Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Michael Muthiga loved watching cartoons and was curious about how his favourite shows were made. Without access to the internet, he had limited information about animation and it was only once he was in high school that his art teacher introduced him to illustration and 3D animations.
“It is something that has been in my blood throughout. I tried to venture into engineering but the animation just wouldn’t go. [Eventually] I stopped fighting. It has always been an easy thing for me to do,” says Muthiga.
After high school Muthiga could not afford to attend the few colleges that offered animation courses, but “I wasn’t going to let that stop me”, says the self taught animator.
Muthiga began taking free online tutorials and later joined the production team of Tinga Tinga Tales, a children’s cartoon series based on African folk tales, where he honed his skills.
“That is where I learnt how to handle workload; I worked late into the night,” says Muthiga. When the production of Tinga Tinga Tales came to an end three years ago, Muthiga decided to start his own business, which he named FatBoy Animations.
“I noticed there was a gap in the advertising industry. I wanted to change the way advertisements and commercials are made,” says the 26-year-old.
He uploaded one of his works to YouTube which caught the attention of corporate brands and advertising agencies.
A Kenyan telecommunications company was impressed by his work and asked him to produce an animated advertisement.
“I did not have to pitch and convince anyone. I worked really hard on my first animation… it got a lot of viewership and went viral. Then clients started calling.”
Since then, Muthiga says, work has been flowing in and the company has managed to enter into long-term contracts with clients. FatBoy Animations has since produced animated commercials for brands such as Safaricom, Telkom Orange, Barclays Bank and Jamii Telecommunications (JTL).
Muthiga’s best known work to date is the JTL advertisement, known locally as Faiba, which promoted the firm’s terrestrial fibre optic offering. The success of this advertisement prompted JTL to commission a series of the popular adverts. Muthiga’s animated productions have proved quite popular among Kenyan television audiences and social media users.
FatBoy Animations handles between four and six projects a month and Muthiga charges a minimum of KSh 2m (US$22,800) for a 30 second production. According to Muthiga, his productions have been successful because of the creativity and unique stories behind the animations.
Muthiga does not expect the concept to become boring as more corporate brands shift to animated commercials.
“It will become boring when life stops. It is not just about the animation, it is more about the story. There will always be new stories, things that happen around us. There will always be something new,” he says.
FatBoy Animations employs three people in Nairobi and outsources specific services such as rendering, modelling and character creation to agencies in India and the US. According to Muthiga, finding local talent is difficult.
“The labour is not available locally. There are a lot of guys who can do animation, but there are standards which we have to maintain.”
Constant power blackouts also pose a challenge to his business.
Animation in Africa
According to Muthiga, the animation industry in Africa is nascent and holds numerous opportunities.
“Corporate are just realising that animation can work for them. There are still many areas such as the medical field, education sector and architecture and construction. All these guys are realising that animation can work for them. There is so much to be done.
“The market has really opened up. Clients that are calling now are not just from Kenya but from across East Africa and as far as the US, Canada, India and even China. It is the stories that captivate clients. This is an industry worth watching.”
Muthiga encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to invest in the “right field which they have a passion for”.
“Everyone has a talent and a gift which they are really good at. That is the thing that should fuel their entrepreneurial drive,” he says. “If you work to solve a problem and not to make money then you will succeed and the money will follow.”
Muthiga, who started his business at the age of 23, advises young people to embrace the skills, knowledge and experience that come with employment.
“The passion needs to be developed. That eight to five job is very necessary,” he says.
Muthiga says that while working on Tinga Tinga Tales he arrived at the office at 6am and left at 9pm, for a whole year, even though he was only required to work eight hours a day. Working long hours taught him how to handle huge workloads and deliver on time.
“I wasn’t the highest paid person in the company but I was learning something and I really loved it.”
Moving forward, Muthiga would like to break into the animated series and feature films market.“I don’t want to only compete in Africa with Nigerian movies. I want to compete with US, Indian and UK animated series and feature films. I want to go worldwide.”