Ex-rugby star Dennis Ombachi’s journey to being best TikTok creator in Africa

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi when he received his award during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi when he received his award during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards at Movenpick Hotel, Nairobi on January 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

It was a stiff competition. Ninety were in the race and only one could be the winner.

This was the quest for the most impactful and creative content creator for 2022 on the social media platform TikTok in Sub-Saharan Africa. It began in December. There were 30 entries from each of the regions of Africa being considered: south, west and the east.

The Kenyan flag was flown by the likes of Jacky “Awinja” Vike, Milly wa Jesus, Wabosha Maxine, among others.
After the voters had had their say and the judging panel had also weighed in, one Kenyan took the crown — former rugby player, Dennis Ombachi. His win was announced on January 14, from a Nairobi hotel.

As per the announcement, Dennis is the reigning content creator on TikTok in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. He won in the inaugural quest to celebrate a top creator in a year. In second place was Nigerian @charityekezie, who uses humour to debunk stereotypes about Africa.

In a statement announcing the victory, Boniswa Sidwaba, TikTok’s head of content programming in Sub-Saharan Africa said: “With these inaugural awards, TikTok aims to give creators in Sub-Saharan Africa the recognition they deserve and to encourage them to tell the African story while spreading joy at all times.”

For a man who ventured into cooking to, among others, cope with anxiety, and who was known better for the tough tackles he engaged in on the pitch, the breakneck sprints and the deft passing of the ball in his days playing as a centre in the national rugby team, the win was not exactly one he had anticipated.
“I would say it came as a surprise to me,” he told Lifestyle.

“I was notified that I was selected among the top eight content creators in Africa. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll take it as a win’. But I didn’t know I was going to win the overall prize,” he added.

Dennis posts his content on TikTok under the handle @theroamingchef. That handle reflects his nickname, The Roaming Chef, that he got from the days he would be hired by people to prepare meals in their homes.
The signature of his videos is the word “done”. He has perfected a style where a cooking procedure that can take an hour or more is compressed into a presentation lasting only a few seconds. At the end of each step, you hear him proclaiming “done!”

He was inspired to venture into the world of cooking by celebrated British chef Gordon Ramsay. He told CNN in October last year that it was Ramsay’s videos on YouTube that lifted him from the depths of depression a few years back.

That, coupled with the fact that he is a fan of cooking from the days he used to observe his mother prepare meals, produced an unexpected chef who today boasts two million followers on TikTok.
Below are some of the highlights of the story of the 32-year-old TikTok celebrity.

He makes videos as he makes meals for his family

Dennis calls it killing two birds with one stone. As he plans for the content to post on TikTok, he is also planning on the meals his family will have. He is married to Svetlana Polikarpova, with whom they have two children.
“It’s all about being natural and authentic. If you don’t fake it, you don’t have to force it. Once you fake it, it’s like when you have to wear two veils,” he says. “I would advise us to sort of curate your content in such a way that it aligns with your life.”

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi and his wife Svetlana Polikarpova

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi and his wife Svetlana Polikarpova during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards at Mövenpick Residences Nairobi on January 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

He reveals that he is a one-man crew, shooting and editing the videos by himself. The editing was self-taught.
He told Lifestyle: “I tried out a few methods here and there. I remember I even bought a camera but really it was not working out for me. It was a bit hectic and I needed to shoot today, edit quickly by tomorrow and have the content out without going through all the complex video editing.

Basically, what I’m just doing is producing content to be consumed socially. After one minute, someone has already watched and they are done. So, it is all about making it informative, entertaining, and engaging. And so, with time, I just came to know. It was through trial and error; just editing on the phone and I found my own way or style of editing rather than what I was watching online and the tutorials on how to edit videos.

As much as they would turn out nice, they really didn’t portray my kind of style and I wanted to be unique. It took a bit of time but I finally found my own way of editing and doing things that are a bit faster and that’s how I, personally, would love to consume content. Because I really don’t like very, very long videos. So, I found a way to edit them and since then I’ve just been perfecting it.”

As he gets noticed across the continent, he is now considering having a team to ensure the seamless production of content.

“As much as I cook every day, shooting every other day is sort of impossible for me because it is hectic and tiring,” he says. “I really know in my heart I’m doing almost the bare minimum. And I know I should be able to do better. Maybe I need a team behind me because right now I am doing everything by myself.”

He plans to start a restaurant

Just like his mentor Gordon Ramsay – whom he hopes to meet someday – Dennis plans to open a restaurant to take his passion for cooking to another level.

“At one point in time, I would love to own a restaurant,” he says, adding that he likes the way Ramsay juggled between being a manager, a waiter, and also a celebrity chef.
“When I’m no longer here, (the restaurant is) something to leave my kids with. I don’t want to leave them my social media accounts,” adds Dennis.

