In late 2017, 10 Kenyan scriptwriters with diverse experience in visual storytelling led by executive producers Peter Obrist, Waltraud Ehrardt and Ravi Karmalker together with film maker and producer Kamau wa Ndung’u converged in a room in Nairobi to develop a telenovela.
The team had zero budget but was enthusiastic, hopeful and ambitious. This marked the genesis of Country Queen, the first Kenyan series set to be commissioned by American streaming service company, Netflix.
For the first time since its completion in April, the six episodes of season one, the Nation has exclusively learnt cost Sh150 million. The series will officially premier on Netflix on July 15.
“The idea at first was to develop a telenovela of its own kind. It was originally from Germany by executive producers Peter Obrist, Waltraud Ehrhardt and Ravi Karmalker. We started by sourcing for writers and brought in Mkamzee Mwatela, Florence Onyango, Annete Shadeya, Waweru Kimani, Ian Kithinji, Wanjeri Gakuru, Lydia Matata, Oprah Oyugi, Shirleen Wangari and I,” says Ndung’u.
These were the initial writers but later on, others joined.
“We then conducted a 10-week creative workshop to prepare and it is during this brainstorming period that the idea flipped from telenovela to a series,” adds Ndung’u.
They opted out of the telenovela for a number of reasons. “First, it’s not easy to source funding for a telenovela, second, it’s a daily show and third there was the budget issue,” he adds.
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By the end of the 10 weeks workshop, they had developed a character manual and a rough third draft of the pilot episode.
The camp was dismissed but reunited nine months later to revise and fine tune the third draft to develop a shooting script. This exercise took two months to conclude.
An elaborate casting process was conducted with auditions held in October 2018 at the Nairobi National Theatre attracting over 150 well-known and emerging actors.
Lead actress Melissa Kiplagat, who plays Akisa, an alumnus of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, carried the day.
“Akisa our lead was called back twice to assure us that our gut feeling was right. She had only played in web series at that time. She was phenomenal,” Executive producer Karmalker recalls.
The star-studded cast also includes Nini Wacera, who burst into limelight in 2005 with her role in Wingu la Moto soap opera, former big brother participant Melvin Alusa, Blessing Lung’aho and Sheila Munyiva.
Once they had Country Queen together, a two-week camera acting workshop followed to add some extra intensity for the shooting.
The pilot episode was shot at the end of January 2019, involving 50 actors, 52-crew members and 160 extras who were Kenyans.
“The pilot episode was to help us source for funding. This wasn’t an easy process, it took us two years to get funding. Most of the pitches were done in Germany by our executive producers. Deutsche Welle Akademie were the biggest funders of this project. Netflix also chipped in with some percentage,” said Ndung’u
Besides Germany, the search for funding also took them to the Festival Series Mania in Lille, France 2019 as well as Kenya during the 2019 Kalasha International Film and TV market and at the Berlinale in Berlin in 2020. The writers room for season one comprised four of the original creatives Lydia Matata, Oprah Oyugi, Wanjeri Gakuru and Kimani Waweru.
With the commissioning of the series by Netflix, Ndung’u, who has been in the film industry for over 20 years, can now breath a sigh of relief.
“To be the first Kenyan series to be commissioned by Netflix is a big deal. It’s a good start but our market still has a long way to go. Convincing Netflix wasn’t easy, it took us years. The wait has been long but I can now relax after six years. This project has taken so much from us with a budget of $1.3 million to see its conclusion. It’s my sincere hope that Kenyans will love it when it premiers. We gave everything that we could.”
But how much did they make from the Netflix deal? “Look, what failed us to secure a much bigger deal from Netflix as we would have wished, is our market. Netflix are in business, they honestly loved our product and were mesmerised by our level of production but our Kenyan subscription numbers are really low. Netflix's allocation budget for Kenyan market is really small compared to what is allocated for Nigerian and South Africa, which are huge. Nonetheless it’s a good start for us.”
Country Queen explores the fast-paced and perilous world of the city and slower rural life highlighted by the Tsilanga community. There is deception, rural-urban conflicts, inter-family relationships, love, betrayal and intersection of tradition, leadership, culture and capitalism. When Eco-Rock, a prominent mining company sets foot in the quiet village of Tsilanga eyeing to exploit its vast gold reserves it has discovered, the move faces rebellion from the community.
Despite Tsilanga’s opposition, hard-hearted mining mogul Vivienne portrayed by Wacera, is determined to get what she wants.
Vivienne has the backing of her charming husband Max, a former gangster who now runs the seedy side of the Eco-Rock mining company. Max is played by Lung’aho, who is well-known for his roles in Mother-in-Law and the recent Showmax drama series, Igiza.
Unaware and unprepared for what is to come, Vivienne and Max meet their match when little known Akisa, an event planner, leaves Nairobi after 10 years for her Tsilanga village to attend to her ailing father. She comes face to face with Vivienne ruthlessness and decides to take the fight to her doorsteps to protect the village’s resources and their lives.
Alusa, who starred in the first Kenyan military action movie Mission to Rescue, that was submitted for Oscars in 2021, plays the reluctant hero Kyalo while Rafiki lead actress Sheila Munyiva portrays Tslinga village medical officer Anna, who is also Kyalo’s love life.
The cast also has Raymond Ofula known for his role in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Mumbi Kaigwa, Nice Githinji (Rafiki), Charlie Karumi (Watu Wote) and Eddy Kimani (Nairobi Half Life).