Growing up in the undulating grassland west of Satima, the highest peak of the Aberdare Ranges, George Tafaria Waititu knew little besides hardship, toil and moil.
His family was, for all intents and purposes, the first to settle in the bushvelds of Deighton Downs, a ranch owned by a white farmer but which had been sold to a settlement scheme. Once the land was subdivided, the members of the scheme started trickling into the desolate land.
George’s mother — who had been allocated eight acres — happened to be in the vanguard of that migration. Like the frontier seekers of yore, she was driven by a desire for freedom and the quest for a better life for herself and her nine children. At the time, young George was only six. He would grow up as a villager but with time, he would become more preoccupied with the idea of transforming villages into spaces of dignity, fun, progressive ideas and adventure.
When the Tafaria family moved into Deighton Downs, only wild animals roamed the land. There were no roads, no water and the nearest school was about five kilometres from where the family built their home. George and his siblings had to share chores, such as walking seven kilometres to fetch water from the nearest river, not to mention looking after livestock and fetching firewood.
Most days, he had to walk a perilous journey to school. A forest teeming with wild animals from the Aberdare Forest stood between him and Kiriogo Primary School, where he met children from other ridges, which now look like navy blue valleys sleeping in the shadows of the Aberdare Ranges.
Today, however, George is famously known for two things, one in the past and the other in the present. Back in the day, when opinion polls were opinion polls, George was the face of the Steadman Group, now known as Ipsos-Synovate. There he ran what became a gigantic market and social research company.
In that role, he mainstreamed both the use and appreciation of research through opinion polling and the research clubs of Kenya. When he sold his shares in the market research company in 2010, he invested a large portion of the money in building Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge at the edge of Laikipia County.
This month, the unique Castle that George characterises as a symbol of transformation with a conference centre, museum and centre for the arts is celebrating seven years since it opened its doors to the public. More importantly, it has transformed a sleepy rural area into a place full of fun activities, including the highest altitude outdoor gym and swimming pool in the country.
Visitors can also ride on exotic horses, take a drive to one of the peaks of the Aberdare or enjoy a game of archery as the fancy moves them.
But there is one other accomplishment that George is not known for… he is the brains behind ViuSasa, the mobile phone app that allows audiences anywhere in the world to stream or download Kenyan entertainment content for just Sh10 a day. The app now has 2.4 million subscribers. That means out of every 24 adult Kenyans, one is a ViuSasa subscriber.
Just to put things in perspective there are more Kenyans on Instagram than on any other social media platform, including Twitter and Facebook. And, according to the digital strategy firm, Nendo’s State of Mobile Data 2019 report, there were 1.3 million Kenyans who downloaded the Instagram app between January and December 2018. In short, there were more Kenyans who signed up for ViuSasa that year than those who downloaded the Instagram app, which is quite surprising since it shows consumers are ready and willing to pay for the online videos in a world used to free digital content.
Today, the app is ranked among the most popular in Kenya, with WhatsApp taking pride of place at the head of the table ahead of Facebook and ViuSasa closing the list of top ten just behind Truecaller.
The whole idea behind this initiative is to help local producers protect, distribute, promote and monetise their content. It’s a perfect division of labour – they focus on creativity, we focus on distribution, promotion and monetisation. This is run by the company called Content Aggregation Limited. His dream is that every village will have its own video content in languages that the villagers themselves best understand and love, by creating easily-accessible content, and in the fullness of time, ensure that content producers realise the true value of their creations.
As a boy, when George had little to occupy his mind, from this niggling disquiet at the back of his mind, he started yearning for something that could turn the desolate land into a theatre of action. Once in a while, he would voice his views for all and sundry such that once his English teacher admonished him to stop building castles in the air.
“Now, after acquiring the economic means, we put a real one on the ground,” says he. The dream he had nurtured in boyhood, which was always to see his village transformed, became valid in his adulthood. And it was here that the idea of ViuSasa was born during a retreat that he hosted for Safaricom #ticker:SCOM employees who, during a break in the programme, challenged him to come up with a product that their customers would enjoy.
Interestingly, the idea of Tafaria Castle itself did not start off with a desire to set up a hospitality establishment. If anything, it started its life as a community centre where villagers from Deighton Downs could get information. But, in a flight of fancy, George and his wife Eunice decided to build an open-air Roman type amphitheatre where villagers were free to walk in at will.
Although that amphitheatre now sits on the outer edge of the castle, it was what motivated the idea of building something that will bring about sustainable change in this rural village.
The idea of an information centre has never really gone away because today, the hotel has entered into a partnership with the National Museums of Kenya to set up a museum and Centre for the Arts where children from surrounding areas can visit to learn about the history, art and cultures of Kenya.
“Having transformed this space physically, the next step is to transform the mind,” says George, who plans to set up a museum of philosophy where ideas can be generated to change society. “Philosophy is needed to help people deepen inquiry.”
George is driven by one over-arching desire: To inspire other people to appreciate rural areas and debunk the idea that rural areas are not good places to live in and erase the association of such areas with low social prestige.
“I would like to get others to join that movement of turning that (notion) upside down,” he says. “We can re-organise and design rural spaces to be good places to live where universal dignity is upheld – imagine the day the word ‘mshamba’ will no longer be derogatory but the thing every Kenyan want to become.” That is his dream.
To do this, he is driving the idea of a model village, not a gated community, where people with different ideas can live side by side, with both common for farming and other cultural engagements as well as private spaces that are well-taken care of and have all modern amenities, social infrastructure and conveniences. His idea is to create a beautiful and well-organised space, complete with a centre for education where children can be taught about ideas, not just go through the routine of schooling and whose quality of life supports universal human dignity.
Throughout his working life, George has been keen to originate new ideas. He believes, and this is evident in his work, that people can make great strides if they pursue their own ideas and eschew imitation.
“Do not be afraid of what others say or think, if you have big dreams and have figured out how to pursue them, then pursue that path with brutal consistency,” he says to those willing to pursue new and transformative ideas.