Ramsay, known for his scathing comments when judging cooking contests, runs a number of restaurants in various locations across the globe, especially in the United States and England.
“Despite being one amazing chef, his online persona is also amazing. He is good. He markets himself online,” says Dennis.

He hopes the win will bring him more deals

Dennis says he currently has “a few collaborations going on with brands” that bring him money. With the latest recognition, the Nairobi-based content creator hopes he will bag more.

“The perks for me with an award like this are, of course, the recognition. It builds your name outside there more,” Dennis says.

“So, it just gives you an opportunity to work with more brands. I think that is the biggest perk from the award,” he adds. “The recognition in itself is how you’re able to monetise it.”

He has carried on some sporting habits into his new engagement

Dennis was in the Kenya rugby sevens team from 2009, going as far as the Olympics. His sensational last-gasp try earned Kenya a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He, however, struggled to get back into the team after sustaining a freak injury in the 2017/18 season and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Though he is now out of the sport, there are some lessons he has picked from it that he applies as he develops content on TikTok.

“Rugby instilled discipline that I still have and apply. For example, you always have to wake up and show up even if you don’t feel like it,” he says.

Dennis Ombachi

Kenya Shujaa player Dennis Ombachi scores a try against Mwamba Club during Group A of Safari 7s Rugby tournament on November 10, 2018 at RFUEA grounds.

Photo credit: File | Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

“Another thing is consistency and always being coachable; always being willing to learn and unlearn. In sports, tactics change, and the game plays change. So, you always have to keep learning and unlearning new and old ideas. That’s the same (with content creation),” he adds.

“Also, being likeable in sports and having a good persona can boost your confidence. If the fans hate you, you won’t really go far in sports. In social media, I believe, if people like your persona and personality, you thrive. It is possible to try being relatable. If controversies are for you, go for it. But for me, stuff like that is not my cup of tea. I just try to be authentic. Just be you. Lots of people just want to watch something that is authentic and real.”

All this started with a food blog

Dennis says he didn’t just switch from rugby to content creation. Even when he was a player, he would post a video here and there. In fact, he once ran a blog.

“I didn’t start content creation when I quit sports. In the last few years when I was still actively playing, I was already creating a bit of content here and there. I actually had a food blog a while back. It was my early attempt at content creation and it was mainly just taking photos of food. I loved taking photos of food for the food blog, with recipes here and there. Then I started doing a bit of videos. So, when I fully quit sports, I already knew that this was the way I wanted to do it. But I really didn’t know that I would be in it fully because when I quit sports, I was not yet The Roaming Chef. The Roaming Chef title came about because I had this business where people could hire me to go into their houses and homes and cook for them,” he explains.

“When I quit sports, I had already started transitioning slowly into this. Otherwise, it would have been tougher because it was still tough to transition having done sports for 12 to 15 years then all of a sudden I’m out here. It was a bit of a soft landing because there was already something else I could do,” he added.

He has a soft spot for street children

The first video by Dennis that went viral – and which is still the most viewed, with a whopping 36 million viewership – is one where he prepares a meal and hands it to street children.

This is because he once spent a week on the streets.

“There was a time when I was in high school and a few things happened here and there and I ended up living in the streets for like seven days. So, I’ve lived in the streets and I know how life is tough outside there. Food was part of the challenges. That’s why I have a soft spot for them,” he says.

The day he posted the video in which he gave packed meals to street children, he never thought it was a big deal. “I posted the video on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok and then logged out for a couple of days, then people were just sending me messages like, ‘You’re trending’. I went back first on Twitter and was like, ‘Wah!’ The video blew up on Twitter,” he said. “On TikTok, it had hit a million views just two three days after posting. And then I was like, ‘This type of editing kind of works’. And, I think, since that day, I’ve been sort of perfecting that style of content and editing.”

He thinks TikTok is fairer to upstarts than other social media platforms

Dennis believes that the algorithms of most social platforms favour “polished” content over the raw one. But on TikTok, he opines, anything goes.

“TikTok, I believe, is a bit more unbiased. I get to come across various types of content that I would never have encountered. I see lot of content from all over the world, even here in Kenya. I get to see content from remote villages, which I love,” he says. “In TikTok, you really don’t need a huge following to trend. You can have even three followers but one video of yours can just blow out. TikTok is a bit different, it is still new, still going, so we are yet to see how it will keep changing with time.”

He also believes that social media has presented to Kenyans a huge playing field where they can shine. “You can decide on whichever content you want to put out there,” he says.

“From the brand I have created outside sports, on social media as the roaming chef, I’ve been able to partner with a couple of brands here and there. I would say you can choose to take social media seriously. You plan, strategise and monetise it and all that. And also, of course as just a regular person, you also use social media just to have fun. But there are different types of social media. It depends on how you want to take it.”