When the Gigs Stop: Edwine Anayo, CEO Homeland Events
They say “nobody can stop reggae,” but for players in Kenya’s events industry, it feels exactly like their concert has come to a premature end.
This morning, I had a chat with Edwine Anayo, founder and CEO of Homeland Events Limited about the challenges of doing events business in the midst of a pandemic like this one.
I have known Eddy since childhood. We went to the same primary school, I actively participated in his campaign when he went into politics in 2013, and I later had the opportunity of working with him for more than a year as his events company’s General Manager.
Today, he is a man fearing for his business, and the industry.
You had gone into politics, how did you find yourself quitting that to venture into the events business?
I think I have always had an eye for business opportunities. Politics was a little draining for me. The whole concept of devolution was still new and quite a number of us who were going in as first time MCAs did not really know what we were getting into.
Then there was the bigger frustration of not being able to bring about the changes I had hoped to initiate, especially when it came to creating employment and business opportunities for young people. So very early on, I had decided that I was not going to seek re-election.
I saw an opportunity. I lived around Wayside in Kisumu in 2013, and back then I would see EABL do a lot of promotional events along that beer belt. It was always the likes of Homeboyz Entertainment that were providing events services there.
I felt that this is something we should be able to do locally. The challenge was that there was not a single events company in Kisumu with the kind of equipment they had.
So I did a bit of research, found out what kind of equipment I would need and how much they cost. I was already convinced that this is a business I want to venture into and be able to supply the likes of EABL and Coca-Cola who were by then some of the biggest sponsors of events in Kenya.
You had to sell your house to buy events equipment, how did it get to that?
I was coming to the end of my term as an MCA. Politics had drained me. I was spending more money than I was earning trying to improve the livelihoods of the people I served.
I basically made no money in politics.
My car rental business was also not doing very well at the time because politics would not allow me to give it the attention it deserved.
You would probably ask why I did not get a loan from a bank instead. What a lot of people don’t know is that banks have a classification of customers known as “politically exposed persons, or PEP.”
They look at you as high-risk clients because in politics there is never any guarantee that you would make money. When you approach them with business ideas, they will turn you down however good your proposal is. They assume you are just looking for money to fund your political activity.
How did that risk turn out?
Well I can say that I was very lucky. While my plan had been to start this venture in 2018, some of the equipment that I had bought in China and the UK arrived much earlier.
This was during the 2017 political campaign season. Having a brand new stage and sound system at the time created instant demand for us.
It was a busy season. We were always on the move providing sound, staging and lighting solutions to political rallies in Western Kenya. Very quickly we became a household name.
In 2018 and 2019 we started investing in other events equipment like dome tents, alluhall tents, outdoor and indoor LED screens, carpets, pro-floors and so much more.
The more time we spent in the industry, the more we learnt about what other equipment had demand.
Our investments have, however, not just been about equipment. We hired some of the best talents to work with these equipment, providing them with packages that are quite the envy of their colleagues working in other events companies.
I am a believer in the Richard Branson philosophy that “when you take care of your employees, they will in turn take care of your business for you.”
I remember when I joined Homeland Events, business was looking up. The company was expanding into new markets like Nairobi and that was starting to pick up quite well then Covid-19 came. How did that disrupt you?
From the outside, it looked that we were growing really fast. We were barely two years old and here we were moving into new markets like Nairobi and Mombasa.
What most people don’t see is that the planning bit took us quite some time. Remember I said I started having these ideas in 2013. So that was a whole five years we had taken studying the market, so it was easier to capture it then.
Kisumu became too small for us and we wanted to go play in the big league, and that league was in Nairobi. That was also where the important decisions were made.
If you were not playing there, you were getting the crumbs of corporate business. We wanted a share of that market and we aggressively went it.
In just two months of our entry, we were meeting the goals we had set for ourselves at six months. It was also a capital intensive venture but things were looking up until March 13th 2020.
Then the music literally stopped. I had over 40 employees to think about. These are men and women with families of their own, most of them are breadwinners.
At the time the pandemic set in, we had just made orders for new equipment from the UK, South Africa and China. We had committed almost all the money we made in 2019 in this because we wanted to be a significant player in this industry.
We have lost quite a chunk of some of those deposits.
How were you able to ride that storm in 2020?
It was difficult. There were nights I stayed up thinking about what to do next because here we were, in the business of crowds, and the government had banned mass gatherings.
Other than staff costs, rent for our two offices spaces in Kisumu and Nairobi was costing upwards of Sh 500,000. All we had in the bank at the time were deposits from clients who had booked for weddings in April and May.
Interestingly I did not have to lay off staff. I had an honest conversation with them about the situation we were in, and I was surprised by how well they understood the situation. Most of the measures we implemented during that time were suggested by them.
Another thing we did was diversification of income. We had a sizeable logistics arm which we instantly converted into a transport business. We would transport items for traders from Nairobi to parts of Western Kenya.
As restrictions were eased to allow for smaller events, we took advantage of that too. Remember that previously we only targeted corporates and large events for individual clients. At this point if you were having an event for 20 people, we would supply you. Every coin mattered at that time.
I am also grateful for the support we got from our financial partners. Particularly Equity Bank which allowed us to restructure our asset finance loans. We had bought six vehicles with their help and this flexibility allowed us some breathing space.
Imagine what it would have been like if in the middle of this the bank was also repossessing our vehicles.
In Nairobi, because business was almost at a standstill there, we moved from our godown in Industrial Area which was quite costly to a much smaller office space in Karen.
Now we are having a second lockdown, how have you adjusted to this?
It is very unfortunate. This came at the most unexpected time. We have been trying to comply with Ministry of Health regulations on social distancing as an industry, and people have been complying.
The people advising the president are not being cognizant of the reality on the ground. Businesses are hurting. People are hurting. This may take some of us down forever.
In coping we are continuing to have conversations with our staff on how to ‘keep the lights on’ during this time. We are aggressively selling those permitted smaller events. Everyone is now a sales person here, even the drivers and cleaners are selling.
What do you think is the future of events business under the ‘new normal?’
Some things will change, others will stay the same. We are already seeing technology taking centerstage with solutions such as virtual conferencing. These are things we are investing in currently, and will continue doing so in the future.
Funerals, weddings, birthday parties, sporting events and concerts will continue as they were at some point. We might have elements of a mixture of both real life and virtual events, but it’s not all dead.
What’s the future like for Homeland Events?
I am optimistic that things will get better. I have never underestimated the resilience of human beings. As an industry, even with our competitors who are still in the game, we will get to the end of this tunnel.
For this company, we are exploring more options, including investment in more relevant equipment and technology that meets tomorrow’s demand. We are also looking into expanding into regional markets.
Right now, our eyes are locked on Kampala, and who knows, Homeland Events might be in Uganda before the end of the third quarter.
Why Uganda if I may ask?
Uganda’s events market is quite developed, especially when it comes to weddings. I can only compare it to Nigeria. Competing in that market will only challenge me to get better.
But the cost of doing business in Kenya is also prohibitive. The environment is not friendly at all. A lot more people are looking outside.
If it turns out as a viable venture for me then why not. Businesses like Equity Bank are regional, I know friends who run businesses in Tanzania and Uganda, why not Homeland Events?