CONDUCTOR OF CHANGE
George Gachara is described as a “social entrepreneur”. The title has a good ring to it; it sounds very now, speaks of someone plugged into our shifting digital (and real) worlds. However, it is quite vague and perhaps, even meaningless, which is why Gachara scoffs and enjoys it. He likes the slipperiness of it, as it aptly captures the manner in which he has not only adapted to the sociopolitical environment in his native Kenya, but also challenged it.
“I would never have been able to exist in Europe. It is too comfortable there – the anger has been quenched. Things are predictable. Ideas die there, they are not born there; there is no chaos from which to create ideas,” he says.
Gachara views the problems on this continent as opportunities to develop new business and social models. He has been driving change at that curious, elusive and contested space between art, business and society. He is a banker, writer, filmmaker, cultural producer, mentor, philanthropist and venture capitalist. Circumstances and the marginalisation of the arts in Kenya have forced him to adopt these multiple and seemingly contradictory roles. However, it is not just his own survival in the creative sector that has motivated him. His ingrained sense of justice and ethics, and interest in the cultural and political issues of his generation have guided his unique path.
“I am deeply committed to questioning structures, state or institutional, in a way that doesn’t support integrating the majority of people into national life,” he says. This drive is partly informed by his Kikuyu identity, which marks him out as part of a dominant powerful group in Kenya. He rejects his privilege, or perhaps tries to compensate for it, knowing that his contribution to society will always be perceived and accessed in relation to his ethnic heritage.
The first seemingly impenetrable structure he encountered was Kenya’s education system, which prevents most school leavers from freely choosing what kind of secondary education they are able to pursue.
“Education spaces in Kenya are very rigid. A government body decides what you will study. Only top students get their first or second options. For everyone else it is random,” he says.
The education department had earmarked a career in agriculture for Gachara. He may have grown up in Nanyuki, a rural mountain town, and he confesses his first “best friend” was a cow, but a career in agriculture wasn’t for him. Fortunately, he had secured a scholarship to pursue studies in the arts, but he was deeply troubled by the fact that his brother and the majority of Kenyans had no freedom to choose. This saw him become involved in student politics, becoming a student leader from 2006 to 2008, a critical time in Kenya’s political life. He quickly realised that issues facing students where echoed in other aspects of Kenyan life.
“All structures are connected and contain privilege. Your education and the privileges you may enjoy during that time will impact on your employment.”
It is the duty of young people to challenge the establishment, he believes.
“When young people vocalise their discomfort, they move society forward. Discomfort is a beautiful thing. It creates a cultural clearing for new ideas. When settled power is questioned, it can give birth to something.”
Gachara’s discomfort with Kenyan state laws and cultural traditions did indeed give birth to new things, structures even, leading to his work as a “social entrepreneur”.
His interest in playing a role which offered social critique from outside structural powers naturally saw him gravitate towards the arts. However, it was a lack of infrastructure in this realm that initially inspired him to co-create The Nest, a collective of artists who help each other to generate different kinds of art products from films to fashion or visual arts projects. Working in a collective was a natural route, given each member of the collective had struggled for acceptance in a society where pursuing a career in the arts is unthinkable.
“We felt it would be liberating to create infrastructure for those who survived – the rebels. For authentic expression to be made possible you have to dig deep to communicate true voice, but there are repercussions for this in our society. Cultural censorship is a very real thing. There are also economic and political implications. The place of the artist in our society is not a very high place unless you are an entertainer and their place is different [to that of the artist].”
The Nest leases a space in Nairobi, where a collective of 12 dynamic artists from different fields of the arts help each other to realise their creative projects.
“It was our ambition to create a small little engine for artists to produce together. It is not a place to come and chill. We invest social capital, physical space and time and everyone gets involved. We don’t hire a crew. Sometimes I am the director of photography or the driver.”
The Nest has become known for its film projects. Their practice is “very guerilla. we do micro-budgets, we prize the talent, we pay the artists the highest.”
In 2014 they made headlines with the release of the film Stories of Our Lives when Gachara was arrested for producing a film depicting the narratives of homosexual men. Gachara offered himself up for arrest when the police came knocking at The Nest’s doors.
“It shows the power of art. Art should create discomfort. Art is not palliative.
Cultural work can challenge structural power. Power responds in the only way it knows which is through brutality and in so doing affirms the power of art and critiques itself. The arrest was a beautiful way to illustrate the fight. We are lucky that our work is responsive and direct.”
Gachara’s dedication to facilitating artistic production and strengthening its impact and quality is what led him into the arms of the business world and eventually setting up the Heva Fund. This was born from the frustration of trying to create products when The Nest’s artists’ time was taken up with regular jobs.
“You would have a stylist working at a hotel and a scriptwriter working at a bank,” Gachara says.
Raising capital was the only solution. But as he approached banks and other funding institutions, Gachara quickly realised that a mistrust of artists and their ability to produce marketable products was a barrier.
“The corporate sector does not value artistic products,” he says. “A farmer can get a loan to buy cows or loan against his tomatoes, even though this industry is subject to so many risks. Why not invest in the arts? I realised that a deeper conversation had to happen and no one was going to do it other than ourselves.”
The conversation that Gachara started was with people in the financial sector, and the government, who through pension funds had earmarked the arts as an unreliable sector for investment. The most striking aspect of these conversations was the language Gachara adopted – financial parlance.
“I don’t enjoy finance. I never thought I would end up as an investment banker. I had been raised to critique capitalism. Artists don’t understand finance, but financial people don’t understand the arts.”
As a co-founder of the Heva Fund, Gachara became the go-between connecting the worlds of finance and arts by raising funds and then selecting creative projects in which to invest. The Heva Fund provides capital and loans to creative startups and the model allows them to repay the loan only when they start to generate an income. In this way Gachara has become a gatekeeper of sorts and occupies a position of power within a defined structure.
“This is probably a good thing. If the structure is now able to accommodate me, it means I reformed it,” he says with a smile.
Writer: Mary Corrigall