Think back to the magic and memories of your favorite cartoons such as Tom & Jerry and The Powerpuff Girls. How many of them had characters of different races or, at the very least, were in a language other than English?
Uganda-born entrepreneur Akaliza Gara, founder and managing director of ICT company Shaking Sun and Yambi Animation Studios, has been asking these questions for a long time. As an entrepreneur in Rwanda’s animation industry, she now hopes to use animation as a tool to tell African stories to the world and in turn, promote and preserve her continent’s rich culture.
From an early age, Gara has been exposed to a world that gave her the liberty to dream beyond conventional careers. Her mother was a teacher and her father, a lawyer, worked for the United Nations, various NGOs and government institutions.
“I had an unusual upbringing. My family moved to a new country, on average, every three years. By the time I was 21, I had lived in seven different countries,” she says.
Gara began her high school in Switzerland, spent two years in Kenya and completed her schooling in South Africa. After that, she moved to Canterbury, England, where she took a BSc in Multimedia Technology and Design. She was miles away from home but never felt out of place.
“Most of the Africans would hang out together. Sometimes I would be walking on the street and I would see another African, someone I had never met, and we would give each other a little nod of acknowledgement,” says Gara.
In her final year of university, she applied for her dream job as an animator at Pixar Animation Studios, in the United States, known for blockbusters such as Toy Story, Monster’s Inc. and Finding Nemo.
Three months went by and Gara, anxiously waiting, hadn’t heard from them. She decided to call them.
“I managed to hack a website and get a phone number for a top person at the company. I gave him a call and asked for a job. He was, understandably, quite confused and angry that I had got his number. He told me to call human resources, said ‘good luck’ and hung up. I was very disappointed, for some reason, I expected him to be impressed with my initiative and offer me a job.” After graduation, Gara moved to Uganda’s capital Kampala. The rejection from Pixar sparked something in her that made her even more determined to prove her mettle.
While looking for a job in Kampala, Gara’s uncle informed her of the fantastic opportunities in the ICT sector, for youth and women, in Rwanda. Having researched the country, Gara saw the many opportunities and relocated. One of her main challenges was overcoming the language barrier and speaking Kinyarwanda, the local language.
For the first two years, Gara worked as a private consultant and also started to save for a master’s degree in animation. However, she found her clients were more interested in her skills than her qualifications.
She shifted her focus and put RWF5 million ($7,500) of savings towards her company Shaking Sun. The company, launched in 2009, is a multimedia enterprise specializing in graphic design, animation and web development.
“The field is largely male-dominated and there are many challenges for women in the field shared by those of us in Africa and outside Africa. One is the lack of female role models. The stereotypical image of an ICT expert is a young white man, so many young girls grow up without even considering their field because they see ICT and technology in general as a boy’s thing.”
In 2013, Gara received the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of the team that created Rwanda’s first animated series, The African Tales. The series was part of The Know Zone, a project focused on educating the youth through animation. The episodes were five minutes long and aired on national TV station, RTV, for 15 weeks.
The African Tales reignited Gara’s lifelong dream of becoming an animator and instead of seeking out a world-renowned animation studio to work for, she started her own company Yambi Animation Studios.
“When I was a kid, most of my favorite cartoon characters were male and usually white and almost always American. I want to create characters that represent my culture and values for the generation of African children growing up today.”
Gara is determined to educate young women about opportunities in the ICT field. She is part of a number of initiatives such as Girls in ICT Rwanda, a group of female ICT entrepreneurs and professionals encouraging teenage girls in Rwanda to consider ICT as a career as well as be part of the Microsoft 4Afrika Advisory Council, which seeks to help change the perception of women in ICT in East Africa.
Gara never got her dream job at Pixar but it drove her to become a frontrunner in African animation. Everything in life happens for a reason, and Gara firmly believes that to be true.