It is a drizzly Friday morning and I am trying to convince myself that I am actually heading into the Central Business District. My job does not require me to go into the CBD. And I try to avoid it as much as possible. On this day, I am heading into the CBD on a different matter altogether. I have to take a connecting bus all the way to Utawala. Opposite end of the city.
The previous day, I had confirmed with Kevin Makori that I would be meeting with his team in Utawala. Before we spoke, I expected that I would be meeting them somewhere closer to the CBD. I have committed myself to this and I will go.
For a while, I have been wondering if we will have a startup whose work I really believe will wow me. Kevin's startup is one that has wowed me in a short time period.
The office is in the final stages of completion so there is the unmistakable smell of cement, sand and construction. Kevin and I head inside where we start the conversation.
I am here to find out more about 254 Comics.
254 Comics came across me when I was running the CurateKE Twitter account. I had responded to someone else about how to sideload an app (on Android) and Kevin reached out to me. He asked if I could download the 254 Comics app and test it out. I downloaded the app, installed it and played with it a bit. I was blown away. No one had tried this even with all the massive potential that it had.
From the name you can tell that 254 Comics is about local stories told in a graphic format. Kenyans (and Africans in general) passed on stories orally. Then came the written word. But this was not enough to capture all the stories. 254 Comics intends to tell local stories in a unique manner. And to make sure that they are unique, they launched into comics.
The most popular comics around are the comic strips that usually appeared in the Swahili dailies especially Juha Kalulu and Darubini ya Pweza with the latter appearing in the Saturday edition of the Taifa Leo where it continues to run until today. The limitations of these comics, despite their regular frequency, is that they only have a maximum of 4 panels limiting the scope of their message.
Kevin is the CEO of Zorow Tech. Zorow Tech is a tech startup with 254 Comics as one of their projects. After completing his university studies, Kevin moved to Utawala. One of his early ideas was creating animations. He had been inspired by the more global animation movies that were based on African stories and characters. Some of these included The Lion King, Madagascar and Khumba amongst others. At the time, there were not that many animation films from Africa apart from the likes of Tinga Tinga Tales and Bongo Kids (broadcast in Tanzania). But these only targeted kids.
A friend later convinced him that setting up animation films would be a bit costly. The easiest option? Getting comics out. They are far easier to write out and less costly if you have an illustrator and a writer to help out. By this time, he had been working with Isaac Sichangi, who is now the Chief Technology Officer at Zorow Tech. Isaac was also interested in the project of bringing comics to life. Their main worry at the time was resources though they kept on with their day to day jobs as part of Zorow Tech.
Later on, they met Christine Kasiva through a mutual friend. Christine is a communications professional and she agreed to join the team as a scriptwriter. From there, the project took on more shape with 254 Comics launching officially in February 2015.
The team already has two comic books with more in the works. Tales of Grandma Sai was first released in June 2015 and they have just released Hunt Me Not: Poaching Grounds which tells the story of a poacher turned a game ranger in one of the local parks. One of the titles in the lineup is Lwanda Magere which intends to tell the story of the legendary Luo warrior.
I sit down with all three (Kevin, Isaac and Christine) to understand what is the process of getting comics out. It all starts with an idea. The idea of Tales of Grandma Sai came in from Kevin. The idea is what will have the general feel of the story. This is then fleshed out by the writer who sets out the sequence, writes in the characters and outlines the key themes that will go into the comic. Christine is the one who spearheads the writing process.
After the story's script has been laid out, Christine will then pass on the story to the illustrator. At the moment, 254 Comics has no in-house illustrator so they work with people on a project by project basis. The only requirement that the illustrator has to adhere to is that (s)he must stick to the African physique whilst drawing the characters unless specified. The illustrator will then develop a storyboard which is then approved by the editor (most times Kevin) and/or the originator of the idea. Once the storyboard has been approved, the final sketches are delivered in two packages; one for print and one for the digital version of the comics.
The print version will be delivered to the printers for printing and binding. Isaac gets the digital files that he will then optimise for different devices. At the moment, digital versions are available for the web and on Android. The web versions can be found on the 254 Comics website.
On Android, upon downloading the file, you can create an account or login with your Google credentials. After this, you can purchase the comics via operator billing. The app informs you that it has to send a specific message and then via operator billing, it will bill you the amount. Depending on the tariff you are on, the amount might be deducted from your airtime or charged to your account. Digital comics cost KES 30.00 while the print version costs KES 250.00.
I ask the team why the pricing that they have chosen. The three laugh.
"Maybe I am wading into unwanted territory," I think to myself.
