Kenya's internet culture is undergoing a paradigm shift. The corporate world and advertising industry’s model mainstays of TV, media and sports personalities are slowly being replaced by a new breed of internet stars whose social media posts are no longer just bringing them fame. Many are now cashing in their viral content to make huge fortunes. However, concerns are arising regarding the right to privacy, copyright legalities, and the unintended consequences of such overnight fame and success.
From going viral to signing advertising deals
Five years ago, Kenyans saw how the internet could upsend the lives of ordinary citizens, make them into stars, and land them lucrative brand endorsements. Joseph Mburu (Jose the Witnesser), Jane Anyango Adika (Serikali saidia), Francis Kimani (Bonoko), and Alice Wambui (‘Kifikifi Witness’) became the first Kenyan internet stars to be signed by corporate brands after their individual videos went viral.
Their big break came when Kenya’s leading telecommunications company, Safaricom Ltd, recruited them for an advertisement campaign to promote their mobile airtime offerings. The lives of the four internet stars have never been the same according to a documentary by Citizen TV.
Today the precedent set by the telecom giant seems to have become a winning formula and the benchmark for many corporate brands both at a local and international level. For the country’s advertising and corporate world, this move to work with everyday regular Kenyans is resonating with a new generation of millennial consumers who, according to recent studies, are seeking experiences over material goods.
Kenya ranks high on internet users by country
Social media has become a huge part of everyday life for Kenyan citizens 75% of whom are under the age of 35. Although a majority use Facebook, Twitter has become the country’s trendsetter and frequently influences the country’s agenda on politics, social issues, or current affairs. For instance, in the run-up to Kenya's 2017 general elections, President Uhuru Kenyatta 2017 was among Africa’s top ten tweeting politicians. Deputy President William Ruto uses his Twitter handle to push his political agenda and share his take on various issues. A recent Global Voices article revealed how the Kenya Police is using Twitter to alter its tarnished image.
The power of Kenyan social media has now extended beyond just producing internet stars. For some, it is launching their careers.
When a video of Charles Odongo, a gym owner and fitness trainer, was posted to Twitter on May 25th, users were impressed by Odongo’s originality and uninhibited eating prowess.
In the video, there is a mountain of Ugali (a Kenyan staple meal made of maize corn) and a plate of meat, which Odongo voraciously and theatrically consumes on camera. His attitude and enthusiasm captured the fascination of many online. Soon, memes of the #Ugaliman as he has become popularly known were appearing everywhere.
-It's Brian (@OrutaBrian) June 8, 2021
For ‘Ugali man,’ that video recently landed him a lucrative advertising deal with an online sports betting company, Odi Bets. The sports betting company confirmed this partnership via a post on their Instagram page.
Privacy and copyright concerns over viral content
As instances of viral videos and content increase, concerns of privacy and copyright are beginning to arise as pundits begin to question whether content creators are indeed getting their true value.
I spoke to Wandiri Karimi, a Kenyan Intellectual Property Lawyer and expert about this new trend. She clarified whether viral videos are subject to intellectual property laws, who is considered the copyright owner, and what factors determine the jurisdiction in case of legal enforcement.
According to Wandiri,
The technical term under the copyright act would be audiovisual works and if they meet the threshold for the relevant branch of intellectual property law in this case copyright they would.
In order for it to be considered as work subject to copyright, the video creator would have to be creating something original, they have to have put work/effort into creating that work and then communicate it to the public in a permanent form which is the audiovisual work.
In cases where the video goes viral, it often becomes a challenge for the original content creator to enforce copyright laws against replicas and/or variations of the same content shared online especially on social media.
On privacy, Wandiri expressed concerns about the increasing number of children who are involved in viral online content.
One such case involves Gracious Amani, 13, whose video was taken by Brit Chantel, an American who was doing charity work in Nairobi when she met Amani. She took a video of Amani singing a cover of Alicia Key’s “Girl on Fire” and uploaded it to her Facebook page. The video went viral and even earned Amani a compliment from the musician. However, as Amani’s mother revealed during an interview with a local TV station, she and her daughter only learned about the video when friends and relatives called them offering congratulatory messages.
As Wandiri noted,
There is a worrying trend of minors (children under the age of majority 18) who go viral for all the wrong reasons and in my view, there should be the protection of children even in these spaces because a lot of the time some of these uploads are to drive traffic and hence increase monetisation without consideration of what that means for the minors on screen.
In Amani’s case, although the video launched her music career — even earning her a recording deal — her family became victims of threats and attacks as some wanted to exploit their new celebrity status. As Amani's mum explained during the media interview, the perpetrators assumed that the family received money from the several interviews Amani has attended.
I asked Wandiri what her thoughts were on news of the #UgaliMan advertising deal,
My concerns are centred on the ability to engage with advertisers on the value of the content creators work. The revenue from new media has not been favourable towards the creator in the past for example for a long time the ringback tone revenue split is heavily skewed towards the conduit disseminating it rather than the actual creator of the content and many discussions have been had on that and they are allegedly still ongoing.
Another concern is while there is a measurable audience available online via these content creators there is a danger for actual content creator versus meme culture. This is the creation of a huge amount of traffic at the expense of a netizen going about their lives there are underlying issues of privacy and furthermore the dumbing down of content creators who actually expend effort into creating work being overlooked by meme culture type content. This also goes for children being part of the content that is detrimental to their development.
As Wandiri explained, there is a much better understanding of copyright law in Kenya than there was 10 years ago, however, there is still room for growth and increased awareness around privacy and content creation.