Valuing Africa’s Creativity: An Interview With Kenyan TV Entrepreneur Dorothy Ghettuba
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
Spielworks Media, a Nairobi-based television and digital media company, is one of a growing number of content production companies that are springing up and thriving in Kenya’s vibrant media sector. In 2008, with little more than her passion for creativity, her drive and determination, the company’s founder and CEO, Dorothy Ghettuba, returned to her native Kenya from Canada to follow her dream of becoming a TV entrepreneur who celebrates Africa’s story-telling tradition.
To date, Spielworks Media has produced some 20 TV shows and employs 17 staff, though the number can swell to 700 depending on the creative project at hand. In this interview Ms. Ghettuba shares her experiences and aspirations and explains why copyright is critical to the long-term viability of her business.
How did you get involved in television?
I have always been a creative person and loved theatre, drama and dancing at school. I soon realized that regular office work was not for me. I was restless. Creative people are always restless. During a holiday in Kenya, I saw a creative opportunity that made business sense. So I returned to Canada, packed my bags and came back home to become a TV entrepreneur producing content with an African aesthetic.
What challenges did you face?
I arrived in Kenya with stars in my eyes and high hopes of starting a production company, producing and selling shows and making lots of money. I quickly sobered up. Raising the working capital to produce content continues to be a huge challenge. I can draw on my background in finance and my creativity, but it is tough. If a TV network gives me money in advance to create a show they will claim the rights in it and we will barely cover our production costs. So at Spielworks Media we borrow money from the bank. The good news is that we are now starting to make money and are beginning to finance our own shows.
Why is copyright important for your business?
There is no money in production. The only way to be profitable is through syndication, selling and re-selling our shows to multiple broadcasters. I dream of the day I will be able to sell one of our shows to 100 channels on a non-exclusive basis at the same time. This means retaining the intellectual property (IP) rights in our shows. I found that in Kenya broadcasters would buy all the rights to a show in perpetuity. This just didn’t make sense nor was it an option for Spielworks Media. We would not and could not give away our IP for a few shillings. In show business everybody thinks you are making money, but in reality we could not cover production costs. We could only stay afloat if we carefully and strategically managed our IP rights. So we sold broadcasters only those rights they were going to exploit. We sold TV rights to TV networks, free-to-air rights to free-to-air stations, pay TV rights to pay TV platforms and so on. If they wanted additional rights, they could have them but they would have to pay for them. Our ability to control our IP rights means we can maximize the value of our shows and start making money.
Can you give us an example?
For example, our show Sumu La Penzi, Swahili for “Poisonous Love”, which recounts the exciting journey of four young women living in Nairobi. It was initially licensed to M-Net exclusively for one year and on a non-exclusive basis for a second year. This meant that in the second year we could sell it to another broadcaster. The money from the M-Net deal covered two-thirds of the production costs. The remaining third was absorbed by the company. The second screening of the show is now on a free-to-air TV network and the money from that deal will allow us to break even.
The beauty of this approach is that we can sell the show to any network in Swahili-speaking East Africa. We are very careful about how we manage the different bundles of rights associated with the distribution of our shows (e.g. video-on-demand, DVD, in-flight entertainment, and so on) because syndication is the only way to be profitable. Creativity is financially viable, but only if we retain the copyright in our shows. We recently launched our first, local language television channel, Mwanyagetinge TV. With digital migration, such a venture is more affordable. It is critical that we hold on to the rights in our content but also, to the extent possible, that we own the linear and digital platforms on which it is broadcast.
I started out in the business because I had a strong urge to produce African content, but I now realize the critical importance of intellectual property rights to the business. Strategic use of these rights makes it possible to ensure that everyone gets a share of the revenue derived from exploiting them. This makes it possible to motivate and retain staff. It creates a sense of ownership in the company. People work hard to create the best product because that is what will sell and that means more money will come into the company.
Our ability to control our IP rights means we can maximize the value of our shows and start making money.
How do you go about getting a broadcaster to air your shows?
The company’s creative team is responsible for developing and shooting pilots – the first episode of a series - for a catalogue that we pitch to broadcasters. We do this at our expense but it is an investment that we have to make. We present the pilots to different networks so they get an idea of what a show is about and, hopefully, select one for their channel. Once selected, we move into production, but this requires substantial investment so it has to make financial and business sense. That is why it is so important for us to leverage our IP rights.
