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Kenya, an East African nation with a population of 53 million, and a socio-political and economic hub of the region, is a bastion of many firsts. Here are some of them;

It became the first East African nation with a Nobel Laureate; Wangari Maathai was the first black African Woman to be feted in 2004 for her conservation efforts in the country – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (2019) and Tanzanian scholar Abdirazak Gurnah (2021) are the latest laureates from the region.

The country also boasts of the first mobile money transfer solution, M-Pesa, piloted in 2010 by Safaricom. The solution has become so popular over the years that it has been adopted in many countries around the world.

Kenya is also home to Eliud Kipchoge, the first man to run a marathon in under two hours clocking a historic 1:59:40 time. Incidentally, Kipchoge and his team of pace setters completed the marathon 10 seconds quicker than the target of 1:59:50.

The list goes on for the accolades the country has managed in its 58-years of self-governance and independence.

In the face of such notable achievements, the nation’s creative industry and economy remains one of the fledgling sectors of the country, regionally, continentally and even globally. A 2019 article by Alex Roberts titled Alays Behind: Kenya’s Languishing Creative Industry starts by juxtaposing the aforementioned industry in Kenya and South Korea at the turn of the tail-end of the 20th century.

The article draws parallels between the two nations; it focuses on the influence of governance on the sector that has great potential for contribution to the respective nations’ economic growth. As well as the possibilities the creative industry offers towards the identity of the two nations globally.

It is perhaps this latter facet that offers an explanation into the diametric development strides, or lack thereof, made by the creative industry in the two nations. Two decades into the first century, the “Korean wave” is a US$ 5 billion industry and continues to leave an indelible mark on the global creative industry map.

In contrast, Kenya continues to lumber with no clear definition of her own creative industry and how it can add to other feathers in the cap of the country globally as has been the case in the field of sport and innovation. Kenya’s immediate neighbour Tanzania is further up the track in this regard with other African nations such as Nigeria and South Africa fairing galactically much, much better.

In a sense, the Nairobi, Seoul comparison has the former, hard done considering that Kenya, like many African nations coming into their own post independence, for the most part grappled with the development of their respective creative industries.

Save for the Arab north of Africa that predominantly adhered to sharia law and therefore was in step with general post-independence socio-political and economic development, Francophone and Anglophone Africa was a mixed bag.

In Nigeria between 1958 and 1997, Afro beat great Fela Kuti took on an activist stance against multiple military and democratic goverments criticising the lopsided approach to governance. In South Africa, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, led a plethora of artistes in speaking against the Apartheid government roping in the support of the international community.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Franco Luambo in the run-up to the 1984 elections penned the world-famous Candidat na Biso Mobutu (Mobutu our candidate) speaking of the inevitable victory of the incumbent Mobutu Sese Seko in the elections. The song was written under some degree of duress, Franco having had several run-ins with  the Mobutu government on account of some of his music.

Back home in Kenya the likes of Daudi Kabaka (1939 – 2001), Fadhili Williams (1938 – 2001) and Them Mushrooms and a host of other artistes, wrote several songs praising and criticising the governments of Jomo Kenyatta (1898 – 1978) and Daniel Moi (1924 – 2020). This largely adversarial relationship in a way explains the retardation that has been evident in the Kenyan creative industry.

Indeed this strained relationship can be seen permeating into Kenya’s private sector and how it interacts with the creative industry. Raymond Otieno, a freelance videographer and video editor recounts a first hand experience of delayed payments and contravening of agreed upon terms of engagement for a client project.

“I was in Ghana and Zambia and normally we would get per diems because the areas we were shooting at were extreme and very hostile. The mode of transport is supposed to be able to accommodate you and then travelling and getting enough rest so that you are able to shoot properly as per the schedule,” Raymond said.

“However, for my posting along with my colleagues, most of these were not provided. Half the time we travelled without per diems at all. Meanwhile, this was the second engagement with this client as we had travelled earlier in the year. We hadn’t received pardiems for the first assignment and the pardiems for the second phase of the engagement didn’t come on time either,” Raymond continues.

He goes on to state that he and his colleagues had to resort to very uncomfortable conversations with the owner of the company that had contracted their services.

“Throughout our stay in Ghana with no idea whether the production team was going to give us any cash, it would boil down to very uncomfortable conversations of us having to borrow money from the owner for such things as accessing public toilets because we didn’t have local currency,” Raymond adds.

With this particular assignment, so dire was their situation that they travelled by road to their assignment sites all the while barely eating as the hotel they’d been booked into did not provide food.

“Two of my colleagues and I ended up feeding on finger food, and delicacies in Ghana are generally hot due to the amount of pepper used in them. It wasn’t a proper dinner,” he says, adding that the rigors of the production process generally require a reasonable nutrition regime for optimal performance and delivery of assignments. “Our perdiems eventually came five days into the assignment, but we were still travelling long distances by road despite production knowing that it would have been easier to use domestic flights to the various sites,” he said.

From this experience, Raymond shares that he has had to evaluate the way he engages with corporate entities around assignments, from how and when payments are to be made, to travel arrangements and handing off of assignments and everything in between.

“I’ve had to be upfront with clients from the get-go. If I don’t get my per diems before travelling for an assignment, I will not engage any further. Dirty or unsafe accommodations are unacceptable as they are not conducive for my deliverables and I will not risk losing equipment just to cut costs,” Raymond says.

His new approach to work hasn’t come without cost to him. “Some clients on hearing the terms will not want to work with you and will say that that is not how they work. Some have even blacklisted me and will not give me work because they say I’m hard headed,” he says.

