Ken Oloo On The Power Of Communication & Story To Change Community Narratives

Photo credit: David Shirk

Photo credit: David Shirk

When Ken Oloo was nine years old, he stole his father’s camera. Fuelling his curiosity, Ken began to learn the craft of photography, a move he later said saved him. Whilst his family didn’t have the resources to send him to college, Ken honed his skills, becoming a wedding photographer, which helped pay his tertiary education.

After completing his studies, rather than immediately pursuing his passion for photography, Ken accepted a position in corporate communications at an energy company in Uganda, but soon ended back in Nairobi working on a documentary for the World Bank on sanitation. The short film, Living in a Bucket, was produced by youth filmmakers from Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Ken’s role in the project as a teacher opened up new possibilities.

Ken founded Filamujuani in 2008, with the aim of giving a voice to children living in Kibera and Kenya’s other vulnerable communities and shedding light on their unique stories. Filamujuani trains and mentors young women and men to tell their own stories using video and photography. Just as Ken photographed weddings to put himself through school, he wanted to give Kenyan’s youth the opportunity to earn money, so they can get an education and create a better future for themselves and their families.


Ken shares key insights from working with Africa’s most disadvantaged youth, providing strong advice for social entrepreneurs to help them succeed.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise and education sectors?

[Ken Oloo] - I fell into it. I don't think I started out thinking I wanted to be a social entrepreneur or to get into social enterprise. But I love taking pictures. My father says from eight, nine, I was just curious about cameras. And I just loved that.

I went to one of the slums in Nairobi called Kibera, and some youth kept interrupting my shots. They kept walking right in front of the camera and doing these dance moves, like ‘walk like an Egyptian’. And they would laugh and come around to see if they could see it. I opened the viewfinder and I asked them to watch what I was doing. And for the next half hour they just kept quiet.

I had these 20 youth students around me just to hear what I was doing. When I was done, they asked me if I could help them. I was like, ‘sure.’ And what began with me going in with my camera and my laptop, and my godson's laptop, and my wife’s laptop. With two laptops, blossomed into this. But I just realised it was something which I enjoyed doing. I enjoyed photography. And teaching someone to show them what I do.

It just gave me a feeling like I'm trying to bring in new skills, just sharing what I know. And besides the school students I was working with eventually started saying they wanted to be able to pay their high school fees, because their parents weren't able to pay the fees. We began doing weddings with them.

So, high school students would come on Wednesdays as an after-class program. And on the weekends, we'd go out and do weddings. So we'd have 15-year-olds being camera people. And weddings in Kenya are intense. But also, on average you get around $300. And for them, that's what they needed. 300 US dollars in a year to pay their high school fees, which some of their parents couldn't pay. So, after doing two or three weddings, they were set for the year.

So, that's how it flowed. Then the high school students got to a place where they're college-age, after four or five years of being there. And the weddings, we're not doing them anymore, and we began doing corporate events. We'd do workshops, we'd do seminars. And we eventually morphed into doing TV commercials and finally television shows with the same students I have been with now for 7-10 years, some of them.

So that's how we just morphed and realised we're a social enterprise.

It's a fascinating story, Ken. So, as Founder of Filamujuani, then, tell us a little bit more about this organisation and the impact that you create each year.

When we began, the main idea was ‘how do you get youth from the slums to be able to earn money, pay their way through high school, through college with their own skills?’ And we realised that when you hire wedding photographer or a camera person, you never ask them, ‘send me your resume, send me your CV,’ you ask them ‘send me your portfolio, show me what you can do.’

So we thought that had an edge in terms of opening an opportunity for them. So, in doing that, we noticed that also the demand was so high. In a year, we took 12 students and take them through the program. But we're always oversubscribed. We had a waiting list of about 400 students waiting to come in.

But this year, we've changed our model a bit. We have partnered with one of the leading commercial banks in Kenya called Kenya Commercial Bank. And we're able to now train about 100 students in a short time. In about three months or so. So, even that partnership has helped us. Now we're at a place where we're training about 110 students in a year.

And these students eventually go and start their own production studios. They go and get employed in the industry. For some of them, this becomes a life skill. It's not everyone who becomes a photographer. But having skills in communication allows you to be a more robust human being, so to speak. So, even if they go and become teachers or whatever trade they engage in, then they have a life skill that they can use for their entire lives.

So, that's really in actual, what we're trying to do as an organisation. To use video and photography to help the youth from informal settlements or in the fringes of the society to be able to tell good stories using videos and pictures. But also to be able to maybe change their own narrative.

Because if you're in the slums, your story is always told by an outsider. So it is the other. And the chances are that some of us don't see the flower budding in the slums, or something good coming out.