What new opportunities do you see for licensing the rights in your shows?
With digital migration, Kenya’s media sector is really going places. More channels are appearing, and more people want content. The boom in mobile telephony has huge potential. In Kenya most everyone has a mobile phone – there are around 40 million handsets. The future of entertainment is mobile, so we are starting to create shows specifically for the mobile platforms. We are also slicing existing shows into 3–5 minute “mobisodes” for viewers to watch on their mobile phones. We are working with Safaricom, which has some 26 million subscribers, to produce these. Today, telephone companies need people to consume data and for that they need content. Safaricom needs local content to create buy-in among Kenyans. Astute management of our mobile rights will enable us to create additional income for the company.
The democratization of the Internet in Africa is slow but growing. Broadband usage is expanding and will be everywhere within a few years. So we are also careful about how we manage our video-on-demand rights, which we believe have huge income-generating potential. If TV stations are smart, they will work in partnership with telephone companies and with content producers to expand viewership and generate more advertising revenues.
What is your long-term goal?
For Spielworks Media to become the biggest, the best, the boldest of creators, producers, developers and broadcasters of content with an African aesthetic. If someone wants African content I want them to knock at our door. We want to keep on creating and to support the viability of the industry in Kenya.
We really want to tell African stories, give the African perspective and share the African experience. Hyper-local content is the new rage. This is very exciting because it creates more space to produce local content. Beyond having a good-looking show, you need a fantastic story, a story that people can relate to. Without a good story nobody will watch your show. This is a great opportunity for us to tell our stories and to preserve our cultural heritage. The success of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood was built on local content and copyright protection. If the Kenyan industry is to thrive, it too needs local content and effective copyright laws.
Is there a role for government?
I think government has a key role in encouraging the creative sector. For example, subsidies or tax rebates would support the development of Kenya’s creative sector. But policies need to be tailored to the needs of young people and the realities they face. Policy-makers need to understand that we work very hard to create and produce our content, and that it is only fair that we are able to extract maximum value from it. Some people argue that IP rights inhibit access to content. But what greater access is there than when we sell mobile rights to a company like Safaricom and reach over 20 million Kenyans? There will be more access, not less, if content creators can manage and strategically exploit their IP rights. If content owners cannot do business in a profitable way, we all lose out.
We have to respect people’s creativity. We must respect the effort they put in and we must ultimately reward it. This is about understanding what people have brought to the table and rewarding them for it. We can only do that if we are able to maximize the value of our IP.
When we make money, we pump it back into the company to create and produce more content. If this content is given away for free, the creative industry will shrivel and die. If we can’t make money, we can’t employ creative people to produce engaging new shows. It is in valuing our content that we are able to create value, make money and sustain a cycle of creativity.
What needs to be done to boost IP awareness in Kenya?
While the government has taken steps to improve IP awareness, there is still a lot to do. If we want to change mindsets, we need to target young people. In Africa more than 70 percent of the population is under 18 years of age. We need to find a palatable way to teach these young people about intellectual property. They need to understand that when they create something they have rights in their work. It is never too early to start teaching them.
What drives you?
I am just very fortunate to be doing something I love. It’s tough, but my passion drives me – that and the excitement of creating opportunities for the young people working in my company. Beyond my role as executive producer, I see myself as someone who helps people develop their talent. This involves trusting that the young people I work with are good at what they do, and giving them the space, the money, and the encouragement to do it.
Where do you get your ideas?
At Spielworks Media we realize that we don’t have a monopoly on ideas, so we have created a sort of talent incubator. Anyone with an idea for a TV, web or mobile series can come to us with it and we will take a look at it and see if it is viable. Many people don’t produce because they don’t have the technical know-how or access to the necessary equipment or studios. So they share their talent and we share our technical ability – it’s a partnership. Once a show is sold, production costs are deducted and any profit is split fifty-fifty. That seems only fair to me, because they created the work. If we work together we will go further.
What message do you have for young creators?
Create! Create! Create! Don’t stop creating. Understand and embrace the value of your creativity. Protect yourself, protect your work. Develop a business mind as well as your creative mind and make them meet. It’s a balancing act.
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