Scholars create platform for creatives and influencers

As every small business owner knows, marketing and sales is a tough task, especially when the day-to-day delivery of services to existing clients takes up so much time. Hiring a full-time marketer is also beyond the means of most small businesses.

But the reality is that, in the social media age, there are many online influencers willing and able to promote a product, service or company, and plenty of freelance audio-visual and text creators who can help craft marketing messages.

The difficulty is putting these businesses, influencers and creatives together – and that challenge is being solved by two Kenyans based in Canada who are alumni of the University of Toronto and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, Esther Kimani (26) and Peter Kironji (28).

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The scholarships and entrepreneurship funding played a key part in supporting them to gain innovation, data and entrepreneurship skills they have used to build a forward-looking digital business serving businesses in Kenya.

Moreover, the Mastercard Social Entrepreneurship Fund has seed-funded their Twiva initiative, which is a smart digital platform that enables businesses to hire influencers to make online posts and help with offline promotional events.

These influencers, who can operate on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, may have small micro followings of less than 10,000 people or be ‘bona fide’ influencers, with more than 100,000 followers.

Because Twiva allows small businesses to book individual postings and event appearances by influencers, it is affordable, Kimani told University World News.

That way, small businesses, such as hairdressers, beauty salons, spas, food manufacturers, logistics companies, and others, can buy promotions on social media through influencers that fit their budgets, thus expanding sales. The website enables businesses to select influencers and content providers, if they wish, from published lists of potential partners. But the system also allows platform staff to proactively establish relationships directly, choosing the best influencers and content providers for client businesses.

Initially, Kimani and Kironji expected content providers and influencers to attend publicity events staged by small businesses, generating audio-visual material and text which could be then disseminated. But their company was formally launched last November (2019) just before COVID-19 struck, prompting the Kenyan government to impose lockdown restrictions from April.

Taking gigs online

“We had to pivot and take these gigs online,” recalled Kimani. So Twiva and its clients booked influencers to post for five-hour shifts, say, uploading articles and comments about chosen businesses, so that they might trend on the internet, with such material being retweeted by other social media users.

Now, with Kenya’s lockdown restrictions easing, Twiva has also been able to offer physical event promotion. A good example is Nairobi restaurant Captain’s Terrace, which has a beautiful view overlooking the Nairobi National Park – influencers are booked regularly to visit and upload videos of this attractive restaurant’s night-time and weekend ambience.

“We’ve had positive feedback. The service has been running very well, with a spike in custom for the restaurant,” said Kimani.

Influencers are paid by the companies they promote according to their follower numbers, their posting duration and their performance in generating measurable publicity online. The platform allows businesses to review both influencers and content providers, with successful partners getting more work.

Kimani said Twiva is targeting women especially as service providers, including students seeking income. They are a particularly important source for content creators, with Twiva looking for photographers, videographers, designers and bloggers: “These are mostly people from university,” said Kimani.

The platform offers some decent income, with some creators earning as much as KES65,000 (US$600) a month – useful in low-income Kenya. The platform is paid fees by small businesses for its help and receives fees from creatives and influencers for training and leasing media equipment.

Payments are made via Kenya’s popular M-Pesa mobile phone-based money transfer service, widely used nationwide, especially by small traders and businesses.

Twiva has also launched strategic partnerships with organisations such as the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), the Kenya Film Classification Board and the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI),

For instance, Twiva has been working with KEPSA to provide training to creatives, influencers and businesses on how to use digital tech and strategies better, including for marketing, raising brand awareness and utilising social media platforms.

For the time being, Kironji and Kimani are still based in Toronto, where they hold down full-time day jobs in IT security and bank risk assessments respectively. Both work on Twiva early in the morning, the evening and during weekends.

Kimani left Kenya to live in Toronto, Canada, in 2014 and her co-founder arrived earlier, in 2013. Both had secured scholarships from the Mastercard Foundation to study at the University of Toronto, leaving their homes in Nyandarua County, in central Kenya. She studied business, finance and risk and he electrical and electronic engineering, plus – latterly – innovation, entrepreneurship and data.

The concept grew out of discussions three-and-a-half years ago about how they could use the skills learned in Canada to boost the economy of their home country.

Giving back

“We always wanted to give back, to help people. The foundation helped us by bringing us to the University of Toronto – my parents couldn’t have afforded that. And we don’t have to be at home to give back this way: by helping other businesses market their products and services they will scale and then they will have to employ other people: it’s a ripple effect,” they said.

Their medium-term goal is to move back to Kenya, with one of the founders likely to return in the coming year and help run Twiva full-time – the company is sustainable and is earning enough to pay its own staff, currently numbering eight.

One new initiative is a plan to help creatives access video and audio equipment, including editing software, through a mobile studio helping them to offer more services to businesses but without having to lay out money on purchasing such technologies.

While Twiva was born in their home country, Kimani stresses that this model can apply elsewhere – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“A lot of companies in Africa are young. Most of the population in Africa is young. Young people are 70% of the population. They are creating these small businesses, but it’s expensive to do traditional marketing in Kenya. Paying for an ad on TV or for a billboard is very expensive.”

Given the ubiquity of the internet in Africa and the large number of smartphones accessing fast 4G networks, web marketing is an ideal way to reach consumers, especially with COVID-19 forcing businesses to consider online service provision.

“We see a big opportunity to help small businesses transition to online from offline,” stressed Kimani. “People have brilliant products and services but have no way of bringing them to the market and the final consumer.”

The Mastercard Foundation also provided key support by granting Kironji and Kimani CA$4,500 (US$3,405) to meet initial set-up costs. As they were pondering how to establish their business, an email dropped from the foundation looking for ideas that could attract just such support.

“We didn’t have enough money and the foundation said: ‘We can help.’ It got us going,” said Kimani. The money helped fund the design of the platform, research into the market and the hiring of the business’s first employee.

COVID-19 awareness campaign

Twiva has also been working with the foundation to roll out a COVID-19 awareness campaign in Kenya through its influencers. They have been passing on important messages about staying safe, with information on washing hands, wearing masks properly and accessing information resources, including on government curfews.

As for their university education, Kimani said the founders’ respective studies gave them an ideal combination of business and IT smarts. She said that her business school skills of pitching and communicating through networking, along with a solid budgeting grounding, have proved invaluable.

“This has enabled me to gain confidence and convey ideas,” she said. It helped her succeed in this new leadership role, including managing staff, clients and suppliers remotely: “It’s been difficult; it’s been challenging. You need a creative vision of where the employees will go. Peter and I are trying to create and [offer] leadership where everyone can look up to the company and creators and say: ‘Wow, I’m inspired to do this.’

“It’s creating an impact; it’s creating value; it’s helping change people’s lives: We want to create inspiration in that way.”

For more articles on ‘Employability in the Digital Age’, see our Transformative Leadership hub.