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Tinga Tinga puts Kenyan animation on the map

By Clar Ni Chonghaile in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 8 July 2010 13:39

A collaboration between a Kenyan animation company, a British production team and the BBC has led to the creation of a new animated series and shown how African governments can support actors in the creative industries

Myke Rabar’s phone rings. “Excuse me,” he says, “that’s going to happen a lot.” And it does. Rabar’s Homeboyz Entertainment has just broken into the animation big time with Tinga Tinga Tales, a co-production with the UK’s Tiger Aspect Productions. The 52-episode series was launched on the BBC’s pre-school channel CBeebies in February and has also been sold to Playhouse Disney.

For an animation company, it does not come much bigger than this. The news is even more surprising because the outfit is based in Kenya, a newcomer to the animation scene compared with heavyweights like South Africa and Egypt. People in the business hope the country can build on its success to exploit opportunities in a digital world where movies like Avatar are redefining entertainment.

Tinga Tinga Tales brings African folklore to life, drawing inspiration from Tanzania’s Tingatinga art, known for its bright colours and vivid animals. Each episode is 11 minutes long and includes tales such as ‘Why the elephant has a long trunk’ and ‘Why zebras have stripes’. The characters are hand-drawn and then animated at Homeboyz Animation, part of the Homeboyz group that includes recording studios, radio stations and a TV and film production unit.

So far, Homeboyz has produced 26 episodes. At its headquarters on Nairobi’s Baricho Road, young artists hunch over their computer screens, bringing the remaining stories to life. The company is due to complete production by the end of the year.

“Doing anything for Disney obviously raises a lot of attention worldwide, so we are already scouting for the next big project,” says Rabar, 40, who founded Homeboyz as a DJ-ing unit in 1992. “Tinga Tinga Tales has really made us a focal point in Africa.”

Claudia Lloyd, Tiger Aspect’s head of animation and children’s programming, dreamed up the show after visiting East Africa. Lloyd, who produced the award-winning Charlie and Lola series, originally wanted to do the animation in Tanzania, but Kenya’s neighbour lacks the necessary infrastructure.?

“The great majority of the animation talent was in Nairobi,” she says from her office at Homeboyz. “Then I met Myke and he is massively forward-thinking. He bought 40 computers and ran a pilot at his own expense. I got here and everything was bought, networked, working.”?

Tiger Aspect provided equipment and studios, and Rabar easily found the extra animators and production staff – around 50 people in total. “They know their stuff, they are diligent, they are very techy, which is what is required in this industry,” he says.?

With Tinga Tinga Tales on the air, the challenge is to keep up the momentum. That means nurturing an industry that can develop local content as well as seek work from abroad.

Rabar says the Kenyan government has not yet realised animation’s potential. “South Africa has seen it and is really encouraging everyone to come in and [is] giving all kinds of subsidies. But here, it hasn’t sunk in that this is an industry … [Tinga Tinga] is going to be an award-winning series for sure. So it’s something they should be very proud of and say, ‘Yes, this is from back home’.”?

Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary at the information and communication ministry, is a believer, but he cautions that he cannot work miracles overnight. “We need to put a little more effort into training … and develop sufficient capacity to go out there and market Kenya as an animation destination where you can get any work done.” ?

Content is king

Interview: Daniel Muli

Daniel Muli is an animator and member of Just a Band, the self-styled “experimental boy band” whose video for Iwinyo Piny – a song off their album Scratch to Reveal – was nominated for the Best African Video Clip at the 2008 Kora Awards.

The Africa Report: Do you think that Kenya can become a centre for animation outsourcing??

DANIEL MULI: One of the things that has been hyped about the fibre-optic cables is that we will be able to do proper outsourcing. I wouldn’t just like [Kenya] to be a place for outsourcing. I think it would be cool if there was actually original content coming from here. Even something like Tinga Tinga, it’s very local in terms of what they are trying to do but it didn’t come from here. It wasn’t a Kenyan dude who sat down and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ although we could have. So I would be hoping we’d try to go there more. On the other hand, outsourcing leads to skill transfers.

What do you think will drive local demand for animation?

