The Business of Live Experiences in Nairobi

The Business of Live Experiences in Nairobi

By Gloria Mari

It’s not often that you go a week without something to do in Nairobi. And even then, there is always a guarantee that will find a tailormade cultural extravaganza to suit any present demographic.

The cultural feasts always have something in common. Fun. In almost all events- it is the one thing that is suitably worth the price of admission.

Food, drink, fashion, music, theatre and dance- all of it is designed into colourful buffets that promise revellers a great time. A place to make great memories. Learn something new. Celebrate something old. They are well designed to cater to families with children. Instagram-ready millennials.

One of Nairobi’s most popular festivals is Blankets and Wine Fest- which was started ten years ago by artist Muthoni the Drummer Queen. A picnic style event where Kenyans could indulge in food and music. There is also Koroga Fest- which celebrates music, foods and culture. Remain perennially popular. Some newer kids on the block like growing theatrical powerhouse Too Early for Birds have grown to unprecedented levels of popularity. With fans asking for a new production as soon as one ends.

The formula of holding an event successful enough to require multiple sequels is one that is credited to all the behind-the-scenes rock stars who make it all work. Apart from showcasing what people will definitely want to see multiple times or seducing the curious tourist within every local- a lot goes into making sure an event runs smoothly. The marketers, venue scouts, managers, set designers, performers, caterers, cleaning crew, security. All of them work together like a well-trained bee colony to ensure that the event runs without the slightest hitch.

The Too Early for Birds founders, AbuSense and Ngartia, explained what helped them garner so much success- or what at least looks like success.

‘We’re on a mission to find identity – for ourselves, for our stories, for our people and for our nation. This search for a reference point is what drives us to the stage and our audience to the theatre,’ They say.

The decolonization show that has shown Kenyans what they’ve been missing in their history is strong calendar addition. A festival- of a sort- which Kenyans can live for, learn from and grow with. But having only been around for a year or so, they haven’t yet reached the juggernaut status of events like Ngoma Fest which is another brand of history- one that caters to musical nostalgia.

TEFB has a non-sponsored model. Relying on social media to spread the word about their events rather than high-end marketing campaigns. They may always have sold out shows but with only ticket sales footing their production costs, Ngartia says, ‘Good profits are still a rumour.’

AbuSense explained that in the future, they will be looking into merchandising to help generate more revenue.

What Nairobians can be sure of, though, is the continued existence of the show. With a brilliant cast, resourceful producers and a never ending well of material from the talents of Owaahh, Aleya Kassam and Laura Ekumbo- the show is guaranteed a long run. If only for its necessity in the preservation of previously whitewashed Kenyan history.

The live event isn’t always so cut and dry. TEFB has lasted because it sheds light on stories that were shrouded in misinformation and propaganda. The other popular live events that have a broader agenda to celebrate the culture need a little more that Kenyans’ curiosity to keep it going.

TEFB have their fair share of problems too. Like the unhealthy competition, which AbuSense elaborates as ‘A lack of respect by interfering in other people’s preparation strategies is clear sabotage. It is vital to not have to stress about not having a technical rehearsal because someone else paid more money for space, as opposed to the normal rate per programme.’

Former Koroga Festival social media manager Yuri Baraza outlined questions for every event beginner, ‘What makes your event unique and stand out from existing events? Who is your target demographic? Younger audiences are quick to latch on to new live events, but they’re equally as quick to move onto the next big thing. Older audiences tend to be loyal and have more disposable income than the younger crowd.’

Events like Koroga are driven not just by passion but more by the calculated and surgical organisation.

‘You must do a lot of research to be up to date with who’s big, who are the emerging artistes and who people would pay money to see. It’s advisable to always get feedback from your revellers after the event, to know what works and what needs to be improved on. It’s dangerous to ignore feedback, as this is what causes people to move away from your event,’ Yuri explains.

The life cycle of the cultural live event depends on its relevance. After identifying its core audience, it needs to find a way to keep bringing the customers back. To ensure that the party can keep going, the larger festivals partner with brands. The symbiotic association helps the brands market with the event while the event gains some legitimacy with having trusted brands lined up on its poster like an end credits reel.

Brands have even gone as far as holding their own events. The event itself turned into a marketing powerhouse that helps brands reach even more customers and gain more loyalists from within their pre-existing clients.

Safaricom often holds many socio-cultural events like Twaweza Live and Safaricom Jazz, held so frequently you could line your calendar by them. It’s easy to see the cut and dry agenda for Safaricom’s events as you would say- a coffee festival. For Safaricom, it’s about how much reach the brand has.

Githinji Mwai, who manages influencers for Safaricom events explained to Turnup Travel what matters to the company. The return on investment is measured by the ticket sales. The number of attendees is determined beforehand and if the guests reach the intended target then it’s a success. To ensure this, carefully curated marketing campaigns including social media influencers, are conducted to make ensure FOMO is spread, promising a bigger turnout than even the previous event. The same could be said for other events but a brand’s event only has its bottom line in mind. Culture fests with concerts have a more detailed measure of what they hope to gain after the curtains close.

Award-winning artist, Dan Aceda, states, ‘My favourite part is the part where I can see the eyes of the audience and feel their energy. Because that’s when I am able to affect anything directly. Every show is about moments. That connection is the only opportunity one has to create lasting moments.’

Musicians are some of the most common part of every festival, along with a trending hashtag, Ankara fashion statements and the attendance of socialites. For some attendants, the musical acts are the main reason why they willingly part with their hard-earned money for a ticket.  

Aceda explained the involvement of the artist in an event.

‘Usually, a performance contract will include some clauses on event marketing. It’s not really a collaboration more than it is part of the gig. If you are contracted to be just the performer then there’s a straightforward performance fee. You negotiate this with the event producer. There’s also an appearance fee where you are paid just to attend a gig. No performance required. I am not aware of any event producers sharing merchandise revenues with performers. Maybe only if the performer is also the event producer.’

The performance industry has clearly evolved over time. Eventually, the possibility of making a living out of events will be a dream realised by the more talented in creating and organising fun. Live events also range in terms of fees. Some are free, while others have a ticket price worth a phone. And Kenyans will still attend them all.

Aceda- a performance veteran- commented on this, ‘When I started to play professionally there was no lighting set up, no backdrops and many event producers did not even want us to come and play with a band. They preferred artistes playing with the Dj. In such a short time, things have changed completely. Now everything is about a live band.’

Events have also led to the establishment of the ticket vending business. Sites like,, Mymookh and TicketSasa allow events to advertise themselves and allow people to buy tickets and get additional information about them. Brands also have advertising banners on these sites- the same brands whose logos you could spot at your next event.

Replicating events outside of Nairobi isn’t hard in terms of logistics. But according to Baraza, ‘Replicating the success is what’s harder.’

For TEFB, their only production outside Nairobi was in Nanyuki where they weren’t as successful as in Nairobi. With each town comes its own set of challenges but Nairobi seems to be the best option for the lower budget.

While Nairobi is location gold for an event, you still need to make more considerations for your event to be successful. Baraza states, ‘Location is key. It must be accessible by private and public transport. Security must be on point, people need to have that peace of mind that their property won’t be stolen. The setting and décor set the vibe of the event. Food and drink options are important as well. The most important thing is your choice of the main artiste for the event.’


The article was written by Gloria Mari

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