Growing up, he wanted to become a soldier. He’d spent his childhood watching soldiers at the Moi Air Base doing drills.
For a boy from a humble background in Nairobi’s Section 3, Eastleigh, that seemed the only way out of poverty.
“They were dressed in these perfect uniforms and marched in unison to patriotic songs,” says 32-year-old Ledama Ole Sempele.
“All I knew was that I didn’t want to be poor forever and these were the only people I saw who didn’t look poor.”
Ledama didn’t become a soldier, but inspired by them, he’s climbed up the ranks in the film industry, going from a runner to assistant director to co-founding a successful film production company, Film Crew In Africa.
Ledama speaks to Hustle about his journey from one of Nairobi’s most notorious areas to having offices along State House Road.
You were inspired by soldiers but ended up in the film industry. How did that happen?
I don’t think joining the army was ever my passion; it was just a light showing me I could have a different life.
How did you discover film?
We moved from Eastleigh to Bahati, and despite living inside a church compound, the neighbourhood was a nightmare. Bahati was one of the most crime-prone areas in Nairobi. On those streets, it was fight or flight.
I was a pretty fast runner, so I chose flight any time I encountered a mob.
Those of us who didn’t want to get into gangs often found an outlet in acting. I joined a group called Pambazuka founded by Charles Bukeko, popularly known as Papa Shirandula.
The group had many of today’s greats, like Tony Njuguna who acted in Better Days and Makutano Junction, and Ainea Ojiambo of Constant Gardener and The First Grader. My world opened beyond the streets of Bahati because of these men.
What was your first big break into the film world?
It would definitely be when I accidentally went for an audition for Makutano Junction.
Through Pambazuka, I was introduced to Naomi Kamau, the creator of Mother-in-Law, Machachari and Tahidi High. She asked me to meet her at Kenya National Theatre and I thought it was to chat about film; turns out they were crewing for Makutano Junction.
I felt intimidated because I’d shown up in sandals, jeans and a T-shirt. Everyone else was dressed in official attire and carrying CVs. Naomi told me to just bring my A-game.
What did your A-game look like?
I chose honesty. The interviews were conducted in groups of 10.
Each person had to introduce themselves and give a brief bio. The people ahead of me had a lot of experience in TV and great educational backgrounds.
I was dressed wrong and had zero skills, but I stepped forward and confidently said my name.
David Campbell, the executive producer and founder of MEDIAE Production Company, asked me what my qualifications were, and I told him I wasn’t an actor, wasn’t a writer or a crew member but if I was taught, I’d be good at it.
He liked that I was real and asked me if I could run. I’d spent most of my childhood running from gangs, so I said yes, I could run very fast. He hired me on the spot as a runner for the show.
What pay did they offer?
Sh1,750 per day. At Pambazuka, we got Sh5,000 per month. When I did the math, I realised I’d be getting Sh35,000 per month. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I joined Makutano in season two as a runner, which is basically a messenger on set; you do all the odd jobs.
In season three, I became a third assistant director, whose role is mainly to liaise between extras on set and the director.
By season five, I’d become the art director, earning Sh2,500 a day.
My ultimate role was to become a first assistant director and earn Sh12,000 a day, which came to about Sh360,000 per month.
Would you say most learning is done on the job in film?
Not always. Some people are professionally trained. This was just my journey and I accomplished it because I wanted to learn and grow.
The original first assistant directors on Makutano were from the UK. I would spend the whole day watching what they were doing and how they connected the film departments. It took me back to those soldiers, marching every single morning in unison, no matter the weather.
I knew I could do the job and when a spot opened up, I pitched for it, convincing David that just as I’d learned all the other roles, I’d learn this one.
I was a first assistant director on the show from seasons eight to 11. I’m proud that I left a legacy of being one of the best Makutano Junction had seen.
What else have you worked on?
Many series like Higher Learning (KTN), Changes (M-Net) and KONA (M-Net) to name a few. I became one of the industry’s go-to first assistant directors, along with people like Ezekiel ‘Ezzie’ Onyango who introduced me to commercials. The pay would range from Sh25,000 to Sh30,000 a day, with each commercial shoot lasting 10 to 15 days.
How did Film Crew In Africa come about?
After being crew members for over a decade, we realised that some of the challenges we faced at the beginning hadn’t changed, like late or no payment from producers.
In 2011, Ezzie and I started an agency that would liaise between crew members and production companies to alleviate these issues.
This didn’t work very well because we were trying to instil benchmarks like minimum pay and maximum hours a crew member would work before they were given overtime. Production companies realised it was cheaper to go directly to crew members, so business dried up.
We changed tactics and decided to operate as a production company instead.
What was your start-up capital?
The initial cost was approximately Sh20,000, which we used to register the business. By this time, we’d been joined by Tosh Gitonga, the director of Nairobi Half Life and Disconnected. We were also joined by Linda Karuru. We’d all worked together before so it was an easy fit. We operated from Ezzie’s house and met clients at a centre that rented out offices by the day.
What was your first big job?
An advert we did with Coca-Cola. The budget was Sh50 million, but we didn’t turn a profit because we’d decided that this job would be our calling card.
We went all out, partnering with professionals from the UK to ensure we produced quality work. We paid our cast and crew well. We didn’t make money, but we built a reputation.
It’s been about seven years since you started your company, where do you stand now?
We’ve been blessed, I cannot lie. We’ve done jobs for Safaricom’s M-Pesa, Isuzu’s 50th anniversary, KCB Elimisha, Uber TVC and several others in between.
We specialise in audio and visual production, including servicing and crewing for international production companies coming to shoot in Kenya, or producers who want scenes shot in Kenya without necessarily being on the ground to do it.
Our latest venture is a small off-shoot company called Blink Productions, which helps young people break into film by giving them a platform to professionally learn on the job.
What’s your legacy going to be?
I’m not sure. I don’t quite know whether or not I’ve discovered my purpose, and by that I mean the thing I’ll leave behind for future generations.
There’s a lot to be done in this country, in our society. The movie Nairobi Half Life was based on truths that happen not far from most of us. I was that kid that could have ended up in crime, but someone saw me and gave me a chance.
So maybe, that will be my legacy, to turn around and lift the next Ledama Sempele who needs a break.