Saturday, April 17, 2010




For the past few weeks, Kenyans have received a welcome introduction to the latest and arguably the most politically correct of their super-heroes, Makmende. An African version of the 1980’s film star Chuck Norris, albeit dressed in 1970s garb, he beats up the bad guys, rescues damsels in distress, and in the process gets himself a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a dedicated website, to boot. In his own rather unique, engaging and thought-provoking ways, this iconic hero’s rise to prominence challenges us to question, analyze, and debate issues, some of which would otherwise remain little studied or unknown to the wider public.

For me, there are two important lessons to learn from the Makmende phenomenon. The fiirst concerns how our urbanite and generally technologically-savvy generation of young Kenyans is increasingly coming together to get information, support, ideas, and products from each other. The second concerns the ways in which Kenyans can (and should) use the Internet for ideas, innovation and connection in a world characterised by uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability.

The Background

Just-a-Band’s widely acclaimed video, Ha-He,” which introduced the fictional Makmende, is essentially a tribute to 1970s cult classics, like Shaft. It also featured a a host of supporting characters, like “Big-G,” “Godfrey and the Laydayz,” “Black Sahara” Taste of Daynjah”, “Wrong Number” and “The Askyua Matha Black Militants”.

The origin of the term Makmende can be traced to the early to mid 1990s to describe people acting tough, or who thinks he is a superhero. It is said, for instance, that if anyone in the playground was acting gung ho you said they were behaving like a Makmende”. Similarly, if a boy who’s watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV decides to unleash his newly acquired combat skills, he would be asked “Unajidai Makmende, eh?” (Who do you think you are, Makmende?). It therefore comes as no surprise that Makmende has a number of catch-phrases to his credit, including:

· Makmende has no need for a watch, he decides what time it is.
· Makmende is so cool, Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number
· Makmende uses viagra in his eyedrops, just to look hard;
· Makmende can never have a heart attack, his heart is not so foolish to attack him;
· Makmende doesn’t call 911, 911 calls him

Some lessons we learn from Makmende

Whether or not these traits can also be attributed in real-life to the talented actor, who portrays this fearless warrior and man of mystery is a moot point. What is rather more obvious is his meteoric rise to prominence highlights a number of important issues:

‘Viral’ Propagation of Content

Just-a-Band’s innovative use of the Internet in promoting Makmende tells us of the potential of ‘viral’ advertising or ‘viral’ marketing to increase brand awareness or product sales. It is said that Just-a-Band, whose second album, “82″, was one of the most popular releases in Kenya this year, had not planned any sort of online campaign for the video short of putting it on their Facebook page. As soon as the Band members saw Makmende jokes from fans online, they decided to do a Twitter and Facebook page for him. The rest, it seems, is history.

This, however, should come as no surprise. Within the last decade, it has become increasingly popular for people with no special technical background or technology to generate their own content and disseminate it widely through the use of video clips, images or text messages to reach audiences worldwide. Just-a-Band’s success with Makmende shows us that it is possible to build a brand or shape consumer tastes in music and other entertainment industries within a relatively short time through the interplay of Internet-based media and more traditional media, such as TV and media interviews. One clear lesson for our marketers, business educators (and perhaps even our policy-makers behind 'Brand Kenya') is to focus more attention on online marketing tools and their transformative effect on the practice of brand-building.

‘Information age business’ challenges

It could be that Makmende's success is really describing a quiet revolution in the way we could do business. As the world’s economy moves from one based on physical goods to one driven by information flow, Makmende's success could be telling us to closely analyze both the possibilities of, and barriers to, successfully running an “information age” business. Unconfirmed reports have it that the .com, .net and .org domain names for Makmende have all been snatched up by various people too, all seeing some opportunities, and that orders for Makmende T-Shirts with the most popular slogans are being advertised in several places on the net.