So, when you understand the power of communication and story, then you're able to change your narrative. When you can change your narrative, then you can change your community's narrative.

So, that's the sort of the big thinking we have behind what we are trying to do.

It sounds like really rewarding work. I'm sure you've come up against many challenges, Ken. So, in leading Filamujuani, what have been some of these big challenges, and how have you navigated your way around them?

I think some of the big challenges include the perception that poor people are not skilled. If you hear the young person you're hiring is from a slum, all of a sudden, you drop the bar. You're like, they won't deliver. My wife is an economist. She's way smarter than me. I wish she was here speaking.

Once they told me that Filamujuani is great, but if people know that you bring in people from the slums, they won't give you work. And sure enough, I noticed a trend. When I asked people if they would bring in youth from the slums to work, sometimes they try and low ball us, take the price a bit down. Or all of a sudden they want to disappear.

So, she came up with this brilliant idea. Why don't I start a separate company called Zindua? Zindua means reveal. So, Zindua is not our social enterprise, so to speak. It's market-facing. It's what we use to engage big banks, big corporates. And they don't have to know that the camera lady is a girl from the slums. They don't have to know that. All they have to know is that this person can deliver.

So, changing that perception that people or youth from the slums are maybe not very skilled or when they come to an event, they'll steal.

So, part of it has just been changing perceptions outside. But also inside. Some of our students have lived through this narrative where they doubt what they have to offer. That just because they've seen in the media or that they've repeated over and over, outside, that, ‘you're from the slums, you're poor, you're not skilled.’

So, to show them that this is not true. When you get recruited, you're being recruited because you're good. You're being recruited because you can deliver. And to actually push them an extra step and say, ‘people will always judge you, so how do you become the best of the very best?’ So, our students can do video, photography, they can do sound. They're almost like a Marine corps of film production.

You have to be able to edit, to shoot, to animate. So, if someone tries to judge, they'll see that you're really, really exceptional. So, you work extra hard. So changing the perception of the outside, in terms of how the market perceives our people. But also internally in terms of showing our students that yes, you have what it takes to make it out there.

Wonderful. So, it's really about giving them those skills to be strong storytellers. And also those soft skills as well. The confidence for them to take their skills forward.

Yes. Hard skills are good, but sometimes you also have to work, like we say in Kenya, on someone's software. How they see themselves, how they see the world. So, that matters too. Skills is one, but also you're changing stories which have been told, or which have cemented in their lives that maybe they're not good enough. So, that's also part of the work. It's also being able to make that a key component in our training.

So, what tips would you have for the social entrepreneurs out there, or others listening, to help them craft and tell really powerful stories that create change?

I think for me, the tip is that

you can't build alone. You have to build with a community. The community you're trying to change or you're trying to bring positive change in; you have to be rooted in that community. You have to see which other pieces affect what you're doing or who are the other partners.

You have to partner with people. It's amazing that we as entrepreneurs go somewhere and just start. But I think the humility or the posture of ‘who else do I need in my corner or in my team?’ Whether it's the school, the principals, they work with the teachers. The parents of the students they work with, the community leaders. Seeing over and over that the more people you have on your team or around the table, the easier it is for the ideas to diffuse in the community or for your ideas to get accepted.

Photo credit: David Shirk

Photo credit: David Shirk

What tips would you have for the social entrepreneurs out there, or others listening, to help them craft and tell really powerful stories that create change? [Continued…]

So, yes, it's good to work and to start alone, but start with others. Identify as early as possible, who are some of the people who could take over after you? Because social entrepreneurship is hard. You're trying to make a profit, but you're also trying to be sustainable.

There's a tonne of burnout around social entrepreneurs. So, one of the key things to do is figure out who can take over after you and start grooming and raising up future leaders who take over in the community.

Because once a community sees one of them leading or one of them at the forefront of the organisation, then that shows them that this is their thing. There's now more ownership. So, don't go alone, go with others. But also, even as you're there, doing your thing, identify two or three key people who can run with this. That helps the work to spread and also improves the ownership in the community.

Excellent insights there, Ken. How have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change over the last five years or so in Africa?

In the last five years what I've seen is more social enterprises look at the market and see how they can become profitable. Everyone been talking about donor fatigue or the other areas that are partners or people who sponsor social enterprises are looking at other opportunities.

Most social enterprises have been forced to really be creative in terms of how they bring in money.

And to add a business hat. To have one leg in the market where you are trying to understand what the consumer, what your customer is looking for. So, that sort of agility is something I'm seeing coming in. Where, yes, we want to impact the community. That's a good thing. And it's what most of us are doing in our organisations. But without having a customer, a paying customer on the other side, this is not sustainable.

