It could also be said that it all began at the point at which he met Jesse Soleil, his co-founder. Jesse later married a Kenyan lady, an act that would kick-start the many trips for both men, to the country that would birth Akili Kids! – the first commercial digital content network that would change the narrative in children’s programming.
Either way, how it worked out was that Akili Kids! became the first to join us at our Spring Valley location, just over a year ago. We couldn’t be happier to chat with Jeff as he went down memory lane, sharing their innovative growth journey.
In the mid-90s, Jeff moved into the world of digital and was running a company that did interactive CD-ROMS for children. He then got into education – where he was creating software for schools – primarily to improve reading. All this was after many years of growing his experience in the world of TV focusing on both animated programs and documentaries, mainly for children.
Jeff’s first trip to Kenya was in 2012, with Jesse, after they coincidentally met Michael Onyango who was working on Vision 2030 at the time. They were looking for opportunities to grow the media economy in Kenya with an initial plan to make educational consumer products like colouring books.
It was through the advice of Michael, that they were able to meet with the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) to discuss the possibility of getting a license for broadcasting, and that set everything in motion towards starting the TV channel.
Jeff & Jesse figured that in order for them to have the children’s channel they would need lots of capital. In 2014, they put together a robust business plan that was submitted to the authority, which they also used to look for business funding.
Fortunately, in terms of getting the license they didn’t struggle. The CA team was incredibly supportive and there was nothing out of the ordinary that was needed in their license application process. “The CA has a sign at their office that says Corruption Free Zone, which was absolutely the case” said Jeff.
However, it was only in September 2019, that they got their big break with investors committing to fund their project. The duo quickly embarked on the journey of hiring & Jeff explains that they have been very fortunate in growing their team.
What started as two co-founders has grown to a diverse & experienced team of 20 people in just over a year. The team is made up of young but highly creative talent and more seasoned professionals providing a nice mix of skill sets.
“We’ve created a super collaborative environment, teamwork is an important value in terms of how we work,” says Jeff. The company has an open door policy such that the team is encouraged to give their creative inputs about how to improve programs. That way, everyone is provided with an environment where they can thrive.
Everyone at Akili Kids! is committed to making sure that what they put up is going to be good for the children. The bottom line is to have a positive impact on their target audience with a focus on 2-14 year olds.
Akili Kids! programming is based on who is at home between 6:00am & 12:00 noon & is driven by 3 things:
In 2020, we shared a list of 12 companies that thrived during the pandemic, and it’s no surprise that Akili Kids! made the list. While it couldn’t have been easy to launch a TV channel a week after children were sent home from school, it did present an opportunity that couldn’t have been more ideal as a way to build viewership.
Four months after its launch, a GeoPoll rating showed that Akili Kids! ranked 2nd in Kenya among children and their parents. News that immediately exceeded their original projections of viewership, “We are 4 years ahead of plan!” observed Jeff.
Akili Kids! has a 93 on net promoters score, also surpassing what they expected and they have great responses from parents talking about their children’s improved academic performance. On the Facebook page, a platform they use to get feedback from our viewers, is close to hitting the 100,000 mark.
On feedback Jeff mentions, “Through social media listening we have received heartwarming reviews from parents such as: my child is speaking English better, my child has learned something about science, or my child is better behaved.”
Akili Kids! is a commercial entity that essentially sells ‘airtime’ to commercial advertisers. The brand, which is keen on developing trust with their target market, has had to turn down Ads for products that they know are bad for children.
A hurdle for sure, but in turn it has broadened their Ad scope by focusing on family-based products. “It has been difficult educating the commercial customer. At times we struggle explaining to people that adults watch the channel with their children, and remind them how children are one of the greatest influencers on what their parents buy,” remarks Jeff.
An amusing story is how the team came across information for a grant being offered by USAID. A lady whose daughters watch & love Akili Kids! got in touch with them via email saying she would like to talk to us about working to apply. “We have 5 million very young business development executives working for us,” quips Jeff.
On the other hand, Akili Kids! sells airtime to non-profits that are looking for brand visibility and awareness. An example of this is Porticus, a non-profit based in Holland. They are interested in the channel developing for them some behaviour change communications around cyber safety for kids.
During the pandemic, advertising understandably shut down making it difficult for the ad sales. “The end goal is to be sustainable without having to look for donations as we believe the business model will support that,” Jeff shares.
As we wind down we ask Jeff about his experience in Kenya & he tells us how the opportunity to live & work in a foreign country has been a privilege for him. He recalls his first interaction with Nairobi Garage in November 2019, “At the time we were renting space at the Mirage. This was for our little footprint, around 6 people who were there when we started out.”
In January 2020, Akili Kids! moved into their current space at The Promenade on General Mathenge. “I am a big fan of Nairobi Garage, at first we were renting 60sqm but it really felt like we had 5,000! The office space presents a great opportunity to network and to build connections with amazing people.”
We definitely agree! It’s been through coworking & collaborating with innovative content platforms such as Akili Kids!, that we’ve met amazing people such as Jeff, Jesse and their amazing team; as they continue to educate, inspire, and entertain our children.