The animation industry in Africa and Kenya’s Michael Muthiga is stoking the flames having stuck to his hobby despite his parents’ admonitions to launch a lucrative animation company in his homeland.
“Faiba!” “Mboss!” Those aren’t typos. They are catchwords from a series of animated adverts that once went viral in Kenya. And those words have since found their way into local parlance, as though it were oral tradition passed along from generation to generation.
But they are not. They were just picked up from an animated series that became a hit with locals and even folks abroad.
A particularly memorable episode of the series features a dozing boss bored out of his wits as he struggles with slow internet while trying to complete a download. But then he is jolted into reality by a junior who is having a swell time with a fast internet connection from Jamii Telecom. This was just the first one. At the time, it was intended as a one-off, no plans to make it into a series.
The whole thing lasted just a little over 30 seconds but that was all the time it needed to get people’s attention and keep it too. It may have only been an advert for a telco but the story and the manner of its delivery sounded all the right notes with both television and social media audiences. In a matter of days, the short clip had amassed thousands of views and everyone who had seen it wanted more.
At some point, a social media campaign was even launched. The campaign clamoured for the animation to be made into a series. And for once, that thing did actually work. The calls grew loud enough to be heard by the people who pulled the strings and several more episodes eventually rolled in. That was how it became a series. And a hugely successful one at that.
But behind the scenes, a certain ‘newbie’ had made it all happen — one that learned most of what he knew about animation from the internet and the rest from whim and some trial-and-error too. Michael Muthiga is his name and he is boss at FatBoy Animations; a company he founded back in 2011, right after his folks had given up on dissuading him from pursuing his passion for comics.
Today, he employs several talented people both directly and on a freelance basis and makes as much as KSh 2 Mn (about USD 20 K) on a single 30-second animation put together from conceptualisation to final product in a little over a week.
Since testing the waters with a couple of Youtube videos back in the day, his company has grown from one man trying to make the most of one shot at impressing a CEO to a kickass team doing business with a clientele that features heavyweights like Safaricom, Telkom Orange, Barclays Bank, and many more.
It was sometime in June 2012 when Muthiga got the attention of the Chief Executive of Jamii Telecommunications (JTL). Before then, he had been trying to keep busy by making animated clips with that signature comical Kenyan flavour and uploading on his Youtube channel. The comments section was always awash with praise for his work, but nothing concrete had panned out. All he needed was one shot.
So, when the opportunity came calling, he was ready to grab it with both hands and never let go. And this opportunity took the form of a challenge from the JTL executive who basically dared him to commercialise his craft by producing an animated ad for the telco. The brief from Joshua Chepkwony, the JTL boss, was for the animator to develop a short television advertisement to drive the firm’s terrestrial fibre optic offering.
Muthiga went into full work mode. When he resurfaced after a month, he had come up with the now famous first episode of the 3D television animation ads popularly known as “Faiba” which eventually became a hit series in not only Kenya but most of East Africa. By the end of 2012, he had rolled out a total of four episodes, each one outdoing the previous one in terms of creativity and audience reception.
He had not only impressed the JTL boss but also got his big break, and that’s because he became the genius everyone wanted to work with right after his “Faiba” exploits. Several high-profile clients came calling and like a hot prospect in a soccer summer transfer window, his asking price basically hit the roof. And deservedly too. It had been a long time coming, after all.
Way back in high school, Muthiga had taken quite a liking to art, drawing, and painting. He didn’t exactly care about cartoons any more than the average kid liked to watch Tom and Jerry but he was to discover that sometime after his parents had him transferred to a rural school for fear that his love of art would pull him away from a career in science which they wished for him.
The move to the new school was intended to get him as far away from arts and paintings as possible, though they all appreciated that he had a natural flair for it. But those plans actually backfired, and to Muthiga’s benefit.
Art and animation followed him to the new school. Once there, one of his teachers took an interest in the pictures he brought to life during his spare time and felt obliged to teach him more. The said teacher introduced him to illustration and 3D animations.
When Muthiga graduated from Alliance Boys High School in 2005, he wanted to pursue his love for animation and nothing else. But he could not afford to attend the few colleges that offered animation courses. But that wasn’t going to stop him.
Muthiga spent the year after high school studying Autodesk Maya, a software that is mostly used in creating animation, video games, and 3D applications, through online sources. Then, he honed his skills further by working as a junior developer at Tinga Tinga Tales, a children’s cartoon series based on African folk tales.
With practice, patience and unrivaled commitment (he had to put in 14 hours a day for a long time), Muthiga rose through the ranks and eventually became the lead animator on the show having amassed quite a skill from those online tutorials he consumed for hours on end.
But by now, his parents had grown quite vocal about their scepticism for animation as a means of livelihood. To them, it was a hobby that didn’t offer much in terms of job prospects.
And so, they managed to talk him into attending college and he gained admission to study Civil Engineering at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. But throughout his stay at the university, he was juggling his degree pursuits with self-tutorials on animation.
Muthiga was even more passionate about animation when he left college than when he got out and seeing this, his folks opted to “give the kid a break.” His mother even helped him acquire a high-speed computer for his work.
Muthiga saved most of the money he got while working on Tinga Tinga Tales and with the funds, he was stocking up on important animation equipment. He also registered his own business in 2010 (the same year he graduated from college) but kept it under wraps because there wasn’t much to show anyway.
And so when the curtain was drawn on the production of Tinga Tinga Tales some nine years ago, FatBoy Animations came to life. He was only 23 when he went “full FatBoy”.
“I noticed there was a gap in the advertising industry. I wanted to change the way advertisements and commercials are made,” the 32-year-old once said. And so he got busy.
His Youtube uploads soon started to draw attention from corporate brands and advertising agencies. All it took was one telco asking him to produce an animated advert for their product, and the rest is pretty much history. Six firms came calling following the success of the “Faiba” project, and Michael Muthiga was now in the big time.
Considering the huge potential of the animation industry — an industry that is estimated to be worth well over USD 3 Bn in Japan and also turn in USD 293 Mn in export earnings from the sale of comics and animated short films for the Asian economy — things should get even better for Muthiga and the likes given that the market back home is relatively untapped and animation is finding use for corporates across various fields.
Beyond the shores of Africa, FatBoy Animations has served clients from several countries including the U.S., Canada, China, and India. The company handles between four to six projects a month, each one bringing in no less than USD 20 K. That roughly equals an average of USD 100 K a month!
Turns out you can still do what you love and get paid after all.