a mobile video revolution in Africa, and that’s when I conceptualized Buni TV as a web and mobile video-on-demand platform for high quality African content.
First of all I consider that entrepreneurship is intrinsically creative. Whether you are building a tech, real estate, retail or media company, you are building something from scratch and you have to find creative ways to solve problems.Africa is a place where everybody thinks out of the box
Do you think there is a place for creative entrepreneurship in Africa? What are some of the major differences you see between the creative industry in Africa and the rest of the world?
First of all I consider that entrepreneurship is intrinsically creative. Whether you are building a tech, real estate, retail or media company, you are building something from scratch and you have to find creative ways to solve problems.
Africa is a place where everybody thinks out of the box – people have to because very often the support infrastructure is not there, so you have to make your own way. That’s one of the reasons I believe Africans are hyper-creative, and this has the potential to give Africa an edge in the global economy.
When it comes to the creative industry, Africa has two main challenges: distribution and marketing. It is extremely difficult to get your product out to people, whether it is a comic book, a film, or a painting. For some of these products, the internet, and more specifically the ubiquity of mobile phones and mobile technology, will provide an answer. That’s definitely the idea behind Buni TV.
Marketing goes hand in hand with distribution. In developed markets, some films’ marketing budgets can be as large as what the film cost to produce! This is because the studios know that marketing gives them the power to tell their audience what to like. In Africa, there has been no real effort so far (mostly because of limited budgets) to get people excited about African films. Again this is something that we recognize at Buni TV, and the reason why we invest time, money and energy into marketing the films that we distribute – something that no other VOD platform does.
Africans are hyper-creative, and this has the potential to give Africa an edge in the global economy.
Do you think that Africans can be creative consumers, buying cultural goods from within their own countries? What are some of the business opportunities that you see for creative entrepreneurship?
There isn’t yet a culture of consumption of creative products in Africa. People tend to spend money on things that are immediately useful and impact their lives in a measurable way, like a mobile phone or a car. People don’t yet buy books or paintings or fashion or films en masse like they do in more developed markets. That desire for creative products is something all of us in the creative industry thrive to foster.
There is something interesting happening though. A few years ago, most Africans with a little extra cash would aspire to purchase Western products, which were considered better in every way. It is a lot less the case now, and I predict that this want for Western things will soon disappear completely. The global recession, which spared Africa, and the continent’s recent economic and creative successes (just look at this year’s biggest film stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhat Abdi, David Oyelowo, Danai Gurira!), has shown Africans that Africa was a desirable place and a desirable idea. ‘Made in Africa’ is going to become people’s first choice.
With cheaper access to production tools, African film and television production has become more accessible around the world, within the past few years many African films have gained notoriety around the world, where do you see yourself within this space?
I see Buni Media and Buni TV as major players in that space, both in terms of creating content by producing African stories with a global appeal, and in terms of making this content available to Africans in Africa and to others in the rest of the world.
constraints actually foster creativity!
What five things would you tell someone interested in creative entrepreneurship? Anything that you would have like to know when you began.
- Don’t forget it is a business. People need to want and buy your product, so make sure you understand what your market is (is there even a market for what you want to do?) and that you address it properly.
- Build your brand. Creative businesses are portfolio businesses. You make money from a catalogue of products, not from one isolated one. What ties your various outputs together is your brand.
- Build your audience. Milk social media for all that it’s worth and start early – before the release of your product. If you are still in school, start now, you’ll have a heads up on everybody else.
- If really you suck at business or marketing, you absolutely need to find a person who is great at it to work with you.
- In general, always keep an eye out for potential partners and collaborators. It can multiply your creative and financial output by 10, plus it makes the work a lot more fun. Don’t try to do everything on your own.
If you had an unlimited budget what would you be your dream project in Africa?
I’m already working on several dream projects. I don’t think that an unlimited budget would help – again it’s a business, and your budget needs to be appropriate for your market, otherwise you’ll just crash and burn. And constraints actually foster creativity!
Any upcoming or ongoing projects we should know about?
I’m currently developing five TV shows and two feature films. Some of them are at a too early stage to discuss, but I can mention two:
Once Upon A Time in Africa is a children’s show that follows four young kids from across the continent as they travel back in time to save the memory of Africa’s ancient past from oblivion. No one knows about African history before colonization, because it’s never been taught in schools inside or outside Africa. In Once Upon A Time in Africa, we’ll take our viewers on a journey through sophisticated civilizations, colorful cultures and fascinating real stories that beg to be told. We produced the pilot for the show this year and the concept won the TV series pitch competition at DISCOP, Africa’s annual TV market. You can find out more at on Facebook and watch the teaser.
The other project you should look out for is the Nigerian version of The XYZ Show, which we are producing in partnership with the Nigerian investigative site SaharaReporters. We will be releasing it on Buni TV around March this year, and we’re very excited at this first foray into the Nigerian market.
“What’s been really great is that the majority of the filmmakers coming from Kenya are women. So, that’s broken all those barriers of “What’s it like to be a woman [in the film industry]?” ’Cause my standard answer is that I’ve never been a man.”
“I do sometimes feel that there is an expectation that, as an African director, I must focus on certain social issues deemed as ‘African’, and that other content beyond this scope is seen as not ‘African enough’. I can understand why this pressure would exist, but I feel it limits our creativity and even our own understanding of ourselves as citizens in this urbanizing and multifaceted context we call Africa.”