Kenya is known to produce world-class athletes, and a number of artistes. Star footballer Victor Wanyama of Tottenham Hotspur in the UK and Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o are some of the big Kenyan names on the world stage.
There are many more Kenyans who have ‘made it’ abroad though, and are making ripples there in their own small way. This week, we engage five Kenyans that have curved out successful careers for themselves in foreign countries.
They tell us what is it like to work outside Kenya, the merits and the downsides, and steps they took to get where they are today.
JANE MUKAMI, FITNESS CONSULTANT
Jane, 38, is a health and fitness coach based in the US. She left Kenya in 1999 to study information technology at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She hoped to return home afterwards to work in the tech sector which was starting to bloom.
“Soon after settling down, I got a job as a cashier at a restaurant and later as a receptionist at a different hotel,” she recalls. But Jane had a raft of challenges stacked against her.
“Foreign students in the US are not allowed to work. Having travelled there on a student visa somewhat limited me. I therefore had to settle for informal jobs in restaurants.”
This way, she could support herself as she studied, although juggling academic work with these hustles was not easy.
“The incredibly high cost of living here forced me to sweat it to survive. Six months later, I got a short-term contract with tech multinational IBM to provide service support, thanks to my previous experience in IT.”
Jane later worked for photography company Kodak while taking up IT consultancy jobs in-between. “At 25, I had built wide networks and positioned myself for ascent in the tech corporate ladder,” she says.
In 2010, Jane started struggling with weight. This would be the turning point in her life and career.
“In pursuit of weight loss, I started working out on a regular basis. In 2012, I set up a blog, “Fit Kenyan Girl” to share my fitness journey with my friends. I even took on fitness classes,” she says.
A personal endeavour morphed into a passion, and with it came an audience that keenly followed her journey. In 2014, she branded herself as a fitness expert, turning passion into a business.
“I’m now a personal trainer certified by the American Aerobic Association International (AAAI) and a certified wellness and nutrition consultant by the American Fitness Professionals Associates (AFPA),” she says, adding that Americans demand certification from those offering professional services.
“I provide dietary and workout tips to hundreds of one-off clients every month. Besides this, I have 64 regular clients spread across the world,” she says.
With a global clientele, technology is her best incentive.
“I meet most of my clients on my Facebook community. Upon booking, I set up a session with them either on WhatsApp or via Skype, which is cost-effective.”
Today, her digital brand has an annual turnover of over of USD250000 (Sh25 million). But why didn’t she set up her fitness business in Kenya?
“Most Kenyans have only recently become conscious about healthy eating and fitness. When starting out, the overseas market was more viable than the Kenyan one,” she explains, adding that the US supports entrepreneurship more than Kenya does.
“The government returns a percentage of the tax to taxpayers at the end of every financial year,” she explains.”
So far, Jane has written four e-books on fitness (Eat Right To Get Your Body Tight, 10-Day Detox, Eat Clean Get Lean and Workout 101). Her online store, janemukamistore.com also sells workout gear and dietary supplements.
“I have held 19 different jobs since I came here 19 years ago. Every engagement has been wonderful. Fitness is now my long-term endeavour,” she says.
FULLY FOCUS, DJ AND EVENTS ORGANISER
DJ Fully Focus, 35, is based in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I was 14 years when my family relocated to the US in 1997. After high school, I joined University of Kentucky to study political science,” Focus recounts.
But he was not keen on this course.
“I loved deejaying and often took up gigs during school events to mix music. Sometimes I’d turn down attractive external gigs due to schoolwork, which cost me income,” he narrates.
“Eventually, I quit college in my third year to pursue deejaying fulltime. The decision angered my mother. She felt that I was acting out of peer influence, I therefore couldn’t afford to fail.”
He started by performing on college radios in Lexington, Kentucky, before going into mainstream radio. Things seemed to be working out well for him at first. And then club closures, double bookings, cancelled gigs and bad cheques followed, exposing the brutal reality of the entertainment industry.
“American showbiz is very selective. A black person, especially one who wasn’t born in the US has to work twice as hard to succeed, but I’d chosen this path, so I’d travel it no matter what,” he says.
“I decided to carve out my niche in the market where I’d control my growth and add value to the market. That niche was the Kenyan-US community, and so I started mixing Kenyan music that appealed to my Kenyan audience here.”
Focus performs in club residences, with three to five gigs per week.
“I spend half of the year on tours across the world. Additionally, I organise events through my firm, Passport Entertainment Group – events management ranks among the most profitable businesses in the US.”
“R&B artiste Akon and I jointly own Passport Experience Festival. We organise international music festivals. We invite artistes and cultural exhibitors from different parts of the world to showcase their talent as a way of creating cultural harmony,” he says.
Focus has facilitated US tours for a number of African artistes, including Kenyan music band Sauti Sol. He has also worked with music stars such as Usher, Wizkid, Sean Paul and Major Lazer.
“Working in the US has been a mixed bag, with delights and disappointments in equal measure. I have learnt that no matter how much value you add to another person’s brand, as long as you work for them, you’ll never be in control of your destiny.”
Thanks to his boldness, Focus rakes in more than Sh30 million in revenue annually.
“For the last 15 years I’ve worked here, I’ve learnt that staying the course when things don’t seem to look up ultimately pays.”
His advice to upcoming entertainers?
“Approach your work with a business mind-set. Take only gigs that you can handle. Don’t stretch yourself. But always deliver a tidy job. With that, you will go places.”
EDI GATHEGI, HOLLYWOOD ACTOR
Edi, 38, was born in Kenya but grew up in Albany in California, where his father was studying. From a culture shock that smacked him hard on the face to a freak accident as a teenager, his initial days in the US were tempest-tossed.
