What you need to know:
- While at university, Mbugua became a jack of all trades in his quest to survive.
- He started out as a freelance writer, contributing entertainment articles to the Saturday Nation
“Money is colour-blind, race-blind, sex-blind, degree-blind, and couldn’t care less who brought you up or in what circumstances,” says TV producer Eugene Mbugua.
This quote is plucked from a book he has just finished reading, How to Get Rich, by Felix Dennis.
“It’s one of the best books I have ever read. It’s candid,” he says as he sinks into a chair opposite mine in a gazebo at his home in the posh Karen suburbs.
Felix Dennis was an outspoken English entrepreneurial dynamo who started out as a college dropout and, with no money, went on to establish a publishing empire which has Maxim Magazine in its stable, becoming one of the richest people in the United Kingdom. He grew up poor in southwest London with his mother after his father walked out of their lives.
Life became harder when his mother remarried. Dennis was forced to leave home and school aged 15 to do odd jobs to earn a living. He briefly worked as a sign painter before eventually pitching up at Oz, London’s leading underground magazine at the time, where he sold advertising space.This was his eye-opener. By the time of his death in 2014 aged 67, his business empire was worth in excess of £500 million (Sh73 billion).
Mr Mbugua identifies with Dennis’s rags-to riches story.
“I grew up homeless in the sense that I never had a place to call home for a long time. I went to school by grace, but I thank God,” he says without going into details.
Upon completing secondary education in 2008 aged 17, Mbugua landed his first job as an extra on Inspekta Mwala TV drama that aired on Citizen TV.
“As an extra -- the lowest job you can get on set – I was being paid Sh500. After a while I became a boom-swinger on Makutano Junction and Machachari TV dramas. The pay was Sh600 but I would spend Sh400 on transport. Then, I lived in Roysambu and the shooting was done here in Karen.”
He was a boom-swinger for a couple of months, then found a guardian who sponsored him to USIU where he studied television production with a minor in print media.
While at university, Mbugua became a jack of all trades in his quest to survive. He started out as a freelance writer, contributing entertainment articles to the Saturday Nation. Together with a friend, Dexter, Mr Mbugua started teaching basic film production in primary schools at a fee.
“Having been on a TV set and now in college, I had the basic knowledge of filmmaking, so we approached many schools pitching the ideas and Makini School gave us a chance. The first term we signed up 30 students, each of whom paid Sh3,000.”
From the earnings, he set up a movie shop near USIU. That was not all.
“At the university I set up a game court that cost Sh400,000. I would sell movies at Sh50. They would also pay to play video games and Xbox,” Mbugua recalls with a smile in between sipping his juice.
The business was good, he says, fetching him Sh6,000 per day. Soon his turnover was Sh120,000 a month.
During his early days as a boom-swinger, a tutor and student, Mbugua continued saving, sometimes walking to some of his “hustles”.
It was on one of those walks that he saw a ‘To Let’ advert for a Sh70,000 apartment and got thinking: who would spend that kind of money on rent?
“That’s how the idea of my first TV show, ‘Young Rich’, came about,” he says.
With the idea and skills in TV production, Mbugua shot his pilot of the ‘Young Rich’ using borrowed equipment. He thereafter knocked on the doors of every TV station in the country pitching the idea but was turned down.
In 2013, K24 TV station was revamping and Mbugua went there to pitch the idea and it was accepted.
“They gave me a contract and it changed my life completely. I was making Sh200,000 per episode, which translated to a million shillings every month,” Mbugua recalls.
The show ran for two years. The first ‘Young Rich’ episode aired on a Thursday, just a day before his graduation. At just 22 he was a TV show producer, perhaps the youngest in the country at the time.
With his first million, he moved to Lavington, partied a little and ploughed back some money into his company, Young Rich.
Mbugua went on to produce 10 more TV shows, including Foods of Kenya, Sol Family, Get in the Kitchen, Our Perfect Wedding, Story Yangu, My Friend, Being Bahati, and his latest, Concert Nyumbani.
Mbugua believes there is not enough money in film production.
“I’m not in the TV industry but I’m in the TV business. This is why I will never do film. I have never seen a way to commercialise films because, for TV, we benefit from the advertising model. I sell to a station, a station attaches advertising to it, so we know where we are making our money from. For film, you need to sell tickets to make money, but how many people in Kenya go to watch films? I’m yet to see a profitable angle from film,” he expounds.
Sold his TV content
So far he has sold his TV content in South Africa, India and is currently exploring markets in France.
“We are trying to build an international audience as well and see what we can get out of it,” he says.
Most of his money comes from the Kenyan market.
Business has not been all rosy, though.
“My friends and I ventured into the hospitality sector a few years back. We used to drink together and thought, why can’t we make money while at it? So we set up a cocktail bar, Number 7, on Nairobi’s Koinange street and it has been doing well. We made good money and I got cocky and pushed my friends to open a second one in Westlands. It flopped badly that we had to shut it down. We lost over Sh10 million. Everything was wrong from the beginning: the location, the setup, you name it.”
Looking back, Mr Mbugua says they made many mistakes it humbled him.
“I read somewhere that there is a right way to fail. It’s quickly, cheaply and never the same way twice,” he says.
Mbugua has also set up a farm in Isinya where he keeps cattle for beef.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he lost his shows overnight. He had to send home half of his 100 staff to stay afloat.
“Shows like Our Perfect Wedding and Foods of Kenya, which were really doing well came to a halt because we could no longer travel to shoot. The weddings became smaller and less glamorous.”
This is when he came up with the Concert Nyumbani, a show that was put together to celebrate the frontline workers helping in the fight against pandemic.
He made good money as the show was sponsored by the Kenya Film Commission and broadcast across major TV stations in the country.
“If there is one thing I learnt from the pandemic, it is that hope is not a strategy in times of crisis. You have to be proactive.”
He contracted the coronavirus and had to isolate himself for 14 days while on medication.
“I contracted the virus at the same time as Bien of Sauti Sol, a close friend. It was terrible. The runny nose and the flu on the first two days followed by bad body aches and fatigue isn’t something you would want to experience,” he says.
He has since stopped going to the gym and set up one at home in the car park.
A sucker for nature, he loves to travel and explore the world. Before Covid, he had planned to travel to every part of the world by the time he hits 35.
He likes camping, taking scenic drives and once in a while plays golf.
To celebrate his 30th birthday in November 2020, his girlfriend organised a lovely event at Masai Lodge, which was graced by family and close friends, including his three mentors - Dennis Makori, Danson Muchemi and Trushar Khetia.