“Forget South Africa and welcome to Kenya”! Riverwood, Africa’s new filming mecca?

[ 0 ] February 24, 2016 |

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It was not so long ago that we published the article “South Africa, Hollywood’s other studio” and to be honest, it made complete sense, based on the amount of Hollywood productions choosing South Africa as their African destination of choice. Well, South African’s better buckle up after Kenya recently presented new production packages to Hollywood executives, in an attempt to lure productions to the undiscovered region of East Africa.

In May 2015, Kenyan government officials led by Sports, Culture and Arts cabinet secretary Dr. Hassan Wario, travelled to Los Angeles (USA) to present Kenya’s new production incentives, in a robust attempt to attract more international work to the country. In front of an audience that included executives from Lionsgate, Disney, and CBS, it was announced that Kenya will provide a 32% foreign production rebate in comparison to South Africa’s 25%.

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“We are bigger, better and with more incentives. We are ready for business in the film sector. We say, ‘Forget South Africa and welcome to Kenya,” said Dr. Hassan Wario to an audience of Hollywood executives.

With all due respect to Mr Wario, with such a bold statement one has to reassess their knowledge of the South African film Industry.  Now if Kenya and South Africa were two grocery stores selling the same merchandise, perhaps Mr Wario would have received more customers with his greater discount, but unfortunately these are not grocery stores!

So what do we know about the Kenyan film industry?


In terms of the continent, West, South and North Africa, have all developed established relationships with the international film scene, in comparison to the East of Africa. To start, the first movie made in Kenya was titled “Theo in Africa” (1910) a 13 minute film documenting former U.S President Theodore Roosevelts 1909 wildlife safari. British wildlife photographer Cherry Keaton had been assigned to capture and film the U.S Presidents hunting trip, which would end up being one of the first Kenyan images captured on tape. The exposure received from “Theo in Africa” during Kenya’s period of colonisation, resulted in the influx of various international film productions choosing Kenya as their location of choice. These films would however all follow the same trend of safari, adventure or hunting type films, all depicting similarities of new cultures and dangers encountered by colonials in Africa.

For the country, their real film-making journey would only begin after gaining independence in 1963. Despite having political control, Kenya still needed to reclaim their Arts and Media industries which had previously been controlled by Europeans. To address this issue Kenya established The Kenyan Institute Of Mass Communication, to train Africans on film-making and replace the Europeans working at Kenya’s Broadcasting Corporation. In terms of locally produced content, Kenya’s first Swahili film would arrive in the 1968 feature film “Mlevi”, written and directed by Ragbir Singh. The feature film by Ragbir Singh started a resurgence that ignited the burning desire for Kenyans to explore film making.

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While international films continued to trickle in, Kenya’s spotlight would come from the 1985 Hollywood blockbuster “Out Of Africa”, directed by Sydney Pollack. The Oscar winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, did an excellent job in showing Kenya’s natural beauty to the world, which resulted in the country becoming a hotspot for international films. Despite the influx of international productions the local industry continued to struggle in drips and drabs, with regard to locally produced films. However, Kenya’s transformation would arise in the digital era, which inspired Kenyans to utilise digital technology to make films, essentially giving birth to “Riverwood”.



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Just like Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, Kenya’s film industry is called “Riverwood”, named after the creative district River road, located in Nairobi. According to Southern Innovator.org, “Riverwood produces 1000 films a year, selling 500 000 copies at 200 Kenyan shillings (US $2.60) each, generating approximately 500 million shillings a year for the Kenyan film industry. In Kenya budgets are very small, making the barrier to entry accessible that even the poor are making films, combining low cost cameras and editing programs to produce films on basic home computers.

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Nairobi, Kenya


Kenya will provide a 32% rebate for foreign productions in comparison to South Africa’s 25 %. Filmmakers will be exempted from paying taxes on capital expenditure and fees for filming in National parks will be removed. The Kenyan Film Commission will also provide filmmakers with a free government liaison service, but South Africa is probably where the gear for these productions will come from and most likely the crew too.


Exchange Rate

Economically, Africa is no power house when it comes to exchange rates and Kenya is no different, with a conversion rate of around 101 Kenyan shillings (KSH) to the US Dollar and about KSH 147  to the British Pound, so that should be tempting enough from a financial standpoint.



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                                                                                Diani Beach, voted Africa’s best beach destination 2014

The Kenyan landscape presents filmmakers with an array of options, boasting snow, beach, savannah, desert and tropical rain forest locations.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got everything from waterfalls to beaches. We have snow, we’ve got deserts, tropical rain forests…I believe that Kenya is on the right track to becoming the African film destination of choice…We’re the only country in Africa which represents every single African culture” says Chris Foot, Chairman of the Kenyan Film Commission.



Kenya’s geographically positioned on the equator, making the weather normally sunny, dry and not too hot for most of the year. The rainy seasons are from March to May and November to December but may change from year to year. Central Kenya is located on a plateau, with the altitude keeping heat levels at a comfortable temperature. Nairobi enjoys lovely weather for majority of the year (similar to California), with temperatures averaging between 10 and 28 degree Celsius (50 and 82 Fahrenheit). The coastal areas are much warmer but with the oceanic breeze, temperatures are pleasurable for most of the year. Mount Kenya is high enough to permanently have snow, often freezing at night.  Western Kenya is normally hot and humid and Northern Kenya is normally hot and dry.

Kenya’s Oscar winning Actress, Lupita Nyongo

In recent years, Kenya’s achieved tremendous recognition from film enthusiasts on the international circuit, revelling on the successes of Pumzi (2009), “Nairobi Half Life” (2012) and not forgetting Kenya’s Oscar winning Actress Lupita Nyongo, all carving a name for the nation on the world stage.  Looking at the current environment, Kenya’s fast tracking its way to being recognised as a filmic hot spot, having already hosted Oscar winning film “The Constant Gardner” (2005) and now the official location for Netflix hit series “Sense8”, by the Wachowski brothers.

To conclude, Kenya’s new incentives will surely shake things up on the African continent but despite the rebates, Kenya locally still faces challenges of distribution, lack of accredited educational centres, resulting in students leaving the region to study film in other countries and the lack of access to funding and support to help local filmmakers grow. So let us see what the future holds for the beautiful nation of Kenya. Hopefully this rebate will help prosper the countries film industry an become a suitable adversary to South Africa. Long live Riverwood!



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