Raymond however believes that without the tough stance, the creative industry will continue to lag behind if the exploitative entities go unchecked. “The creative should be in control. That would be motivation for them and also appreciation for their work,” Raymond concludes.

Similar to Raymond’s experience is Wangui Karanja’s. She is the lead designer at Adira Creations, a company that focuses on reducing landfill, by repurposing and restyling clothes that would otherwise be thrown away.

Wangui recounts how a stylist reached out to her and pitched a collaborative project, but requested her to do the bulk of the work as the said stylist was domicile outside of Kenya thus couldn’t source for props and clothes within.

“I did not mind doing the leg work since it would give me a platform to establish myself as a designer and stylist seeing as I was only starting out,” Wangui says.

She adds that the agreement was to give value for value. “I would source the material needed for a portfolio, and she was to share photos from the project as well as cross-reference the other suppliers and I on the online posts.”

Wangui shares how she spent half a week getting the required props and clothes, and sat through the photoshoot that lasted the better part of an evening extending into the wee hours of the next morning.

“A few days later one of the suppliers reached out to me asking why I hadn’t shared content from the photoshoot, yet some had been posted already without the affiliate tags,” Wangui said. She continues, “ I was shocked to learn that content was already going up since the agreement was that we’d all start posting at the same time and cross-reference each other.”

When she reached out to the stylist, her calls went unanswered. Then she got the same reception from some of the models who she personally knew prior to the project.

“The project photographer is the only one who answered my calls and said he had handed over all the photos to the stylist and didn’t keep any copies himself,” Wangui concludes on the ordeal.

She says she learnt a lot from the incident and had to change how she works with corporates and individuals as a creative.

“With value for value engagements, I always make sure to be clear on terms. Especially with paying jobs, I ensure that I get at least half the payment upfront before taking on any assignments to ensure that all my costs are covered such as raw material and labour,” she said.

Despite the incident she says she will not shy away from working with corporates and individuals in the space as she has had some good experiences as a creative.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work under some big name in the Kenyan fashion space such as Kaveke who upholds professionalism regardless of the person he is dealing with. He taught me a lot in my early years and to date still keeps tabs on my progress,” Wangu shares. She adds that for her in a perfect world creatives earn their dues and aren’t forced to accept less payment for their work merely because they are locally based.

Sandra Bartonjo, an events organiser and and artistes relations manager says that in her years of experience she has seen corporates exploit artistes by using legal avenues to undercut performers, especially those without legal representation during reaching of agreements.

“The most common form of exploitation I have witnessed has been corporates not paying for creatives work by taking advantage of the fact that they did not read nor understand legal jargon in most contracts,” she says and adds that, “They will actively include clauses that the creatives brand is more than likely to breach. For example, including a general clause like “artist will not be allowed to take pictures with any other competing brand in sight” naturally the assumption of what this means is clear.”

She goes on to say, “However, should the artist be asked by a fan in a different place to take a photo the corporate will then cite that they are in breach of contract because a competing brand was in the picture even though the image was not taken nor uploaded on the creatives social media pages.”

And where earlier in her career, Sandra couldn’t do much to help artistes being herself inexperienced in legal terms, she had adopted a knowledge-first approach to working with various talents and continuously holds corporates to account.

“I have actively shared on social media numerous times and given solutions and contacts about how to get help if found dealing with this issue,” Sandra said. She further shares that she has encountered individuals who engage creatives with the core purpose of personally benefiting from any joint projects. She adds that while creatives have hitherto been at the mercy of such individuals, she has started what she hopes will be a mainstay of the creative industry.

“I prioritize corporates that have a clean reputation while working with creatives before engaging any new client. I say no to any brand managers that request kickbacks or percentage split outside of the organization’s contractual agreement,” she says, concluding that, “Most importantly I educate the creative that their brand is of equal importance and committing to any deal with a corporate is not necessary.”

Edward Nalwa, an executive director of Kapu Digital, a brand awareness and marketing agency says that in his capacity he has set a high work standard that links quality corporates to quality creatives. He views his role as a being akin to how a doctor serves a patient.

“There has been a lot of exploitation of creatives in terms of giving them what they deserve as remuneration, because the creative space is still looked at as more of a collaborative endeavor as opposed to a solution provision service,” Edward said.

He added that by changing the worldview in which the role of the creative is looked at less like a subsidiary and more like a vital service provider, the goal of fair remuneration becomes more attainable.

“To mitigate exploitation of creatives we work with, we have set a high standard for ourselves in terms of the quality that we deliver. Hence asking for the justified amount we want is something we have standardised. This is something we’ve passed down to our creatives too,” Edward said.

The long road to creatives being paid fairly for their input into brand visibility for corporates and conversions is still paved with a skewed outlook of what it entails to produce quality work and how that directly ties in on a corporates bottomline.

The efforts that creatives such as Sandra and Edward are making as well as the conscious awareness that Raymond and Wangui are coming into over their worth provides a glimmer of hope for an industry that is languishing. This is not because of a lack in quality creativity, but because governance has failed to safeguard the interests of creatives.

Sandra signs off by saying, “The power and brand turnaround that creatives have is downplayed using this warped illusion that certain corporate brands have been in existence for decades and have millions of existing clients. Which may be true, but in an ever-changing world they have identified creatives that they know will elevate their brand position and value and instead of paying what is owed for that privilege, more times than not it has been a fight.” Her last words are, “It would be incredible for creatives to be paid their actual worth.”