So, I think that has been the biggest thing. Coming up with products and services that are really, really geared towards the market.

I'd like to touch a little bit on the youth again. More broadly, we spoke about those hard skills and soft skills, but where do you see key opportunities to help our youth best be prepared for the current and future challenges?

The whole idea about preparing the youth for the future, and that's where we're at as a continent. We are a youthful continent. The median age in most countries in Africa is 19 years. So, that's just almost past adolescence. They are teenagers, so to speak.

One of the things which I feel we can do better, is to prepare the youth to be able to think or to consider multiple careers or opportunities. We're at a place where it's very hard to be in the same field for 15 years or for 12 years like when our parents used to do. But also, the market is changing so quickly. Things are coming up very fast. Whether it's apps or new ways of doing things.

How do you become that person who can morph as needed? Almost like a shapeshifter.

So, that means you need to have the sort of skills that allow you to do all that. I think the biggest skill for me, then, which I put on top of my list is just being a creative problem solver. I know that's such a big word, but I think in a nutshell, it's just how do you look at the world through the lens of what are the opportunities, what are the needs, and how can I fulfil them?

Because if you’re always fulfilling a need, if there's somebody on the other side who would want that service or that product that you're offering, then you're in business. And most of our youth won't be able to get the formal jobs, the desk jobs that I think were being sold in the past.

But now you have to be able to start and search on your own, how do you build relationships, how do you network? So, it's easy to go online on YouTube, or on and just learn something, learn how to program, learn how to code. But, just because I'm building a good website or I'm creating good apps, it doesn't mean that this will sell by itself. I have to go out there and get customers.

So, it's nice that you can sit on a laptop somewhere and learn something new and learn a new programming language. But, unless we are facing clients, unless we learn how to sell, how to position ourself, how to listen to what some of the clients need, then we won't be able to get there.

There's some great insights there, Ken. So, what inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating some fantastic positive social change?

Well, there's a friend of mine, a company in Nairobi. They're called Cloud Factory. And what I like about the model is that they come and train the youth on how to do jobs online. It's sort of like a gig economy, but now they work with companies in Silicon Valley to make self-driven cars. And you're here in Kenya helping them to come up with a better way of their cars sensing whether it's a person, or it's a car, or it's a tree.

So, getting youth from areas where they'll never get an opportunity. Maybe they have never got an opportunity to work with those big companies and engaging them or allowing them to work with the companies up there. Cloud Factory is setting a trend in terms of how to work with the youth, or how to position the youth for them to be able to work with big companies in the US, in Europe, and around the world. Skilling a young person and putting them in a place where they're talking to these corporate giants. One, what I like about it is that it helps them see where they can go in terms of career. So, they're able to see the big picture. But also, just the discipline of working by yourself, which is one skill. But also being able to come in a team and report this is what you've been able to do.

They have weekly check-ins. They've created a very good program in terms of allowing youth to work from home, but also to engage with big corporates. So, Cloud Factory would be one of the big ones for me.

To finish off then, what books would you recommend to our listeners?

I think Jim Collins, Good to Great any day. Learning from there that the failures of others allows us to be humble and see what we can do differently. But one of my mentors called Tony Chan sent me this idea. I think it's the hedgehog concept, which is also by Jim Collins.

And it just says that there are three circles, sort of like a Venn diagram. In one of the circles you put what you're deeply passionate about. In another circle, you've got what can you be the best in or the best at in the world. Then in the last circle, you've got your economic engine, what drives you?

As a social enterprise, what are you passionate about? I'm passionate about photography. I'm not a baker, I don't care so much about cake. But I love photography, so, that is something I see myself doing until I'm no more. Then, what can you be good at? How do you create content that can get into the Netflixes or these other big platforms? I think we have the resources to do that. Then on the other side, you've got what's our engine? I think when those three things come together, then you find your sweet spot. The hedgehog concept is a concept I tell social entrepreneurs to look at. One, it saves you from burnout, allows you to be at a place where you're able to pay your bills or to run your organisation well, and be profitable. But it also puts you in a place where you're competitive because you keep on asking what can you be best at in the entire world.

Ken, thanks so much for sharing your generous insights, time and experience today. It'll be great to watch your journey and Filamujuani’s journey as you continue into the future.

Thank you for making time and for putting a spotlight on social enterprises. I feel like in our part of the world, and I guess in the rest of the world, they provide a needed service in terms of changing the world or allowing some people who might not be able to get opportunities to get opportunities. So, thank you for the work also you're doing in terms of putting a spotlight on social enterprises.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Ken on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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