When Vanessa Sinden turned her back on South Africa’s growing movie industry to work in a barn making cartoons, people thought she was mad.
Three years later, Triggerfish, the fledgling animation company she joined in 2009, turned from minnow to big fish on the continent. It has produced award-winning creations on cheap budgets. All thanks to ingenuity, childhood ambitions and the urge to tell African stories, she says.
“My first job in animation was one of the biggest films this country has ever made. I think I fell with my butt in the butter… we had to figure out how to make a film from scratch, we had no clue,” laughs Sinden.
It is an animation business nurtured in a 193-year-old barn with wooden floors, white-washed walls, swinging barn doors and roaming cows beyond.
These days, it’s not only the cows that roam on the farm in the southern suburbs in Cape Town. It is also the computer geeks who roam with their animation tablets amid rows of computers whizzing as they render 3D animations.
Sinden has been on the farm since the beginning. The barn betrays the youthful spirit of its inhabitants. All around are action figurines, posters of cartoon characters, table tennis tables, stock-piled vending machines, popcorn maker and coffee stations.
It is no mean feat for Sinden, who has spent eight years in this barn bringing to life African animation movies Adventures of Zambezia ($35 million) and Khumba ($26 million) that became South African blockbusters and the third and fourth best-grossing films in the country’s history, respectively.
“South Africa is the leading emerging animation industry in the world. We cannot beat Asia in terms of raw costs, but that is just servicing work. In Africa, we are passionate about our own work, our stories being told,” says Sinden.
Stick Man, a BBC One Christmas collaboration with Magic Light Pictures, has now won 11 international awards on three continents, including the Cristal for a TV Production at the world’s leading animation festival, Annecy.
Such is their prestige, Triggerfish were given rare rights to produce, alongside Magic Light Pictures again, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes which premiered in Africa in March.
In June, this latest work scored a hat-trick: first winning Best Storytelling at Shanghai International Film and TV Festival in China, then Best Animation at the Banff World Media Festival in Canada, and finishing off with the Cristal for Best TV Production at Annecy in France, the world’s premier animation festival.
Triggerfish’s hat-trick follows just days after the release of the National Film and Video Foundation’s (NFVF) second Economic Impact Assessment on the South African film industry, which found that the sector’s GDP contribution had increased from R3.5 billion in 2013 to R5.4 billion in 2016.
“With South Africa officially in recession, it’s more important than ever that our economy finds new avenues for growth,” says Triggerfish Animation CEO Stuart Forrest.
“The animation sector is still the smallest part of the film industry, according to the NFVF’s study, but our three awards on three continents this weekend are further proof that we are punching above our weight. We believe that with continued government support, animation can become a key, job-intensive growth sector in South Africa.”
“The animation industry [in South Africa] is still very fledgling. 2007 was the first time someone could work in the industry in this country, since then there has been a couple of films and a couple of 2D studios making content for Disney, but not a lot of people have had the opportunity to do their own stories, their own content. That’s a big deal,” says Sinden.
What it means for Sinden and the animators of Triggerfish is coming up with the next big hit.
It is a lot harder than you think.
“At the heart of this issue, is we don’t have enough stories that are going to hold up worldwide. Universal stories for the family,” says Sinden.
This is why Sinden has been spearheading initiatives like Story Lab, a competition supported by the South African Department of Trade & Industry and US-based Disney that aims to develop African stories by Africans. Triggerfish were looking for four feature films and four TV series for development; they got 1,400 entries from 30 countries.
“We wanted the best stories and we wanted to mentor and nurture them through bringing the best in the world from Hollywood to teach them here. We identified 38 writers to have projects we love. We held a two-week workshop in 2015.”
The cherry on the top was the final eight would be given a rare foot in the door with mentorship at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, Hollywood.
Two years later, and in the present, Sinden says the feature films are in their first drafts and the TV programs are ready and looking for investors.
South Africa is also in the unique position to produce movies at a fraction of the budgets of Europe and the US. It is a cut-throat business driven by merchandise and the young.
“Pixar are sitting at $100 million to make a film and then double that for marketing. Adventures of Zambezia and Khumba was both made under $5 million each… Film is basically a $100 million advert. [Pixar, Dreamworks and Marvel] are alive because of the off-screen sales on merchandise. Disney are the godfathers of this. They have 100 years of creating content it has sold off the shelf. They realized way back in the day its off-screen sales and brands make the money. It wasn’t about Mickey Mouse on the screen. We’re all catching up now,” says Sinden.
In this fast-paced industry, Triggerfish have adjusted their pipeline to focus on television.
