Catching up with Sophie Ikenye, host of BBC's Focus on Africa
When she strides elegantly into the studios of the BBC World TV in London to present her programme Focus on Africa, the eyes of her viewers rarely dart away from the screen as they listen to each word she says.
This is the iconic Kenyan broadcaster and anchor Sophie Ikenye at work in London. When she is on air, she simply rules the airwaves.
Sophie has a strong following of fans and admirers in Kenya. Living in London, she strives hard to protect her privacy. “Being a broadcaster thrusts you into the limelight. I try to keep my life as private as I can,” she says.
I ask her if marriage is on the cards.
“Not yet,” she responds, “but hopefully soon when my time comes.”
Sophie finds little time to socialize these days because of a busy professional life packed with schedules involving long working hours.
“To be frank, my social life has taken a bit of a back seat but I’m not complaining. I have recently been organising my time as best as I can. I see my friends on weekends and get involved a lot more with neighbourhood activities and just generally taking care of myself!”
She avoids watching TV except for news programmes but on the weekends, enjoys lying in until 11am, reading and doing household chores to help get her mind off work.
But solitude is something she enjoys once in a while. “London is a very busy city. I have met many people from different walks of life. I work with a team composed of people from across Africa and Europe so I’m hardly ever bored. Plus I read quite a lot so that fills up my free time,” she says.
Though she is miles away from home, her heart is still in Kenya - the land of her birth. She loves to go down the memory lane whenever she catches up with old friends and fellow Kenyans.
“Of course, I miss Kenya, especially during the winter season,” she says, “I try to cook Kenyan dishes whenever I miss home but obviously the flavours and textures are not the same.”
“I grew up in Nairobi. My parents who are now retired were both civil servants. Kenya is home. I try to visit every three to four months since my parents and siblings are all there. I miss the food and the people. I think Kenya has some of the most intelligent people,” she says.
Sophie has vivid memories of growing up in Kenya. “I was very active as a child and took part in public speaking and debate competitions and oh, by the way, I was also a gymnast!”
Even in her childhood, she showed traits of being a journalist, a profession she would embrace years later - that inbuilt curiosity. “I always like to know first before telling everyone else. Yes, that sounds nosy but I’m the curious kind – I like asking questions and asking them hard.”
Her love for broadcasting started years before she even faced the real microphone.
“I quite liked broadcasting when I was growing up. I even practised being a TV presenter in front of the mirror with a spoon as a microphone!”
She studied in Kenya and after gaining a mass communications qualification, secured a radio internship at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).
With 12 years of experience in the broadcasting industry, she has worked with big media houses in Kenya that have very different styles of reporting.
After clocking many years on Kenyan networks, she was ready to turn her attention to international broadcasters. The BBC World Service in London was looking for three presenters from East, West and South Africa so she jumped at the chance and applied for a position.
“I started my BBC career at the World Service as the presenter of the radio version of Focus on Africa, which I presented for three years.”
Her experience in Kenyan broadcasting “helped me adapt quicker when I arrived at BBC World News. Having also been a radio news editor at an independent radio station in Kenya, I learnt to listen to local communities and constantly challenge my own belief system,” she says.
Another opportunity opened for Sophie when the programme was launched on TV – she was invited to be one of the key presenters alongside the popular Ghanaian broadcaster the late Komla Dumor.
Sophie’s long career has given her an opportunity to rub shoulders with those who shape the world – Presidents, Prime Ministers and top decision-makers.
So who was her favorite leader?
“To be fair,” she says diplomatically, “All the presidents I have interviewed are unique. I think what excites me is being able to sit down with leaders from countries that we hardly hear much about in the news, for example, Djibouti, Niger, Mozambique.”
Not all interviews, Sophie admits, are easy to tackle. “I should also admit I have had my fair share of difficult interviews. But whenever I interview a prominent leader, I have to ask myself, how I can make the discussion relevant to the multi-national audiences that are watching the channel? One of the things I enjoy most about my job at the BBC is being surrounded by so many talented journalists from whom, five years on, I’ve learnt so much,” she says.
What is the difference between working in Kenyan and British broadcasting, I ask.
“There’s a lot of thought put into what stories we carry. Questions like why are we doing this story and who cares are key. In Africa, we have 160 reporters based in 40 countries and what makes us stand out from other international news channels is our combination of a truly global perspective with this local knowledge,” she says.
It is often believed in the developing countries that Western broadcasting networks are biased against them portraying Africa in a negative light – what is Focus on Africa’s take on covering the continent? I ask.
“On Focus on Africa, we are passionate about telling the real African stories and finding different ways to tell them on all platforms,” she said adding, “There’s a lot of thinking that goes into this. We look at the continent through African eyes and tell a story in a way that someone in Fiji or New Zealand would care about.”
What’s more important is that unlike foreign correspondents who jet into Africa, stay in plush hotels for a few days churning out often half-baked biased material, the BBC’s African reportage is different and focused.
“These stories are reported by African journalists on the continent who live and breathe the stories,” she says.
“That is the core of what we do on BBC World News. We often report on stories before they’re on the radar of other broadcasters and we stay there long after the other cameras have gone. For example, we were reporting on the first cases of Ebola from West Africa in Focus on Africa long before other broadcasters started reporting on it,” Sophie says.
After clocking up a few years in London, does she have plans to return to Kenya?
“Will I be back? I cannot answer that now, but I can assure you I’m representing that beautiful country the best way I can and flying the flag.”