“It was hard to fit in as a teenager, especially at school where all kids were different from me,” he says.
This struggle to study his peers and his painstaking quest to blend with them is what placed Edi on the path of his future career: acting.
“I loved basketball, but I seriously hurt my knee during a training session in high school. I started acting to deal with the depression that set it following the injury.”
Soon, Edi was hooked.
“I joined School of the Arts at New York University to study film. Thereafter I got agency referrals to audition for film roles and met scouts for movie powerhouses who invited me to showcase my talent,” he says.
His first professional role was in Crank, a 2006 action film. Ten years later, Edi has featured in more than 30 television series and movies, including blockbusters such as Twilight, Into the Badlands and NBC’s The Blacklist. His net worth, according to Celebrity Net Worth (a popular web-based magazine), is USD3 million (Sh300 million).
Edi has brushed shoulders with the mighty in Hollywood, among them African-American film icons Don Cheadle and Samuel L Jackson, experiences he describes as a shot in the arm.
“There is a rich vein of talent among young Kenyan actors and actresses. If nurtured, they’d become iconic film figures. Nairobi Half Life and Kati Kati are exemplary works,” he points out, adding that Kenyan film makers have their work cut out for them. Edi is fascinated by the work of Oscar award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.
“Her achievements inspire us (the Kenyan community in Hollywood) to offer our best. I hope to work with her on a project someday,” he says.
His Kenyan roots are still intact, he says, adding that “the Kenyan culture is hard to shrug off.”
NICK KLAUS, PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER
Klaus is a self-taught photographer who has been working in Cape Town, South Africa, since January 2017.
“I loved photography from an early age. I’d cut photos from my dad’s newspaper and paste them on my drawing book. My role model was the late Kenyan photojournalist Mohammed Amin,” he says. In 2000, he went to live with his brother in Dubai, where he was working as a lifeguard. He would go on to work as a waiter for Fairmont Hotels and Resorts for eight years.
“I bought my first camera, a Sony Alpha 8, hoping to work as a photographer one day,” he recalls.
In 2008, Klaus resigned from his job and returned to Kenya to chase his dream in photography. Forfeiting his job was a big gamble. First, he spent all his savings, and then depression set in, but he continued taking photographs. Three years later, however, his fortunes began to change when people started taking note of his work. “In 2011, I won a photography contest organised by Xinhua News Agency and the United Nations on the theme of poverty awareness. That same year, CNN contracted me as an ireporter (a citizen journalist).”
In 2017, Klaus relocated to South Africa.
“My work ranges from weddings, concerts, product photography, fashion and travel. Professional photography pays very well, especially in economies such as South Africa,” he says, adding, “South Africa has many breathtaking sceneries, which makes photography fun. I’m able to support myself and send money back home to my folks.”
So, how did he conquer the South African photography market? Analysis of consumer behaviour has been key, he reveals.
“I sought to understand what locals like to spend their money on, their spending power and the most marketable variety of photography. Establishing these facts made it easier for me to penetrate the market.”
Comparing the two markets, Klaus argues that the Kenyan market is more price-conscious, while South Africans are quality-centric. “A Kenyan is more likely to hire an amateur photographer for less pay, while a South African would hire an expert photographer and pay more for quality work,” he observes.
“Cape Town residents appreciate photography and other forms of art. There are people taking photos or filming movies on the streets all the time. There’s always something going on,” he adds, saying that Kenyans are indifferent towards street photographers.
“They always suspect mischief. There’s so much beauty to capture in Kenya, only if our attitude could change,” he says.
For a foreigner working in a country rife with xenophobic tensions, the secret is to keep it low-key, he advises. Networking is however important.
“I made connections with local photographers when I got here. I have since made friends and built trust with them. It’s also through their support that I got my first clients.”
Though he found local languages such as Xhosa and Afrikaans difficult at first, he can now speak them, and is improving by the day, such that some natives mistake him for one of them.
Photography, he explains, thrives on referrals and a robust online presence.
“I share my work on my blog, nickklausphotgrapher.com, on Instagram and Facebook, which has greatly boosted my visibility and brought in more clients.”
On making a life for yourself in a foreign country, Klaus advises:
“Make sure your papers are in order, don’t stay illegally in a foreign country. Learn the local languages. As a foreigner, you represent your country, so follow the law. Be strictly professional in your dealings, this way, you will thrive anywhere in the world.”
JAMES NDONE, LECTURER
“You don’t appreciate your culture until you move into a more robust and diverse culture such as the US,” begins James Ndone, 28, a university lecturer based in Illinois, US.
Two years after graduating with a journalism degree from Moi University in 2013, James won a scholarship to study his Master’s in communication at Illinois State University.
“The arrangement was such that the university would pay my tuition fees while I lectured communication to undergraduate students at the institution. The opportunity gave me a global outlook on communication and how it varies from culture to culture and in different geographical settings,” he explains.
Thus James gained a foothold in the US academic.
“Transitioning from the British education system (which Kenya adopted) to the American system took a toll on me during the first few months. The adjustment from journalism to the academic world was also a bit disruptive, but I managed to settle down pretty fast.”
James has used this opportunity to “enlighten people who are ignorant about the continent, especially those that imagine that Africa is a country”.
“I can now teach communication anywhere in the world. My desire is to add value to the study of journalism in Kenya upon my return,” he says.
Has his life changed? Yes, significantly.
“I’ve appreciated cultural diversity and grown beyond negative ethnicity, which is rampant in Kenya,” he says.
“Some people will dismiss you for being African. My accent was also considered absurd by natives. But things are better now.”
James has since graduated with a Master’s degree. He hopes to enrol for his PhD in journalism in August this year.