“What Triggerfish is finding is with television there is a quicker turnaround time, and there can be momentum. If you have [content] that is interesting, you can get investors to move in quite quickly. For us to change our pipeline from movies to TV series was a massive shift. It means producing a TV episode once a week. But it’s a better business model. It is our own merchandising, our own content and we can make money off that,” says Sinden.
“Triggerfish has always been about passion but we also have realized we need to make money. We thought we would make money off our first two projects but we haven’t yet. We’ve paid all our gap investors and financers, but that’s about it.”
Another reason why Triggerfish is targeting TV is the paradigm shift of gender-based content – especially young girls.
“I see from my nephew, [boys] are given such a platter of all this variety, but all the girls are offered are pink sparkles and princesses.”
“Girls haven’t gone to university with dreams of becoming animators. Why are there so few women in those roles? It is because they weren’t encouraged to do so when they were girls. Now the content to pre-schoolers is saying you can be engineers, you can be scientists, nothing is stopping you, or you can still be a princess in pink. There is nothing stopping you.”
Two new shows set to air will break these sexualized conventions featuring not only girls in lead roles experimenting in science and engineering, but also Africans. One of them is a girl who decided she wants to be a princess and a ninja. The other, called Mama K’s Super Four, features four teenage girls who have to save the world on a budget from their headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. The story is written by Malenga Mulendema, who lives and works in that city.
“Malenga asked… ‘why can’t she see herself in any of those roles, there are no black girls who speaks to who she is and what she does why can’t she see herself as hero’.”
“It’s an all-black girl cast, all shapes and sizes and it just taps on those little buttons, that girls don’t have to be skinny, you can be beautiful and be curvy and busty, and be smart and techie and programmed robots and that’s beautiful too,” says Sinden.
“Four teenage girls living in Lusaka, who save the world, may not appeal to a girl in Germany, but reality is the time is right and content and stories like this will come from Africa and we think there is a market.”
For Sinden, now 39 years old, transforming the animation industry and seeing equal gender-based content come to life is a dream come true. When she was young, she was watching movies like Aladdin and singing along to the cassette in her dad’s car for months.
“Kids love the visual characters and the vibes you get from watching their reactions are the hooks for me… I remember when A Bugs Life came out in my late teens and I was the only adult in the entire cinema.”
There is even more hard work ahead. Around the world only one in five women are in the industry, says Sinden.
“Parents don’t think the film industry is a great industry. My parents were put off when I told them I wanted to work in film and started off working for free and finding a job. They said ‘why would you do that, why would you work backwards’.”
There is even more in store for the company that works out of a barn. On the horizon is Seal Team – an origins story of navy seals.
“It’s seals versus sharks and it’s meant to be true to the genre, seals standing up to the bully sharks. It’s going to be great for the boys. That’s currently going into storyboarding come July. We are currently going into the script at the moment.”
All from a barn where childhood dreams were born, where the tough business of animation is carried out.
Packing Light In School Bags
Former South African rugby star John Mametsa provides alternative energy solutions for the state. With his wife Tumi, he says their future in the business is bright.
In his prime, former Blue Bulls winger John Mametsa had rugby fans screaming in delight at his try-scoring exploits at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. Between 2001 to when he retired in 2010, he had brought smiles on people’s faces.
Hidden beneath the rugby bravura on display on a weekly basis were Mametsa’s entrepreneurial exploits, which led him to co-found Soltech, a solar technology company he started with his wife Tumi.
Soltech has bridged the gap between solar technology and user-friendly consumer products by creating school backpacks, outdoor umbrellas and lifestyle bags custom-fitted with solar power.
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The smiles are back but Mametsa has brought them in a different form.
Soltech’s main aim is to help companies achieve their corporate social investment targets and make a real difference in the lives of school children who might not have electricity at home, or whose access to electricity is limited.
“Generally, I love giving back. Just to see the kids smile brings joy to me,” Mametsa says.
“It is the best space I could have asked for. Other than when I was involved in rugby, this is the best thing I could have ever been a part of.
Putting smiles on kids’ faces is the best thing. Because we are dealing with children, we have aligned ourselves with people that want to make a difference.
“We don’t stop at just giving them the bags where they can charge phones and study at night but we also educate them about the social ills that come with roaming on the internet and social media.”
During this period of Eskom blackouts, uncertainty about South Africa’s energy and a widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, he says Soltech’s products make a difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
In a sense, they’ve taken the might of solar technology and put it right in people’s hands. The school bags come with a solar-powered battery, which has a night lamp and cellular phone battery charger installed.
“With everything that’s going on at Eskom now, they (citizens) are using millions of liters of diesel per month, just to keep the lights on,” Mametsa says.