I know that with the Shujaaz project [a comic for the Daily Nation newspaper that Muli is working on], there is a plan to take the stories and make motion comics, which is a halfway-point between a comic book and animation. Also, for TV they are always looking for interesting local content because there is that development push. Everybody has a production company and is doing a pilot. A couple of those could be animation, except there isn’t really anyone who has had that experience of putting on something that huge, so it’s a little bit shaky.

Ndemo has plans to develop Kenya’s internet potential and this would help animators work with foreign companies and offer new local markets. Global research company Synovate says that daily and weekly internet usage has more than doubled in the last two years. Monthly usage has risen 80%, with 3.5m monthly users. More people are also accessing the internet through mobile phones, and the arrival of undersea fibre-optic cables has improved broadband access.

Ndemo says, however, that many Kenyans limit their activity to social networking sites like Facebook. “The current numbers are not driven by local content, they are not sustainable, so we have to hurry up and do as much local content as we want,” he says. “I have taken animation very seriously because after developing infrastructure, the next step is content. Content is king in this area.” The launch of digital TV in the country last December should offer a rich market for animators and other content providers because the government will require 40% local content.

Paula Callus, a senior lecturer on animation at Bournemouth University, says Tinga Tinga may pique foreign interest, but “it is important to retain a sense of ownership of content and design through the development of local projects for local audiences.”?

Homeboyz’s Rabar, whose company leads the field in Nairobi, thinks Kenya can also compete on outsourcing. “Tinga Tinga has proved that we are already capable of managing a task as big as Avatar, if not bigger, because the scope of animation we are doing is equally as demanding.”

Eyes as big as their pens?

Callus is more cautious, saying state and private sector support will be key. “It is yet to be seen whether the infrastructure in Kenya can support large-scale projects of the nature of Avatar.”?

Godfrey Mwampembwa, known by the pen name Gado, is a Tanzanian cartoonist and the brains behind The XYZ Show, Kenya’s satirical Spitting Image-style television series. He took part in the Tinga Tinga pilot and says such foreign-led projects can build careers and expertise, but that is just a first step.

“Once you have that, it’s up to those people and the industry in Kenya to say, ‘Now we can do our own projects.’ So, you have [foreign companies] supporting the huge projects but we would need to tell our own stories, and put our own money into it,” he says. Kenyan animators know they need to get more organised. Jimmy Gitonga and Tirus Njuguna also took part in the Tinga Tinga pilot but went off to pursue their own projects. They work at The Ark, a multimedia agency in Nairobi which houses animators and designers, and are members of the Association of Animation Artistes Kenya, which has around 100 members.

Gitonga says they do not want the government to mollycoddle them, but they need support. “We haven’t engaged [the government] seriously because we didn’t have a forum. What we are hoping we can do is match each other. So, for example, we will set up an association if they will give us an office.”?

The perception of animation in Kenya has matured, not least because of The XYZ Show. “That broke boundaries because it was not just for the young,” said Njuguna. “Even the old guys were saying, ‘Yes, I understand that’.”

?The proof is in the puppets

Gado says that XYZ proved that a weekly show involving puppetry, live action and animation could be done locally and that animation could deal with weighty issues. He is working on the show’s second season, due to air in March, and is seeking new domestic and international partners.

“I think it should be the job of the animation industry, the TV industry, the film industry and corporate and private industry to support [animation] … Definitely, there is an appetite for local content in Kenya and in Africa. All that is needed is investment. The rewards might take time but I have no doubt there is a future.”?

While they wait for the market to catch up, Kenya’s animators are honing their skills. “Illustrators or artists such as Alfred Muchilwa, Moses Wanjuki, Kwame Nyong’o, Daniel Muli and the other members of Kenya’s Just a Band are all great examples of contemporary young artists that draw their inspiration from popular culture such as cartooning, photography, film, music and young urban culture,” says Bournemouth University’s Callus.

For these animators, it is an exciting time. “[Animation] is going to be pushed to a different frontier in the years to come,” says Rabar. “So I think it’s just about being able to align yourself with it and being able to grow at the same speed.”

This article was first published in The Africa Report April-May 2010 edition.

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