The team first of all tells me that they had a two hour debate before they could settle on how much to charge. Their main decision is informed that most people have on average KES 20.00 on their phones at any given time. Another contributing factor for the pricing of the digital comics is the third-party that they are using for the operator billing. They use a company called Fortumo. The terms of Fortumo limit it to a minimum of KES 30.00 in Kenya. This is a steal compared to comics sold on the likes of Comixology or Marvel's for a minimum of USD 0.99 (approximately KES 99).
Once a comic has been bought on the phone, it is also accessible on the website as long as one logs in using the same credentials. It can also be accessed on unlimited devices. They are working on an iOS app pending the arrival of an iOS developer.
The previous evening, Isaac had been finalising on the integration of the M-PESA API which will allow purchase of the comics using mobile money. He also assures me that they are looking into integrating card payments and PayPal which will make payments easier for those who are not in the 90 or so countries that are served by Fortumo.
From either the website or the app, you can gift someone with a comic. All you need is their e-mail address. They will then get a notification as to where they can download the comics.
Physical copies are sold either at events or to schools. Kevin informs me that their biggest market at the moment is actually schools. You can order for a copy through the website but it has to be at least 50 copies.
"Does 254 Comics intend to go it alone?" I pose the question to Kevin and Isaac.
"No. We have already built the infrastructure & are always ready to have more people on board and working with us."
Kevin assures me that there are so many people who write and draw the comics but they resort to selling them out during comic conventions held in the city. The convenience of joining 254 Comics, is that Kevin and the team will handle distribution while you focus on the writing and/or drawing of the comics.
To have your works on the 254 Comics website, it will take less than a month. Most of the process is taken up by the optimisation of the comics.
There are two ways of joining the 254 Comics platform; you can submit your own script or submit the copies of the finalised comics. By submitting your own script, 254 Comics offers two options; they can buy it out-rightly from you or they can work with you as a collaborator. Should you submit your own copies onto the platform, you have to ensure that the comic has been copyrighted as your own works even though they can also help with this. The key consideration for the platform at the moment is that they want to focus on digital distribution.
Kevin tells me that through their schools outreach program, they have kids who are interested in writing the comics for them. There is already one kid who wants to write about the Maji Maji Rebellion of Tanzania.
One of the biggest challenges in the publishing world, more so with digital works, is copyright. Add to this the lax copyright laws in Kenya and it becomes a jungle for one to wade. It even becomes harder with "emergent" mediums such as comics which are nascent in Kenya.
Kevin assures me that all of their works are copyrighted both locally and globally. The only challenge that they had with the issue of copyright is that serialised material gets the ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) code. In Kenya, this should be handled via the Kenya National Library Service but KNLBS have not renewed their credentials. This means that the work has to be done in Paris, France. In Kenya, this just needs one to get a certificate of copyright from the Kenya Copyright Board.
By working with 254 Comics, either as a script writer or finalised comics, they will also handle the copyright end of it.
For the Android app, Isaac tells me that screenshotting has been disabled. On the website, the images cannot be saved through the right-click function. I have tried both and they work as advertised.
Not many people prefer to sideload apps with all the security vulnerabilities sideloading comes with. The team had been held back regarding submission of the app to the Play Store while they worked on the payments bit. Google Wallet is one of the easy ways to make payments for purchases made through the Play Store. Unfortunately, in sub-Saharan Africa, Google Wallet integration has not been enabled. Isaac tells me that this will not hold them back for the release of the app.
But now the app is available on Google Play store. The payments integrated are M-PESA and PayPal.
For the business end of things, Kevin assures me that they are doing just fine. Most of the purchases are coming in from Africa since that is where most of their clientele is but they have also received downloads from places like America (which was a comic given as a gift). Their next plans include the release of more works, getting the app onto the Google Play Store and finalising on their marketing plan. He assures me that the marketing plan will be aggressive.
Some of the markets that they are targeting in future are America (due to the high spending power), Japan (for its comic book culture), India, UK, Nigeria and South Africa.
I ask Kevin how they fund the business. He explains to me that Zorow Tech's core activities are the main money-makers for now. So they are able to survive based on the external consultancies that they do. Because of this, they haven't taken any outside investment although Kevin says that it is something they will consider in the future.
As I leave, Kevin tells me an interesting story. On the same evening that he pointed me to the website, he had been discussing comics with someone on Twitter. The other person was truly a fan of comics but when Kevin asked him if he would buy a locally published comic book, the guy was adamant that he would never buy such books.
"What is the value in such books?" He apparently asked Kevin.
I was the second person that he talked to about the comics and I bought one. His lesson? For every one person you "lose", you get another person who is willing to buy your work.