David Mwakitele is working to revolutionize the events space in Kenya. He is the co-founder of Epic Nation alongside DJ Creme de la Creme, one of Nairobi’s premier DJ’s, as well as CEO and co-founder of the H.Y.P.E Group Ltd. Epic began as a clothing line but later evolved into an entertainment outfit that grew to become one of Kenya’s top events companies. As demand for Epic’s services grew, Mwakitele decided to build the H.Y.P.E. Group, a 360 entertainment solution company.
Epic Nation/ H.Y.P.E has had an impressive track record of booking some of Africa’s top talent as headliners and organizing some of Kenya’s most popular events. From EarthDance Nairobi, an annual, EDM charity event organised in partnership with 6AM Entertainment Kenya; to The Wave with Tekno Miles; to The Hakuna Matata festival series; and the upcoming H.Y.P.E Fest featuring Mr. Eazi.
Monica Kemoli Savanne: What influenced you to get involved in the entertainment industry in Nairobi?
David Mwakitele: How it started is really funny. When I was out of high school, I used to have a hard time checking into clubs ‘cause some [clubs] had a 21 year old policy. My cousin was a dj at a really popping club at the time called Barcode. That was really the only club I could go to on Fridays. So I ended up shadowing him and then one day I just decided to try djing ‘cause I love music. As it turns out, I was good. That is how I got into the entertainment space. From there you tend to want to level up in any thing that you do so I did my first event at a club called Blue Times with two of my close friends Maureen and Martin.
I formed my own company with one of my best friends DJ Creme. We formed Epic Nation and recently decided that Epic needs to take another path. I’m continuing with the events and experiential marketing angle through the H.Y.P.E Group as Epic Nation focuses more on growing talent through the studio. That’s pretty much how I got into the events space. We also tailor make events specific to a brand and that’s how we ended up getting into experiential marketing and who knows, we want to be the next Sony a few years down the line and I think it will be possible. So that’s how I got into the entertainment industry, ‘cause I needed to party and nobody would let me [laughs].
Wow, what a story! You’ve managed to really establish yourself from that point. Over the 9 or so years you’ve been doing this, what have been the biggest challenges?
The biggest thing has been corporate support. Not to say it hasn’t been forthcoming, it’s just harder to convince corporates to buy into your vision. Thats been the biggest challenge with each event, getting sponsors on board. Secondly, I’d have to say suppliers. Finding the right suppliers took time. Another thing with events is something is always bound to go wrong. It’s always a matter of when and at what time. Putting the money together for an event is also a challenge in itself. Sometimes it’s the right and ripe time to have an event but at that time you don’t have the funds to do it.
In terms of headliners, Epic Nation has mostly booked top-tier African artists. Are you thinking of trying to bring artists from outside the continent?
Yeah. We have already booked a dj, DJ Jazzy Jeff from the States, one of the worlds best hip-hop djs. And then we are are looking at someone who currently, arguably, is among the top 5 rappers in the world right now. We are looking to bring him. It just tends to be more expensive to bring such artists here simply because whatever you’re paying them has to be equivalent to what they miss out on when they spend time travelling. Their coming here is technically like two days of travel and then going back is like another two days of travel. Whereas for the same kind of gig they’d be charging $50,000, if they’re going to come to Kenya and do the same kind of gig they’re going to charge you that amount times four and that doesn’t make sense financially unless you get them on tour.
What are some of the concerns agencies present to you when dealing with these international artists?
Obviously they want to see who’ve you’ve booked before and what events you’ve had. For us it was easy to see ‘cause we give them reference points. Our reference points are the Hakuna Matata Festival and they can go on to the website and see, okay, these guys seem to have it together. So the number one concern is do these guys know what they’re doing. Number two is mostly the security situation in the country.
You’ve been in this [entertainment] industry for a while so I’m sure agree with me that Kenya events space has definitely come a long way but we’re still not on the same level as countries like Nigeria or South Africa? What factors could be playing into that?
I’d simply say ego and greed. Ego stops people from working together and greed is wanting the whole cake to yourself. I’m all about partnerships simply because number one, it’s easier to have someone you can bounce ideas off of , and from a business perspective, you just split your risks. I’m speaking from the promoters perspective. Most of them don’t want to team up and do something magical. I’d want to do that one event where we can break the monotony of only catering to a certain demographic in terms of social class and target everybody so that in the same space where you have your rich kid from Karen and Runda you can still have your guy from the slums of Kibera in one space, just for an experience, and not have a problem with it.
I have no doubt that it’s going to get better, I’m just frustrated at the pace at which it’s moving. But we’re getting there.
Out of all the events you have planned, which has been your favourite and why?
I’d have to say the very first Hakuna Matata festival. We decided to completely change how people view New Years. At the time, trying to do anything outside of Nairobi on New Year’s that wasn’t Mombasa was unthinkable. The idea I had was there’s a demographic of people that stay in Nakuru that still want to do something fun and adventurous. So we were like Naivasha is known for camping and has great vibes so we decided to try and switch it up and do a New Years party in Naivasha. And let’s call it the Hakuna Matata Festival because we felt that Hakuna Matata is one of the most popular Swahili phrases and that it can resonate with an international audience as well. That gig was special to me because personally I had had a stint in rehab and was just trying to change my life and how I do things. It was the first event I was doing [out of rehab] and the beauty of it was just seeing the amount of people who came out for that first event, regardless of the rain.
Also, the second Hakuna Matata Festival will always be special to me because we did it in Machakos, in the People’s Park. We were the first people to do an event at this venue. The numbers were beautiful, the setting was beautiful, the vibe was beautiful. Anyone will tell you that the second Hakuna Matata Festival was probably the best and we’ve been at pains to replicate that vibe. But yeah, those two definitely stand out.