Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Race car driver Fahmi Girma tears along a dirt track in his souped-up Toyota Vitz on the outskirts of Addis Ababa past shepherd boys tending cattle – accompanied by energetic Ethiopian music.
The four-minute clip, in which 27-year-old Girma also discusses the history of race car driving in Ethiopia and its future potential, is part of the Masters at Work series for KANA TV, a new free-to-air private satellite channel that marks a breakthrough in Ethiopian televised entertainment. It may also signal a shift in Ethiopia’s much-criticised media environment.
About 90 percent of KANA’s output is international programmes, from the likes of South Korea, Turkey and South America, dubbed into Amharic, the lingua franca of Ethiopia – a necessity with 80 dialects across the country.
Following decades of drab Ethiopian state-owned television, when KANA launched in 2016, viewers were enthralled – it seized a 40 to 50 percent prime-time market share of Ethiopia’s estimated 4 million television households.
Now it’s looking at building on that success to produce more home-grown productions like Masters at Work.
“It’s a very efficient way of telling a story and lets us keep production values high,” said 24-year-old Beza Hailu, the producer of the behind-the-scenes videos that appear four times a day between the channel’s main programmes, featuring the likes of singers, poets, fashion designers and photographers.
“We want to inspire young people who often don’t feel they have a choice about professions. There is a huge need for the likes of engineers and doctors as this is still a developing country, but we want to show that different paths like the creative arts are essential for the backbone of the country.”
“There’s a narrative in mainstream media – both local and international – focusing on development or lack of development at the macro level,” said Hailu Teklehaimanot, a producer and head of communications at KANA, and a former newspaper editor. “But there is a different narrative at the micro level in which inspired young people are doing new things.”
Another Masters at Work example of this is pastry chef Fitsum Desta, who, having studied in Australia, came home to shake up the Ethiopian cake-making scene.
“Ethiopians are resistant to change, for most the idea of a cake involves custard cream with sponge,” said Desta, who makes cakes in shapes ranging from shoes and handbags to a television set during her Masters at Work appearance. “I want to show that there is no reason you should be limited to X amount of things in the workplace or that if you do something like this, it’s not as respectable as other jobs.”
Admittedly, most Ethiopians are not in a position to leverage the opportunities that go with an overseas education. Hence the majority of KANA’s audience watch its shows like viewers anywhere – for entertainment or as an escape from the daily grind.
So far KANA has dubbed 2,300 hours of foreign content, requiring a highly coordinated operation: research and analysis to select which shows to secure, then negotiations and purchase, followed by translation, casting, acting, syncing, audio editing, video editing, quality control and then scheduling.
Finally, everything is sent via internet to the play-out station in the Afghan capital, Kabul, from where it is uplinked to satellite.
Afghanistan-based Moby Group is the international partner backing KANA TV, and it is used to dealing with challenging and emerging media environments. It established TOLO as Afghanistan’s premier network in the wake of the Taliban shutting down the media.
Ethiopian government spokespersons haven’t been shy in the past of explaining that media reform shouldn’t be rushed due to Ethiopia’s developmental state.
The country often sits at the lower end of press freedom indices.
But KANA’s emergence indicates Ethiopian television is at least changing for the better.
The government appears to finally realise that squeezing private media is a mistake and self-defeating, leaving the field open to the likes of social-media activists with their own agendas.
Media freedom depends on which yardstick you use. The government appears to be relaxing about online and television media, but there are still no opposition newspapers
Also, before KANA, the proliferation of satellite dishes around the country meant another option to state television had already emerged: Arab-origin satellite TV, which came to dominate Ethiopian viewing habits.
“Parents were finding their children knew Arabic better than Amharic,” said Elias Schulze, cofounder of KANA and the only non-Ethiopian among the 180 staff. Another problem, he adds, was how those channels’ advertising airtime didn’t benefit Ethiopia with ad revenue or exposure for businesses.
But while KANA may assist local businesses, others note how a new entertainment channel doesn’t mean Ethiopia’s media is unshackled.
“Media freedom depends on which yardstick you use,” said Daniel Berhane, a prominent Addis Ababa-based blogger. “The government appears to be relaxing about online and television media, but there are still no opposition newspapers.”
Contrary voices often have to come from the likes of ESAT, a popular Ethiopian satellite channel broadcast from the US.
It is highly critical of the Ethiopian government and advertises itself as speaking for those who can’t speak in Ethiopia.
Conservative commentators have decried KANA’s foreign soap operas for corrupting Ethiopian culture.
Such viewer fatigue has seen KANA losing some of its grip on the prime time market.
But the company hopes that an expanding original production base, including a news platform, will eventually account for 50 percent of output – thereby keeping viewers interested with more than just entertainment.
It is not a cakewalk to be journalist in Ethiopia, but nobody can deny the prospects of a better media environment in the future.
Whether the rest of Ethiopian media benefits from such opportunities remains to be seen, but there appears reason for some optimism.
“The [negative] international view of media in Ethiopia is a bit exaggerated,” said Zekarias Sintayehu, editor in chief of Addis Ababa’s Reporter newspaper. “It is not a cakewalk to be journalist in Ethiopia, but nobody can deny the prospects of a better media environment in the future.”
Meanwhile, those appearing on KANA’s Masters at Work series appear set on pushing the boundaries as much as they can.
“Last year there was one race, this year nine are scheduled,” Girma said. “My plan is to move up through the engine-size categories and one day race in the Dakar Rally.”