A Kenyan TV producer shares her thoughts on the business of showbiz

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.

Alison Ngibuini

Alison Ngibuini

Ngibuini told How we made it in Africa that had she opted to keep her job, she would have had to wake up very early in the morning to beat Nairobi’s infamous traffic.

“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.

Diversified business

“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, and Sierra 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.