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Riverwood: Kenyan Super-fast, Super-cheap Filmmaking

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The African film-making success story of Nigeria’s Nollywood has been joined by another fast-rising star: Kenya’s Riverwood. Both are beneficiaries of the digital revolution in filmmaking over the last decade, and both are using low-cost digital filmmaking and editing to tell local stories — in the process making money and creating thousands of jobs.

The power of creative industries to create jobs and wealth has been a focus of UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity. UNESCO has been in the forefront in helping African countries re-shape their policies to take cultural industries into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

What is particularly attractive about this phenomenon for the poor in the South is its rough-and-ready approach to filmmaking: combining low-cost digital cameras and film editing software on personal computers, with small budgets and fast turn-around times. Films are made on location using local people. These factors make getting into filmmaking accessible and within reach of more people.

Riverwood is named after River Road, a bustling creative and business hub in Nairobi. Riverwood operates at a furious pace, with 20 to 30 films made every week. It adds up to 1,000 films a year selling 500,000 copies at 200 Kenyan shillings (US $2.60) a piece: 1 billion shillings (US $13 million) in the past two years.

The whole industry is totally self-sufficient, and is following the well-trodden path laid down by Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

One of Kenya’s woman directors is leading the renaissance in filmmaking. “Movies are very important because I think they are the most important art in Kenya – in Africa,” said Wanjiru Kinyanjui in the film, “Riverwood, the Blooming of a Film Industry,” by the World Intellectual Property Organization ( “Basically, because Africans have an oral tradition, and a visual one, there is a huge market for local films.”

Riverwood films share a common characteristic of on-the-spot sets and a resourceful and cheap approach.

“They are shot in two, three days and edited in a week,” she continued. “They are selling because people can identify with them. The films being in Riverwood are basically the lives of people, reflecting the Kenyan way of life and entertaining Kenyans. “

And it is a new form of employment for many people:  “When I am making a movie, I need people: you employ very many people. And you also employ yourself. It is a real way of getting rid of poverty. Because all this talent, which is untapped, could be working.”

And as Riverwood rising star director John E. Maina puts it: “Hollywood is the model for any society that wants to develop.”

While still in its infancy compared to Nigeria’s Nollywood, Riverwood is already pioneering ways to protect the creative rights of filmmakers and build a financially-sustainable industry. Inspired by Hollywood’s ownership of creative material, Kenyan filmmakers have come up with some ingenious solutions. Each production company has a rubber stamp and signs on the sleeve of the DVD (digital video disc) – even if it is 1,000 copies.

If a director finds a pirated copy, and even if pirates have forged the rubber stamp, the signature will look like a forgery.

“It is based on a business model,” said director John E. Maina. ”It is commercial. So it is self-sustaining. This is how Bollywood is growing, this is how Nollywood is growing, this is how Hollywood developed.”

As pioneers in copyright protection, Riverwood directors strongly believe they are an important part of the country’s development.

“When you pirate a product, and the resources are not channelled back to the person who created that product, he is losing out on creating a new product for you tomorrow,” said Maina. “So you are the loser: tomorrow you will not have another product.

“Riverwood, Nollywood, Hollywood, are the model for any society that wants to develop. No society will develop without an audiovisual industry. And I think the way to protect an audiovisual industry is through strong copyright laws,” he said.

“If you go to most of the cafes and the pubs in Kenya, people only turn to TV at 7 o’clock, watch the news, after the news is over, they tell the management to put for them the local DVDs from Riverwood. Because they see themselves, they identify with those images. They don’t identify with the foreign American films, the soaps from South America.<

“The audiovisual industry is a mirror. If you don’t have a mirror to see yourself, you don’t know who you are. If you don’t have that mirror to see yourself, you are lost.”

Published: November 2008


  • The global charity Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education of girls and empowerment of women) has projects to teach women filmmaking skills. Website:
  • Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Television de Ouagadoogou 2009: Africa’s biggest film festival. Website:
  • Naijarules: Billing itself as the “largest online community of lovers and critics of Nollywood”, an excellent way to connect with all the players in the business.Website:
  • A film by the World Intellectual Property Organization about the Riverwood phenomenon and an introduction to its up-and-coming directors. Website:


Cited in The Liverpool Companion to World Science Fiction Film by Sonja Fritzsche (2014).

Accentuating the positive: Building capacity for creative industries into the development agenda for global intellectual property law by Sean A. Pager, Michigan State University College of Law, American University International Law Review, 2012

Cinema as cultural discourse: A study of cultural symbols in selected contemporary Gikuyu comedies by Stanley Mbugua Njoroge, School of Creative and Performing Arts, Film and Media Studies, Kenyatta University, 2019

Other Film Stories

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© David South Consulting 2023

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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