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Video Parlors Take Root in Kenya

The power of the video tape is just beginning to be realized in Kenya. Justus Olielo tells us how it is being done.

Access to electronic media, especially television and video, has been considered one of the biggest drawbacks in development communication in Kenya, especially in the rural areas where 79% of the population lives. Only 15% of Kenya's households have access to television and over 80% of these live in urban centers (30% in the capitol city of Nairobi). Videos are even more inaccessible to the average household. In 1995 for example, it was estimated that only about 80,000 video tape recorders were in circulation in the entire country.

With statistics like these, it is hardly surprising that electronic media has been considered the least effective tool in the mass dissemination of information. It excludes the majority of people who need the information the most. However, the potential of video as an entertainment and information source is only beginning to be appreciated. New commercial approaches to the use of video as a means for mass communication are being explored by private companies. One company which has made considerable progress in this area, is Regional Reach Ltd.

A Network of Sorts

Regional Reach is a private company with a unique and innovative advertising concept. The company targets rural people, who do not have access to television, with advertisement messages. Regional Reach records popular educational and entertainment programs on video and screens them on outdoor monitors in Kenya's rural market centers. The monitors and video playback units are mounted on heavy metal casings and screwed to the outside walls of shops, restaurants and other convenient public places. The programs are predominately aired in the afternoons from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. on weekdays, and from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. on week-ends. The outside location ensures uninhibited audience viewing of the shows. The videos are normally three to four hours in duration and contain a variety of shows with topics ranging from farming, HIV/AIDS awareness, family planning, education, self help, wildlife and popular television soap operas. The advertisements are slotted in between the shows. The business owner, on whose wall the equipment is mounted, looks after it free of cost. They are quite happy to do so since they benefit from the increased crowds. To date, the company has about 320 outlets across the country with a viewership currently estimated at 400,000 per month. Regional Reach obtains its revenue from the companies whose products are advertised through the outlets. Educational materials such as UNICEF's animated Sara Communication Initiative have been shown using these outlets as well.

UNICEF's Sara series is shown to children in Kenya's rural market centers through video outlets. © UNICEF.

One Television at a Time

A lot of "one-off" video outlets have also mushroomed around small markets, urban centers and in slum areas of the country's major towns. Most of these video parlors cater to the entertainment needs of the residents who do not have access to, or cannot afford the fees charged by, the cinema houses. Normally, the most popular shows are action-type feature films (Rambo, Commando, Ninja, etc), which are readily available from video libraries. With special arrangements, video parlors will also occasionally show educational materials. For example, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has been shown extensively in secondary schools, as it is a required text for Kenya's national Literature in English examinations. Non-government organizations working on health and related programs, will also often pay to use the services of such video parlors to show tapes on HIV/AIDS for example. This often means carrying the television monitor and video playback unit, along with mobile power generators, to a specific site, as in many cases, the locations do not have electricity.

The charge for watching entertainment shows range from an affordable 5 to 20 Kenya shillings per show ( U.S. $1.00 = Ksh 65). The audience is mostly composed of youths, with the majority being young men and boys. Sponsored video shows either have specific audiences, like students, or play to the general public. In these cases the shows are usually followed by discussions and other activities built around the subject. More and more people are recognizing the important role of video tapes and video parlors as an agent for behavior development especially for young people. It is envisioned that this role will become even more apparent in the next few years.

Justus Olielo is the Assistant Communication Officer at the UNICEF- Eastern and Southern African Regional Office, located in Nairobi, Kenya.