“Hence, it’s coming back to hit our pockets and they (Eskom – South Africa’s national energy provider) are raising the electricity prices again. Such things we have to read about so that, as we grow, we educate the people that we are selling the bags to.
“At some point, you need to convert [to reusable energy sources], you need to start using solar energy. We are still fortunate that there’s an Eskom in the first place. What about those countries that don’t even have electricity at all?
“Yes, we have power cuts but the people that really need the bags are people in the rural areas.”
Admittedly, Mametsa was the pretty face and Tumi conceptualized the idea when they started. But their partnership was perfect in more ways than one. Tumi, just like her husband, had a massive entrepreneurial drive.
While Mametsa was playing rugby, he would dabble in taxi and printing businesses – an uncommon trait among sportsmen and sportswomen who are at the peak of their powers. Tumi was no different. As a student, she would sell hair and cosmetics products, something that sharpened her business senses.
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And despite a successful 11-year career in corporate as an accountant and financial manager for companies such as Alexander Forbes and the Film and Publication Board, Tumi took a bet on herself and dedicated her time fully to building Soltech.
The result was that, in just the company’s second year, they have signed a memorandum of understanding with Finland solar technology company Tespack. Tespack founders Caritta Seppä and Yesika Robles were last year named in Forbes ’s 30 Under 30 Europe.
The joint venture will see Soltech come out, among other things, with a solar-powered, fast-charging power bank, which should totally disrupt the smartphone accessories market.
“There’s going to be skills and knowledge transfer,” Tumi says.
“The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) is also backing us on the partnership because we need them and their funding to assist us. We will be hiring South Africans to work the machinery, which was something that was very attractive to the DTI.
“The Tespack partnership confirmed my belief that our company could grow from a small tree to a forest someday. Once we manufacture in-house we can streamline the process. And there are so many other ideas for products I have, such as ladies’ handbags and stuff.”
Here at home, Soltech has partnered in CSI projects with Liberty and Exxaro and they hope to grow their client base in the next couple of years. It is a huge endorsement of their products and should see them salve some of the hurt from the country’s electricity crisis, especially to those who need it the most.
‘Worth Millions And Billions’
Terence Terenzo, the award-winning South African hairdresser and founder of hair salon group Terenzo Suites, on his biggest investment decisions and blunders.
What is your investment philosophy?
One of my philosophies is to really analyse ‘is this an investment or is it a money pit… Are you sure you got a good investment and not a liability?’… Over the last 10 years, I’ve tried to invest in things that don’t absorb all my time and energy.
So if someone were to say to me, ‘you can work your butt off seven days a week and we will give you a million rand a month, or you can take it super easy and do the absolute minimum but you can have R400,000 ($27,700) a month’, I would rather take the R400,000 because that would free me up so much more.
I would have time to do things that are important and other projects. So, for me, it is about setting up passive income businesses instead of creating businesses that need huge amounts of management.
What are some of the big investments you have made over the years?
Most of them were in property but this, Terenzo Suites, is one of the biggest investments I have ever made. It was many many millions. And then on the stock market, I’ve played around on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange where we have invested quite heavily. I would use it, then look at the market and sometimes pull the money out and move it. I have also invested in Naspers.
Have you had any regrets?
If any entrepreneur tells you that he hasn’t had that [an investment blunder], he is lying. So, what happened was I bought a property in 2008, just before the [recession]. I was stuck with it for years and even when I sold it, I sold it many years later at the same price I bought it.
I bought it in an absolute inflated stop end, and it was really at an all-time high and I had to sell it at an all-time low… But the main thing for me about those kind of things is that you learn from them and you must not beat yourself up for too long.
Try and see what you learned from them.
Why did you invest in the hair business?
I think the hair industry is going to explode in South Africa and the whole continent, if you just think of the possibilities of wigs, hair pieces, hair colors and relaxers. Millions of women before weren’t so worried about their hair but as the world has changed so much, all of them want to look amazing and they want to look current, fresh, sexy, and that is all a part of the hair industry.
What should you consider first before you invest in your hair?
I think the one thing is to have a professional conversation with someone instead of just doing your own thing and, usually, hairdressers are quite happy to consult with you without charging you before you make a serious investment in hair pieces or wigs.
How big do you think the hair industry is in Africa?
I think it is worth millions and billions… and I think it is an undiscovered industry that is still going to explode. I don’t think we have scratched the tip of the iceberg with this.
A Germ Of An idea
The microbiologist-turned-entrepreneur Babajide Ipaye started making good-looking shoes to fit his size 48 feet but decided to create them for others as well.
Selling shoes was probably the last thing Babajide Ipaye, a microbiology graduate, envisioned doing. But when by the age of 10, he was already wearing his father’s shoes, a size 44, he knew that some day that he would step in that world.
