Alison Ngibuini got the kick to venture into business after her employer moved offices. After eight years working for some of Kenya’s leading advertising agencies, Ngibuini had acquired immense experience on how brands are created, positioned and sold to customers. She never thought about entrepreneurship until the company she was working for shifted offices from the city to an out-of-town location.
“That was my wake -up call. I told my boss: ‘I am quitting’. I had had enough. When you are employed you can’t make decisions for yourself; the boss moves, you have to move with him. The decision to move was not consultative, everybody was disgruntled but people chose to adjust. I refused to conform and adjust. It was time for me to step out.”
Ngibuini then started her own production company, Al Is On Production.
“I only had a computer, a pen and a mobile phone. I began working from home.”
Al Is On Production is involved in the production and creation of television dramas, documentaries, game shows, commercials and feature films. The firm is renowned in East Africa for having created award-winning shows which have aired across the region.
Starting out as an independent producer, Ngibuini learnt the ropes from production houses she had worked with in the past. One of her early mentors was Bharat Thakrar, founder and CEO of East Africa’s largest marketing services firm Scangroup, which is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange.
“Bharat was actually quite instrumental. He found a way of engineering things such that every still production job was done and organised by me. I had a shoot every day. He gave me one of my first commercials for Fanta,” said Ngibuini. “Whenever I meet Bharat I remind him that he started me off and I am following in his steps. I hope one day I can get a listing of my own business in the stock market.”
Ngibuini’s initial struggle was to fight control of the industry by European-owned companies.
“Most of the creative directors were European so they gave the work to other Europeans. For us guys, being black, starting off in the industry was a bit tougher but you make your mark and build relationships,” she said.
As business picked up, Ngibuini hired an accountant and a secretary. Her team has since expanded to 17 full-time staff. During production, the company hires between 70 -100 people.
Over the years, Ngibuini, who has been recognised twice as one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40’ successful career women, has expanded her business portfolio to combat the effects of increasing competition in the industry. In 2005, after years of focusing on commercials, Al Is On Production ventured into TV production.
“I realised I needed to diversify my business. I couldn’t just sit and chase for the same amount of work as everybody else. I went to the UK and I saw this show called University Challenge,” said Ngibuini. “One day I got connected with the people who make the show and they were actually looking at Africa as a prospective place to do the show. We got into a partnership and it was fantastic. I got a chance to make a fully fledged game show. That was my first step into television.”
The Zain Africa Challenge aired in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, andSierra Leone for five years.
After the university challenge, Al Is On Production began creating public education and awareness campaigns. A Kenyan production titled Siri addressed issues around HIV and AIDS. Soap operas Mali and Shuga have been screened in several countries outside Kenya.
Ngibuni’s approach has been to make quality content that appeals to pan-African and international audiences.
“It’s been a tough journey. But I am happy to say I am the first producer [in Kenya] to do a full multi-cam studio. M-Net have come into the market and revamped the studios.”
Ngibuini said her company has been successful because she looks beyond telling a good story.
“It is not just about telling a great story. It has to be economically viable. Can the show be syndicated? Does that story appeal beyond Kenya? I am not in the showbiz world. I am running a business. People see the glamour, but for me this is a business and at the end of the day it must generate income.”
One of the major challenges Al Is On Production faces is increasing competition in the industry.
“I am filming commercials for much less than I did, say five years ago. The market has shifted. It has become a lot more difficult to justify a TV commercial. The budgets are not what they used to be. What I quote, there is someone else willing to undercut that price. It is getting leaner [and] meaner.”
This has inspired Ngibuini to explore ways to evolve the company and stay relevant in the market.
“It keeps me on my toes on how to remain competitive. It has made me reinvent my company and diversify into other things so that we don’t plateau and stagnate.”
Although it is “still a man’s world”, Ngibuini says she is “willing to navigate the space”.
“I feel there is great opportunity. I would like to leave a giant footprint for young girls to know that they can achieve anything. The only real obstacles are the ones you create in your mind.”
Moving forward, Ngibuini would like to double her firm’s turnover.
“I cannot do that by sticking to what I do all the time. I want to go into new ventures, diversify and add new portfolios to what I already have. I love telling stories, but TV financing is always an issues. I want to get my company to a place where we can self-finance products and reap the benefits of it.”
As Kenya and other African countries gear up for digital migration, Ngibuini is positive this will open opportunities for existing and new players in film production.
She argued that for Africa to develop, the continent ought to stop looking inward and start looking outwards.
“We need to move away from our own self-serving interests. Africa needs to negotiate as a block, as opposed to each country pushing for its own individual interest. We should open up our space. Why is it cheaper for me to travel to London than it is to go to Nigeria? We should stick together.”
Ngibuini advised other entrepreneurs to maintain good relations and have a mentor to guide them on their journey.
“We are all something, but none of us is everything. Be a good listener because you don’t know everything.”
Ngibuini, who is in the process of completing her MBA, added that entrepreneurs need to reinvent and improve themselves.
“Don’t be static. I always ask myself: what is my market worth?”
As difficult as entrepreneurship is, Ngibuini noted that aspiring business people should learn to overcome their fears and pursue their dreams.
“You also need to be tenacious, resilient and patient and do serious networking. When you fall, get up, dust yourself off and keep going. Your drive will determine how far you can go. You also need to be money smart.”
WRITTEN BY: DINFIN MULUPI