Marie Lora-Mungai on Bringing Political Satire to 8m Viewers in Africa
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Marie Lora-Mungai is a serial media entrepreneur, television producer, writer, and journalist. She is the co-founder and CEO of Buni Media, a multimedia company based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Los Angeles, California.
Buni Media is the producer of The XYZ Show, Kenya’s very popular political satire show, followed by more than 8 million people every month. Marie is also the founder and CEO of Buni TV, a web and mobile distribution platform for top-quality African videos that aims to revolutionize the way African content is distributed and consumed on the continent.
Before co-founding Buni Media in 2009, Marie had a career as a television journalist, working at CNN’s New York bureau and later as a foreign correspondent across Africa for AFP TV, Reuters TV, BBC World Service and CNN.
Her work as a journalist was recognized by a UN Correspondent Golden Medal and various other award nominations. .
Born and educated in Paris, France, Marie holds a Masters in Political Sciences from Sciences Po and a Masters in Marketing from ESCP Europe Business School.
We spoke to Marie about the challenges facing female entreprenuers in Kenya; about the dangers of producing a political satire in Africa; and the African leaders she most admires (who are also fans of her show!)
TNW: What are your hopes and aspirations for 2013, both personally and for Buni Media?
MLM: My focus in 2013 will be to continue to grow our new video streaming platform Buni TV, which I launched in April last year. Buni TV’s goal is to revolutionize the way African films and other video content is distributed and consumed on the continent by leveraging Africa’s mobile boom. It’s very ambitious, but Buni TV is off to a great start with 270,000 unique visitors and close to a million views in just a few months.
In general Buni Media is at a stage where we are looking to expand our reach and activities beyond Kenya, where we are based, by taking on larger projects with pan-African or even global potential.
We embarked on this new journey last year, and we’ll continue to push strongly in this direction in 2013.
TNW: Buni Media produces The XYZ Show, Africa's first ever puppet political satire with an audience of more than 8 million people. What is the most important story ever covered by The XYZ Show and how did you portray it? Is it dangerous to produce a political satire programme in Africa?
MLM: In the 4 years that The XYZ Show has been on the air, we’ve covered all the major stories that have made the headlines in Kenya, from corruption scandals to political alliances to the vote on the country’s new constitution in 2010. But for me the biggest story has been the aftermath and various ramifications of Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election crisis, which was also very much what pushed my co-founder (the cartoonist Gado) and I to launch the show and start Buni Media in 2009. We’ve talked and continue to talk about this story in many different ways, but the one that sticks out is when we showed Kenya’s president and prime minister in jail over their role in organizing the violence during our very first season. At the time we did not yet know how far we could go, so we were all quite febrile when we put that episode out. As it turned out, nothing happened.
So is it dangerous to produce a political satire programme in Africa? Well in many countries it is, but not in Kenya.
Freedom of the press is strong there, and sure, there have been some politicians who have complained, but the main challenge seems to be self-censorship – which our team can definitely not be accused of!
TNW: Tell us a little about Buni Media’s other services. What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?
MLM: Buni Media is a true multimedia company, so we have our hands in just about any kind of media you can think of.
Besides The XYZ Show, we produce documentaries, books through our publishing arm BuniPublishing, and various animation projects through BuniVisualFX, our animation studio. We just shot the pilot for an exciting new children's program about ancient African history which also involves puppets. The pilot takes place in Timbuktu in the 16th century, which we had to recreate through props and computer-generated backgrounds.
Our workshop, BuniWorkshop, creates puppets and props not only for our own productions but also on commission for other companies. I’ve already mentioned our new video-on-demand platform Buni TV, which is our first foray into distribution. Finally, we’ve also identified our first feature film project, which I’m also very enthusiastic about.
TNW: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced with Buni Media so far and how have you overcome them?
MLM: Media in general is a tough industry, and selling media products in a developing market like Kenya is particularly challenging. The local advertising market is not mature enough to sustain the production of high-quality content, and distribution networks are lacking (we cannot count on DVD sales, for example). Buni Media’s development strategy clearly and directly responds to these challenges: First, we have to look beyond Kenya and produce content that can have a wider reach and more revenue opportunities. Second, we need to better control and expand the distribution of our productions, which we are doing (for ourselves and for others) through Buni TV.
TNW: Briefly describe your history in raising investment for your company.
MLM: Buni Media is funded through large grants from institutions such as the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Omidyar Network, among others.
It took Gado and I an entire year to raise the money necessary to produce the first season of The XYZ Show. When the show turned out to be a success, the fundraising process became easier.
Currently I’m focused on Buni TV, which is very much a start-up that was incubated within Buni Media. I am in the process of raising capital for that specific venture, so I’m back at the beginning of a long fundraising cycle!
TNW: Tell us a little about your career prior to founding Buni Media.
MLM: Before founding Buni Media I had a first career as a television journalist, working at CNN’s New York bureau and later as a foreign correspondent across Africa for AFP TV, Reuters TV, BBC World Service and CNN. During that time I covered conflicts and disasters across the continent including in Somalia, Darfur, and Eastern DRC, but also what I saw emerge as the real story as early as 2006: African innovation and the continent’s economic renaissance. Eventually it seemed more exciting to participate in this creative and economic boom than to continue covering it.
TNW: What are the particular challenges faced by women looking to start their own businesses in Kenya? Are families and communities generally supportive of female entrepreneurs?
MLM: There are challenges that are common to any developing, patriarchal society. The “old boys’ clubs” are still there. In general it is harder to be taken seriously when you are a young woman in business, and in my case, a young white woman doing business in Africa.
People often assume that I am an intern, an assistant, or worse in my opinion, someone who doesn’t know the country.
But Kenyan women are very determined and Kenya is in general an extremely entrepreneurial country, where everybody has one, two, or even several side businesses. I know many Kenyan women who have started their own companies in media, tech, or retail, and they’re doing very well.
TNW: Which African leaders (business or political, past or present) do you really admire and why?
MLM: There are many. I’ll start with Kofi Annan, who is the ultimate negotiator. He was instrumental in bringing Kenya back from the brink during the 2008 crisis. I had the privilege to interact with him when I was covering the UN for CNN years ago, and today he is a fan of The XYZ Show, which is humbling.
Also Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s new Chief Justice and a former activist, who is on track to completely reform the Kenyan Judicial sector. He was one of The XYZ Show’s first supporters.
Both men now have their puppets on the show! Another Kenyan, John Githongo, who became the highest-ranking African official to blow the whistle on his own government when he uncovered a massive corruption scandal. I am now trying to turn his life into a film. You can see a trend here: strong personalities motivated by justice and who don’t get scared easily!
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