Betting is big in Kenya. So big, in fact, that when a centre for university students at which I usually help out wanted to raise money for new chairs for its study room back in 2014, it came up with a modified version of betting. It was the year of the World Cup, and guys were offered the chance of winning a big prize for predicting the scores of more games than their friends.
It is 8.30 AM, on Tuesday, April 26th, 2016, as normal a Nairobi morning as can be. I am at the offices of Node Africa, a cloud services company. Node is a young firm, less than two months old. I have come to meet the CEO, Phares Kariuki, who is in his early thirties.
Hi there. Happy New Year! You made it across, again. I am happy for you. I made it too. You should also be happy for me. This place feels musty. The cobwebs are hanging over everything. And the dust coats all the furniture. Before I start cleaning up, there is something I need to tell you. It has been a while since we posted anything here. I know. Let me explain.
Evans is a second-year university student. He is also the CEO of a company that makes electronic games. No, he is not American. His second name is Kiragu, as Kenyan as they get. And no, he is not very rich. He is just an ordinary 20-something out to do the extraordinary. His company is on its way to releasing its second game, going by the harmless name “Craving Carrots.” Their first, “Wings of Fury” garnered over 25,000 downloads last year.
Together with a few friends, Evans started Mekan Games last year. The name is a corruption of “me can” which is – I need not say – itself a corruption of “I can.” Like all young people exposed to computers from an early age, he grew up playing games and tinkering with electronics every chance he got. He says he always fixed everything he broke, which is to say everything he touched, but his mother, who bought him his first computer as a reward for good performance in school, was not always amused.
He learned to code after high school, and since then has never looked back. Now he studies Computer Technology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) near Nairobi. He created his first game, a first-person shooter zombie apocalypse flick, on a whim. When he told his friends he would create the game, the reaction was a healthy mix of incredulity and enthusiasm. But then he did and everybody took him seriously. He says it was the first 3D first-person shooter game made by a Kenyan, although the credit in the end went to the creator of the game Nairobi X, another young Kenyan.
A number of his friends had, or were then building, skills in graphic design, 3D animation, music, and writing, the essentials of game-making. They came in handy when Mekan Games was launched last year. Now they are all pumping in hours and hours into Craving Carrots, their first deliberate game. The intention is to launch it in July.
Craving Carrots is a 2D game that involves preventing ninjas, using a combination of weapons and booby traps, from acquiring carrots that can give them superhuman strength and thus enable them to overrun the world. It is innocent, simple and immediately addictive, and a little bit silly. Evans says he meant it to be that way. A short break from the monotony of the workday. A little laugh for the tired student when he sees the black stick figures running all over his phone screen like ants gone rogue.
For Evans, nothing could be better. To have the products of his mind explored by people far and wide, many of whom he will never meet, is for him the greatest reward for his long labours. That is what keeps him going.
And he needs it. The gaming scene in Kenya is still deplorably underdeveloped, and the market is firmly in the hands of massive foreign companies the likes of which young creators like Evans do not have the resources to even begin rivaling. So theirs is a first step, a case of cautious dabbling in the league of the seasoned. But they are doing a good job of it, if the quality and consistency of their games is anything to go by. The trail they blaze will be the foundation on which a truly native gaming industry will rely to grow.
Whether they achieve the effect they aim at remains a mystery that only time can unveil. But that they are on the right path cannot be doubted. Thanks to Evans and his peers, for the first time there is a homegrown community of gaming companies. And mainstream media is starting to notice. The African story is now being told through African games. It can only get better.
Feature image: Mekan Games.
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You arrive at an office in ‘The’ University, with a quick errand and an impatient heart. You behold two secretaries and wonder for a fleeting moment what need one official has for two, but then you think: the better for me, at least I have two to serve me. All this while, you are only beginning to notice that they are engaged in deep conversation, with many a punctuating laugh and flashing of eyes.