The only child of his parents, who passed away in a car accident when he was only 11, Ipaye was raised by his grandparents and extended family members who shaped the early years of his life.
“I had a lot of people who were trying to nurture me and they had different professions. So for example, one was an artist and I was endeared to him, another one was a medical doctor, so my granddad wanted me to study medicine and another uncle was a computer scientist, so I was kind of confused growing up. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I kind of lived the life of almost everyone that influenced me,” says Ipaye.
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That confusion helped Ipaye cut his teeth in various industries early on in his career. His medical doctor uncle influenced his career as a microbiologist where he worked with Ideas International Bio Technology Services, spending his days cleaning up oil spills and bacteria.
Then followed a stint in Information Technology (IT), a move also inspired by another uncle, where he worked with Tranter IT Infrastructure Services and Computer Warehouse as an analyst deploying managed technology services for multinationals like Guinness, Total and KPMG.
“At this point in time, IT was very hip and we happened to be one of the early pioneers in the tech space which was a very exciting time and considering where I was coming from in microbiology, it was a new field for me, I was working with multinationals and the exposure was amazing, it gave me a very broad sense of how organizations function.”
But Ipaye soon became dissatisfied with being put in a silo. There was too much structure and rigor due to the size of these multinationals and he became bogged down with a lot of systems and processes, which ultimately stifled his creative juices. His solution was to start his own IT company, Torque Technologies.
The company began providing IT equipment and technology services in its early days to multinationals before quickly creating a niche for itself in the fiber optics space. In early 2003 to 2005, the Nigerian telecoms era had just started booming and Ipaye and his partner saw a first-mover advantage in fiber optics by providing training to firms in Nigeria, which they did for the next 10 years.
By 2015, Ipaye decided he wanted a new challenge outside the IT world. After parting ways with his partner, he began to ponder about his life-long struggle with footwear.
“So I said to myself ‘why don’t I make my own shoes?’ So I went on the internet, did a bit of research and came across a school in the Netherlands called SLEM. I called them up and found out about the shoe-making course and I said since I was on holiday, why don’t I take some time off the business and explore how to make my own shoes and I went to the Netherlands.”
Keexs was born. The goal was to make shoes that fit Ipaye’s size 48 feet but also looked aesthetically pleasing. But making shoes for him alone would prove to be too costly.
Ipaye decided to make shoes for others as well. He would focus on the athleisure market, which is a portmanteau of ‘athletic’ and ‘leisure’, a market that has grown to the stage where it is no longer a trend but a mainstay in Nigerian fashion.
To stand out in the competitive footwear market, Ipaye decided to add some African elements to his innovative footwear brand and focused on outsourcing the production to a factory in the Netherlands while he focused on the product and design to save on cost.
The aim in the long run was to move production to Nigeria where he could fulfill the brand’s social mission of providing employment and skills training to unemployed youth. However, to make the business viable, he had to make a minimum of 1,000 pairs of shoes to achieve economies of scale. Next came the challenge of securing startup funding.
“From my previous experience of starting my technology business in Nigeria, I came to realize that the cost of funding in Nigeria is very high and also there are a lot of businesses chasing funding and the risk level of most potential investors in Nigeria is very conservative and they don’t want to invest in stuff they are not sure about.
“So I read about crowdfunding and consulted a company in the Netherlands and I came across a site called kick-starter which is a US-based platform that offers a global crowdfunding platform to innovative ideas and projects, hence we started the first innovative and social focused brand in Africa,” says Ipaye.
In just over two years Ipaye has managed to grow the business through leading e-commerce sites like Jumia and Konga as well as via its own website which receives orders from countries around the world. The shoes sell for anywhere from $40 to $60, with over 8,000 pairs of shoes sold till date.
Keexs has about 18 outlets in Nigeria with retail partners in Kenya, South Africa and Guadeloupe and Nairobi.
The company also sells through social media channels where they boast over 15,000 followers on Instagram. The long-term goal for Ipaye is to secure enough funding to set up a factory in Nigeria, which he is looking to raise through an amalgamation of funding sources including grants and loans.
“We realized very quickly that economies of scale is critical to drive the growth of this business therefore there is a need for a lot of capital. There are four sides to this chain; production, design, distribution and retail. The problem with a lot of businesses in Africa is that they are expected to do everything from start to finish along that entire value chain and what that does is, it stifles the growth of the business,” says Ipaye.
The big-time hit when CNN profiled Keexs on its African Voices show. Since then, they have managed to establish themselves as an innovative social brand focused on empowering unemployed youth in Nigeria. Next on the to-do list for Ipaye is establishing a production line in Nigeria, and then taking his brand global.
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