Africa’s Digital Media Space: A Conversation with Mark Kaigwa

Mark Kaigwa lives at the intersection of storytelling, technology and entrepreneurship. He is the founder of Nendo, a Nairobi based consultancy firm, focused on strategy and digital storytelling in Africa. He is also the co-founder of Afrinnovator, one of East Africa’s leading blogs on technology, innovation and startups in the region. In 2008, Kaigwa co-wrote, Pamoja Mtaani, a Warner Bros. project and Kenya’s first animated video game. Pamoja Mtaani, which means “Together in the Hood” in KiSwahili, centers on bringing HIV awareness. Kaigwa has also written five short films for Warner Bros. and debuted his first film, Dawa, at the Durban Film Festival in 2010. He went to Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya where he studied Business and Information Technology.  Edem Torkornoo spoke with the 25-year-old Kenyan about what storytelling means to him, Nendo’s work and the digital media space.

This interview originally appeared in Ayiba.

Tell us a bit about your work with Pamoja Mtaani.

The idea behind it came from a private-public partnership called “HIV Free Generation.” This was a collaboration between the U.S government’s PEPFAR program, some public partners and a number of different countries. The approach to HIV awareness hasn’t always brought great results. So we created a video game to combat HIV/AIDS. My job was to create the most convincing creative, authentic, and culturally relevant world that people could explore.

What were you doing prior to Nendo?

I was in the start-up space. I still am. I’ve always been blogging. I’ve been pretty consistent with that. That’s part of the work itself. I’ve been running a number of blogs and been on executive teams. I’ve been involved with different start-ups. There’s one called ”Got Issuez?” an online platform where companies and consumers can connect.

The previous chapters are important for context, but what’s more important to me is the immediate past and projecting forward. That for me is an enriching conversation.

You work with African Digital Art (ADA), what is your role there?

I have been working with them from day one. Even before ADA was born, I used to curate African animation as part of a film. Someone challenged me to find African animation out there so I found 75 years worth of work and showcased it. This was in 2009 so now it’s over 80 years of African animation. I did that in Sweden and traveled it with it. But even before that, I was part of ADA and the discussions there.At ADA, I wrote quite a bit on African creative professionals in the early days and spoke a lot. I still speak every now and then. For me, it’s being able to be part of a community of artists.

 What is your definition of storytelling?

If I can sidestep the question, it’s less about me being definitive and saying this is my idea as a world authority and more of a philosophy because that is what distinguishes Nendo from the Webster/Oxford dictionary definition of storytelling.

I think storytelling to me and Nendo is coming from saying Africans are extraordinary storytellers and they each have amazing stories. So we create an environment where there is an exchange of these stories – not just one means of communicating. It’s changing and adapting the way traditional marketing is done or its going to use technology to add to what is being done if that is being done in a smarter and useful way.

What is your storytelling conceptualizing process like?

For me, the idea of storytelling comes from finding different ways to express points. I think you can either say something as it is or say it through a story. A story is more memorable and stays in the context and it’s emotionally investing, so there’s no cut and dry way of doing it. It’s organic. Its being very mindful of where you are and very observant. Even with clients at Nendo, part of it is creating sessions that allow people to see and understand what it means to be part of this modern day and age.

Africans are not instantly a captive audience. It’s not like they are just sitting there next to a radio or television set and even if they are, it won’t make any difference with them at all. For you to have access with them, to get that share of their wallet or mind, you need to tell a better story.

To give it what it deserves people need to respect the audience, their intelligence and their ability to participate in a story. It’s also saying that a story is two-way. It is not story time with a megaphone, that’s the way people have always done it. So despite these social and cultural norms, modern day storytelling like we (Nendo) do, can take place on mobile phones, social media and anywhere a customer can interact with a brand. Also, making sure that there is consistency and fidelity to the experience you are talking about is important.

What does Nendo mean?

Nendo is shortened from the Swahili word mianendo, which means “trend” or “an insight.”

What are Nendo’s services and where did the idea for it come from?

At the moment, Nendo is doing advisory work. That’s more of the strategy side. Helping clients determine how far the existing use of technology and social media has gone. We do what we call a digital media audit. At the end of the day, the most important thing to us is to check to see how a client is doing. We do this all over Africa. However, for now, it’s just English speaking Africa.

We also do storytelling workshops, executive education, training, and facilitation of meetings, marketing reports, market research and actual strategy. The storytelling side has production so there’s web, design, and social media.

How receptive has the concept of social and digital media been for organizations?

We can skip over a few stages. It’s not been as disruptive, but it has proven to show unexpected results. Social media has given many young urbanites a perceived power. I say perceived because people can ask you what kind of power it is. I say its real power. I think the biggest and more important part is that they believe that the power is there. That’s already agency. People know how to take a trending topic global. But I’m speaking about a small sample size because this is primarily urbanites with disposable income, smart phones, or feature phones. But it is representative of the future pool of the next 10 years.

What kind of clientele do you have?

I don’t do that much work with governments, but I do a lot with the private sector and non-governmental organizations. I will say its maybe 50-50 or 60-40 especially because pan-African work is something that I try to align myself with.

How old is Nendo?  

It started last October and it’s doing better than expected. Ask me again in October when I’ve been around for more than a year. It’s the first year of business, you can’t ask for more than to be around in a year. It’s part of what it helps you to energize the team.

Nendo produced a report chronicling online culture in East Africa for the last six years. That gives me the unfair advantage to say what will happen in the next year and a half because I have a large body of work to reflect on and study and conclude.

Where do you see Nendo in the next ten years?

I find that question so funny because I think so much can change in the next ten years. Maybe a five-year projection is good. Two is better. I usually work with 18 months because I think you need to be nimble enough. I’m not saying that the rate of change in Africa is astronomical, but things like a change in fibre optic cable or a change in president or change in economic climate or the discovery of a natural resource can change things.

For me, 18 months and five years are two great ways to look forward because one is very practical and one is ideological and more visionary but far more tangible. For me to be around now, in October, in five years is enough to give thanks for.

Are there any lessons you have learnt from being part of the start-up community?

Failure is part of the recipe for success and nobody ever wants to look at it like that. Everybody wants to succeed on the first try but the best entrepreneurs I have met made a lot of mistakes. And it’s the practice of making those mistakes and being intentional about the learning, as well as continually looking at what your appetite for this is that dictate success.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to start a business like Nendo?

The pie is bigger than your country. Look beyond your country. Also, the duality of running a business is you can have an enterprising business, but its also important not to lose sight of your very immediate needs; like paying your bills so your lights are kept on.

What are three tangible skills that anyone who wants to work in the social media sphere should have?

Design thinking. You need to constantly sharpen your skills because it helps you co-create solutions to problems with the people that you work with.

Work with minimum resources and time.

Be able to learn and unlearn.

That’s the most important skill. Are you constantly looking online for great sources of information? You should be using your time for that.

Do you think there will be a meeting of social media and governance in Africa?

It has happened. When politicians get on social media, there’s no turning back.

Yes, but are they listening to their constituents?

I think some of them are. If you are in South Africa, you are. If you are in Nigeria, you are. If you are in Kenya, you are. If you are in Ghana, you are. They have got someone who is telling it to them straight. There are consequences to being seen as not participating.

Connect with Mark at www.nendo.co.ke