COUNTRY QUEEN: Netflix’s First Kenyan Original Series Is Primed to Open Doors

The first Kenyan Branded Series funded by outsiders including Netflix and Germany’s DW Akademie, “Country Queen” is a milestone. It took the efforts of four experienced directors across two continents, a writers room led by established talented newcomers, a multi-talented cast of veterans and newbies, and persistence. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Akoroko spoke with some of the show’s on-screen and behind-the-camera talent about their experiences on its journey to the screen.

It took three years for executive producers Good Karma Fiction to convince a streamer and a broadcaster to put “Country Queen” on screen. There was a pandemic; research to be done; workshops; and, of course, proving that there was an audience for the series to justify its existence and the money that went into making it a reality.

“The film industry can’t grow on shoestring budgets,” said producer Kamau Wandungu. “You need reasonable budgets. Funding ‘Country Queen’ in total took two and a half years. We started talking to Netflix Africa as soon as they started with their activities in Africa. Netflix only gave a small percentage and the Executive Producers had to find the other funds in Europe.”

Kenyan television stations are lawfully required to allocate 40-60% of their programming to local productions. But since this law was enacted, there has been little follow-up or implementation.

This is obviously discouraging for local productions, as there are many factors at play. It’s cheaper to buy Mexican soap operas in bulk for daytime television than to put money into locally created series. Therefore no money goes into commissioning these projects, forcing actors, producers, and writers to source elsewhere — a creative brain drain. 

Though the outlook is steadily changing, with local bodies like the Kenya Film Commission trying to provide financial backing. The shift is incremental, especially in comparison to the key industries of South Africa and Nigeria. Wanjeri Gakuru, one of “Country Queen’s” writers, is against these kinds of external comparisons. 

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Gakuru said. “I like to take a pan-African approach and see it as all of us winning! Besides, Nigeria and South Africa have a longer history than Kenya, which has a bearing on the quantity and quality of work. What we are all good at is representing our multifaceted cultures in the best way we can.” 

It isn’t and has never been, that Kenya lacks talent. The problem usually lies in funding; as Wanjeri said, Kenyans tell their stories as best as they can.

Premiering on Netflix on July 15, 2022, “Country Queen” is about Akisa, a Nairobi-based event planner with a shadowy past. Upon returning to her home village of Tsilanga, she becomes intertwined with a married man, whose wife is a formidable, shady businesswoman. Although his hands aren’t particularly clean. And what unravels has a profound effect on her life.

“Nairobi Half Life” is often referenced as an example of the excellence that is possible in the region. In fact, one of its main leads, Maina Olwenya, has a starring role in “Country Queen.” It’s bittersweet, as Olwenya passed away on July 4, 2022.

The other faces in the series — both new talent and veterans — are also familiar to many. Some might recognize Lenny Juma and Raymond Ofula from “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” (2003). Also, Mumbi Kaigwa (“The Constant Gardener,” 2005), whose stage acting has resonated and inspired future generations. And, of course, Chris Kamau. 

Other established names include Nice Githinji, Melvin Alusa, Nini Wacera, and Shix Kapienga, and relative newbies Sheila Munyiva and Melissa Kiplagat. 

Some would complain that most contemporary local films and television series have the same recurring faces. Kiplagat pushed back against that narrative. “I think [casting directors] pick [actors] that they think will do the job best,” she said. “I’m always curious when I hear that complaint in Kenya because I don’t think there is any entertainment industry where that doesn’t happen. A-list actors get cast in multiple projects all over the world. And they’ve earned it. I’d say the same here. That said, I’m seeing more new faces in productions than ever before. We were all unknown and new at one point.”

Scribe Gakuru spoke to the actors earning their slots, as well as the coincidental timing of releases.

“We are fortunate to have a phenomenal cast and each one of them went through a rigorous casting process,” she said. “There were no favors. Kenya has got the talent for sure. We shouldn’t fault actors for being ambitious and going after every opportunity that comes their way because good productions are few and far between. Plus, post-production for both TV and film takes a while so it isn’t strange to see multiple projects come out at the same time with familiar faces.”

Thematically, “Country Queen” resonates with many Kenyans. At its core, it explores the complexities between a father who thinks he is doing the right thing and a daughter who feels deeply slighted. It unpacks the intimacies that are betrayed after infidelity. The corruption in government and the responsible players, especially in international business, is contextualized. And layers are peeled back on the crushing forces of modernization and capitalism.

There are those from rural areas who go into cities looking for better lives than what they came from. And what stands out at the onset is not only the story’s authenticity but also in the depictions of what “up-country” Kenya life looks like. The visual elements are very intentional in portraying rural vs urban living in Kenya as close to the mark as possible.

It was the prime responsibility of the series’ four directors: Vincent Mbaya, Brian Munene, Carla Böhler, and David “Tosh” Gitonga. 

“The difference between ‘Country Queen’s’ [cinematography] and previous [Kenyan] work was mainly that this was more of a collaboration, between Dru Mungai, who was the Director of Photography [along with and Talib Rasmussen], the producers and I, about what we wanted to show, and what we wanted the series to look like,” said Mbaya in an interview with Akoroko. “The key element was the contrast between Nairobi, which is more high-end upper class; think steel and glass, fast-paced, and money, with a huge global corporation at its center. Against Tsilanga, which is more dry, desolate, almost hopeless looking with no idea of what lies underground. A lot of the cinematography was creating that visual contrast, with color grading, etc.”

The series was shot on location, in Nairobi, Machakos County, and Murang’a County. And its locality has inspired local viewership. Since it premiered on July 15, “Country Queen” has ranked in the Top 10 most viewed Netflix series in Kenya. That’s over a month against far more expensive, aggressively marketed American competition.

“‘Country Queen’ was watched by literally every Kenyan who can afford Netflix,” Kamau said. “We are very happy with the numbers and especially with all the love we received.”

Funding, acting, and cinematography aside, “Country Queen” is a very Kenyan story with universal themes that make it globally accessible. It’s the kind of series that should open the door to even bigger and stronger shows. With international players like Netflix, the South Africa-based Showmax (Africa’s largest SVOD platform), and other media conglomerates throwing their hats in the ring, it won’t be too long before the Kenyan film and television sector takes its rightful place. It will accomplish this by allowing deep-pocketed investors space in the existing, vibrant environment, as opposed to completely reshaping it.

As Kiplagat put it: “I don’t know if I’d fully say that platforms like Netflix and Showmax are ‘changing’ the industry. I would say they are enriching it. They are bringing the resources and creative space artists and production companies need to bring their visions to life.”

Unfolding over six episodes, “Country Queen” is now streaming on Netflix around the world.

Abigail Arunga is a writer, author, and columnist based in Nairobi, Kenya. If she had more energy, there would be more books, but currently, naps and nice restaurants take precedence.