With all these considerations in mind, the question is how could entrepreneurs or small businesses protect themselves from detrimental acts by third parties (“information highway bandits”, if you will), which may ultimately destroy their brand. Makmende poses a unique challenge, owing to the name being a common slang word. There are however some intellectual property rights that Just-a- Band can claim over the name to deter would-be infringers.

Let us consider copyright law. Copyright basically protects artistic and literary property, as well as performing rights. Under copyright law, Just-a-Band would have exclusive rights to exercise or license television, film and video rights, Radio broadcasting in the form of a reading, adaptation or dramatization, live theatre rights, Strip cartoon rights (also known as picturization book rights), and merchandising rights. They would therefore claim copyright on all of their Makmende stories, videos and images, and on any further works on the character. But they cannot stop others from doing their own Makmende super hero (or heroine), and asserting copyright over those images, merchandise or websites.

The second form of IPR would come under trademark law. Makmende cannot be registered as a trade mark, chiefly because the name is not distinctive enough. But they could assert some exclusive control over the name by incorporating a logo into the Makmende word and register it. They could even register a service mark, comprising distinctive words, letters, numbers, drawings or pictures, colours, or a combination of any of the above. The procedures of registering service marks are similar to registering trademarks. But even where a mark is unregistered, Just-a-Band only has to look to the common law action of ‘passing-off’ to prevent infringement of his action. They would be required to show that there was goodwill or reputation in the mark, and that there was unauthorised use of their mark, which is eroding or causing damage to their mark.

Impacts of Social Media

Makmende's final lesson to us is this: the medium is message. Simply put, given that the success of the video highlights how widespread internet usage has become in Kenya, perhaps it is time to consider the effects of the Internet upon Kenyan society--beyond the impacts on business, democracy and poverty. A number of issues may be highlighted at this juncture.

First, the active role played by Kenyan bloggers in publicisng Makmende's name challenges us to rethink digital publishing. We may need to dissect the argument that the Internet has democratized publishing and made everyone a potential journalist. Some pertinent questions, then would be: (1) Is the Web truly more democratic, or does it reinforce 'older' ways of reporting in a new medium? (2) How do we maintain accuracy and accountability in reporting when anyone can claim to be a journalist? (3) Will the rise of digital publishing herald a waning influence of the mainstream media over public dialogue, and does it represent a net positive or negative for society?

A second issue concerns the new threats posed by the Internet. As reassuring as it may be that Makmende protects us from the bad guys 'out there', we should be concerned about getting the necessary regulatory framework, which supports socially acceptable uses of the Internet, while effectively addressing such threats as terrorism, fundamentalism or even pornography. These issues may sound far-fetched now, but as Kenya moves further into the information-age, concrete solutions are required.

Third, we do need to pay attention to how we can use ICT in mobilizing and giving voice to millions of people that are often excluded by the mainstream media. A case in point is in climate change governance. Can ICT play any role, say, in overcoming traditional obstacles to co-operation between states, in ways that capture the complexity of the ongoing climate change negotiations, while identifying potential leadership opportunities and alliance possibilities amongst influential NGOs, business organisations and states?

Finally, the modest entry on Wikipedia regarding Makmende--despite the hype elsewhere in the blogosphere or even in much of the mainstream Kenyan media--cautions us that much of the Internet is practically one vast cultural wasteland, ill-suited for the propagation of authentic Kenyan culture. We may share the use of the English language, but it gives no guarantee that Kenyans will successfully enshrine our landmarks of historical and cultural importance in the Internet. A simple illustration suffices: although Kenyan blogs generally attribute Makmende's origins to Chuck Norris, the official Wikipedia page attributes Makmende's origins to Clint Eastwood's famous 'make my day' statement. These words, by the way, are more associated with his character Dirty Harry's gun-slinging prowess than with any martial arts skills we ever did see from him. That aside, whom should we believe: the (presumably) Kenyan bloggers, or the anonymous hand that penned that entry on Wikipedia? This disconnect, as ostensibly innocuous as it may be, should warn us that the topics covered in the English Wikipedia may not necessarily reflect Kenyan culture, or what information and news is received from Kenya.

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