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The growing TV biz in Kenya could be entering a golden age for creatives, as increased competition between local webs and pay TV operators is spurring a boom in content. But locating coin to pay for projects is a challenge as producers work to find a pan-regional or even global hit that can break out of East Africa’s biggest market.

In a nation of 43 million, 3.7 million Kenyans own TV sets, according to market research firm Ipsos — a number that has climbed rapidly since the 2009 census found that only 2.4 million homeowners had TVs. Most Kenyans do not access content on smartphones or tablets, with low penetration of mobile devices in the territory.

Driving growth has been a vibrant pay TV sector, with the virtual monopoly long held by DStv, owned by South Africa’s MultiChoice, now complemented by offerings from Zuku, owned by Kenya’s Wananchi Group; China’s StarTimes; and GoTV, also owned by MultiChoice. The competition has created a variety of affordable bouquets for consumers, with entry-level monthly subscription rates starting at around $10 for DStv, $9 for Zuku, $7 for GoTV and $6 for Star Times. Subscriber numbers are harder to come by; most services are tight-lipped about that information, and there are no outside measuring firms to tabulate it. However, Zuku maintains it has more than 150,000 subs, and all the pay TV entities are upbeat about adding consumers to their rolls.

“We’re scratching the surface of that market,” says Hannelie Bekker, managing director of Wananchi Programming.

Wananchi’s Zuku has made a name for itself by establishing a strong local brand, creating original series like the musical drama “Groove Theory” and the “West Wing”-style drama “State House.” The company offers nine branded Zuku channels on its pay TV platforms, and produces 10 original shows.

Zuku’s limitations, though, reflect the challenges of working in what is still a relatively small local market. The American model of winnowing down hundreds of scripts to produce dozens of pilots that may or may not yield a hit show — a strategy perplexing many in the U.S., as well — is unthinkable in Kenya. “If you commission something, you better make it work,” Bekker says.

Even as demand for local content grows, the high cost of producing it is a major factor holding back the industry, with Kenyan broadcasters still relying heavily on syndicated U.S. series and Latin American telenovelas to pad out
the schedule.

“If you’ve got a 24-hour timespan, filling it with local content is very difficult,” says Wachira Waruru, programming director of Citizen TV.

The free-to-air web is indicative of the shift in the Kenyan market in recent years. When Citizen began investing heavily in local content nearly a decade ago, says Waruru, it had to battle against the stereotype that local was “down market.” Within a few years, though, ratings had pushed Citizen to the top of the heap, with other webs scrambling to follow its lead in producing local shows.

Despite the greater cost of inhouse fare, says Waruru, it has paid off: Today Citizen is the most-watched free-to-air web in Kenya. “You want to survive, you have to talk to the audiences,” he says.

While the population numbers and the uptake of cable suggests significant untapped potential, the small size of the market right now means a limited pool of resources for content providers. “As a producer, I cannot make money,” says Dorothy Ghettuba of Spielworks Media, who explains that the average show costs between $2,500 and $4,000 to produce — an amount that barely allows creatives to break even before trying to turn a profit through syndication.

For Ghettuba and other producers, potential lies in pan-African buyers like South Africa’s M-Net, as well as the growing regional market. “East Africa’s got 140 million (people),” Ghettuba says. “That’s what we’ve got to tap into.”

The bigger challenge for Kenyan producers will be to create content that works globally — a feat Zuku has pulled off with “Tales From the Bush Larder,” a cooking and travel series that’s co-
produced with Fox, which has aired the program in more than 50 countries. Repeating the show’s success is a goal for both Zuku and the industry.

“Kenya can churn out quality content that can travel,” says Xeinium Prods,’ Hussein Kurji, who’s approached American webs with his concept for an “Office”-style satire about the foreign-aid industry. “However, there are challenges within the sector that need to be addressed so that the creatives can truly shine.”