Valenti Students, Faculty Finish Year-Long Documentary Project, Digital Kenya

Forty-Minute Documentary Dived Into the Digital Revolution in Kenya

Photo slideshow of the Kenya study abroad

COVID-19 indefinitely put a stop to all University of Houston study abroad programs.  Yet before the pandemic hit, the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication wrapped up one final program in the winter 2019 mini-session: Documentary Filmmaking in Kenya. Accompanied by Dr. Dani Madrid-Morales, a group of ten communication students from various backgrounds embarked on the trip. Their goal: to film a feature-length documentary on the digital revolution and technological landscape in Kenya. 

“The idea of the documentary was to provide an opportunity for our students to experience first-hand the transformation that digital media has brought to Kenya,” said Madrid-Morales. “Especially to do so in a more critical way, through finding different perspectives.” 

Producing a Documentary Abroad

Though it took over a year in the making, “Digital Kenya” was filmed over a timespan of two weeks. Shooting occurred all over the country – including in the capital Nairobi, during a wildlife safari in Amboseli and on the coastal city Mombasa. With such a tight production timeline, pre-trip planning and training became key.  The mini semester began with an intensive pre-production stage, which included five workshops for training and determining the subjects and interviewees of the documentary. 

“We had a mix of students from different backgrounds—five to six came from the media production side, two or three from the journalism side and a few people who had no prior experience with either,” said Madrid-Morales. “When we recruited the ten students, from a pool of 80 applicants, we tried to balance out skills based on what needed to get done.” 

Once the team arrived in Kenya, the students were divided into two faculty-led crews, each with a producer and director, to provide research and production assistance, and camera operators and technicians tasked with technical aspects of shooting. 

Participants included social media influencers, Uber drivers using cryptocurrency to make a revenue, journalists specializing in misinformation, and a professional company working with Facebook to filter out malicious content. 

“Part of what we did as a group, early on, was to see if there were ways we could make direct contact with people. There’s another student at UH whose uncle lived in Kenya. She was nice enough to connect us to him, who we interviewed, and he connected us with three other people that we interviewed,” said media production alumnus Crayton Gerst (‘20). “All the other interviews were based around establishing credibility with people and presenting the documentary to gain people’s interest.”

Building trust and credibility with potential interviewees while in Houston was no easy task, yet the team managed to do so through an interweb of connections that allowed them to find people to effectively tell this story of Kenya. Interviewees for the documentary were found through references from acquaintances, and were often contacted in the late Houston hours to make up for the nine-hour time difference between regions.

Upon returning to Houston, the footage from Kenya was immediately handed over to Dr. Sahar Hamzah, an assistant professor of media production, and the students from her Non-Linear Editing class. The team worked hard to produce the first cut of “Digital Kenya,” which premiered at the 2020 Global Communication Summit, Africa: Digital Media Conference. The coronavirus pandemic took off in full shortly after the summit wrapped up.  

Still, through feedback gained at the film’s premiere, Madrid-Morales and Hamzah have worked to further polish the documentary to its final cut. 

“We hoped to have it ready by the end of 2020; it took a little longer because of a need to fine-tune the technical aspects,” said Madrid-Morales. “The process was long and it’s involved multiple groups of students that have helped with editing.” 

A New Perspective 

The resulting documentary offers a unique look at how the digital sector has provided access to new opportunities for various communities in Kenya. More subtly, it also highlights an important narrative of Kenya that breaks away from stereotypes of African countries presented in media and popular culture today.

“Seeing the way people use digital media to counteract harmful narratives and stereotypes on Kenya, and also Africa in general — such as people being uneducated or poor — was really impactful,” said Gerst. “Also, one of the areas we went to was Kibera, which Americans would consider to be a slum. The way people in the area used technology to find work and make money was really unique and impressive.” 

From a myriad of start-ups scattered all over Nairobi to communal spaces used by creatives and entrepreneurs to share ideas and use technological equipment, Kenyans revealed a digital sector that is both different from and similar to that of the United States. 

“They have so much potential and have a deep sense of community. People work so hard and are willing to help each other grow and succeed,” said broadcast journalism alumnus Daniela Benites (‘20). “They are so original, they are not looking at what other countries are doing and are focusing on their own thing—we could learn to be like them in this way.” 

“Digital Kenya” is the final product of a powerful study abroad program. While the University of Houston has temporarily suspended study abroad opportunities, plans are underway at the Valenti School to host a similar opportunity during Summer 2022.   

Watch the documentary here.