Rarely do you find a medical professional juggling between their profession and a side hustle that is not related to what they trained for. This is a rare feat that a few have made an attempt at. Among this rare breed is the 25 year old Kennedy Mawira Mutua who co-founded Melting Ice Towers (MIT) photography, a venture he co-establish while as a nursing student at the University of Nairobi. Amidst his busy nursing internship schedule at Embu General Hospital, he has managed to successfully juggle between nursing and photography. We managed to stage an interview with him to find out how his journey has been so far.
Tell me how and when you got into photography in the first place
It was in early 2018 when I started commercial photography. I had been doing photography as a hobby with a rather simple camera in 2008. It wasn’t that serious though.
What inspired you to get into photography?
A close friend of mine came up with the idea and she really was into cameras. Gradually, I started falling in love with capturing moments and producing them into lovable work of art. Currently, I just travel with my camera taking photos of even ducks at the pools or anything like trees, statues etc. Sometimes, I schedule trips just for photography purposes. It is a deep passion that has gotten inside my tendons. When I shoot people, they mostly say that I love what I do. I just don’t know how they notice it.
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Cameras are quite expensive. How dd you get the startup capital? Did you receive support from friends and parents or something…?
To begin with, getting that amount of money to purchase just a basic camera without lenses was a real hustle. As I said before, we were a duo. Me and my lady friend. I started writing articles using this online writing platforms (specifically Iwriter.com). To be honest, I was good at it.
I later informed my friend about the hustle and she was interested too. We started writing together. We were being paid in dollars. A 1000-word article could go for $9.8 since we were still at the lower stages (premium level). Keep in mind we were still students while this was going on. She was studying pharmacy. We could mostly do the writing at night or early morning and during the day attend our lectures. In case there was no lecture, I could go to the library and continue writing.
Since we were two of us using the same writing account, money came in large amounts within a short period of time. We made $1039 in three months (October, November and December 2017). This was quite a lot of money considering the level (premium) we were in at that time. Secondly, we had never gotten so much cash in our life. It was a surprise for me.
At that time there was no PayPal to mpesa like it is today. I was advised to use Equity bank. After I opened a bank account with equity and deposited the cash. I was told to check in four days. When I got access to the cash I didn’t have a plan on how I was to spend it. I was a student and you know, the temptation to maul this cash was overwhelming. After we talked about it, we agreed to buy the camera. On the fourth day, I withdrew Ksh. 70,000 put it on Mpesa and bought the Nikon camera. I was happy.
I later realized that buying the camera was just the begging step in the journey towards becoming a professional photographer. For me to be a pro, I needed to buy better lenses and lighting materials which could triple or quadruple the camera cost. This meant that we had to keep working both with photography and writing so as to buy the additional gadgets that we needed, which we acquired after sometime.
Its quite a journey. I can’t quantify the total cost of everything but I know I can buy good land somewhere incase I sold my gadgets today. 2020 will be the third year of MIT Photography
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What do you find most challenging about this venture?
Most advanced photographers will never inform you about anything. We had to figure out on our own why our photos weren’t good when we used the lens we bought the camera with. Some will never share any information with you about anything lest they equip a competitor who will reduce their market share. Nonetheless, there is a reason why YouTube is the best free university that you’ll ever have. Youtube, I can say has been our best teacher.
You have to be a pro to get vouched for and being pro doesn’t come cheaply. That’s why good photographers are few.
Thugs and Conmen– A thug knows how much a lens could fetch in case they steal one from you. Now imagine you are carrying 5 lenses, 2 lights, 4 stands, 3 softboxes and 2 cameras among other things. You are followed in case you become too showy in the streets. I’ve been chased twice by guys on bodaboda and it ain’t cool at all.
Being a photographer comes with its own fair share of challenges, like working late into the night covering events in people’s homes. Please share with us one of your most terrifying encounters that you have ever had in line of duty if there is any.
Well, I’ve had many encounters but I’ll only quote two.
The first one, after I had finished a bridal party shoot at 9pm in Kiambu, I left the house. I tried Uber but they were a bit busy. I couldn’t get one at that moment. I decided to walk towards the nearest matatu stage.
I walked through a dark path with the gadgets and approached the main road. Just then, a bodaboda guy came and picked me up towards town. Immediately, another bodaboda started following us.
From what the guys were saying, they knew I had the cameras. They followed us so closely as they swung a hoe-handle (mti ya jembe) towards us. They got so close such that when they swung the hoe-handle, I could feel the wave of air as it passed so near to my occipital bone. I was terrified. My bodaboda guy feared for his life too and this made him accelerate. He got me at the bus-stop in time and I got into a vehicle that was about to leave for town. That was soo close.
Story two: this was during the early days of photography. I didn’t know much about trade deals.
So this guy in Kitui, a friend of mine, was having an occasion. He told me he would pick me at a stage in Kitui at 9am. So I took a vehicle from Nairobi and landed in kitui. It was a bit early; around 7am. I went to a restaurant and took a heavy breakfast. At around 8:50am, I headed to the stage that we had agreed to meet. I waited for him. 10am, 11am, I was perplexed! I called the guy, his phone was off.
At 12:40pm I was still waiting for him. His phone was off. I boarded a vehicle and went back to Nairobi having spent all my money. It was like I had gone to visit a hotel in Kitui, experienced a site-seeing at the stage and the surrounding area then back to Nairobi. From that day, we have always asked our customers for a deposit upfront before scheduling a photoshoot.
You started out in this venture while still in school. How did you manage to balance between photography and your studies?
People always create time for what matters to them.
Plus if you haven’t suffered financially, especially in school, you may fail to understand what I mean in the statement above.
Now that you are doing your internship, how have you managed to set aside time to attend to your side hustle?
Exactly, majority of my customers don’t even know I work at the hospital. They know me as Ken the photoman.
I do plan for my clients on days when I’m off from work. When it is not possible for the client to change their dates to one that favours me, I negotiate with my colleague to swap duties to a more flexible shift. My desire is never to let my client fall for another photographer. That’s loosing gangstar points which is not good for business.
Photography is a great venture that attracts many, but only a few manage to stick around and make something out of it. What is your personal philosophy that has kept you going this far?
Have total Passion.
Do not do it for money- I’ve told you I shoot even birds and trees. Its not that they’ll pay me. I do it to create those beautiful mounts and frames and hang them on my wall or sell them to people who would like them. I take some as gifts to my parents and friends.
Stick to what that makes you feel more alive. Photography does for me.
Alafu, most people don’t stay around for long because they do not invest in better gadgets. Real photography is expensive and that’s what most people don’t go for. They do not want to invest.
I remember a lady who once told me that her photographer takes better photos. I asked for a sample photo and I indeed validated her claim. This made me work extra hard to get money to buy a better gadget. If you stick around and fail to upgrade to better equipment, other photographers will indeed steal your clients. A client wants quality shots.
Tell me about someone who has influenced your life greatly.
A close lady friend of mine who taught me things that money can’t buy. These include saving money, buying things that are important for business, investing in profitable ventures, how to network among many others. Such friends are not easy to come across.
What would you say to someone who is in college and would like to take a path that you took years back: starting a side hustle?
Multi-task wisely. It can kill your everything including education, personal life and relationships. Do it to the extent of your ability.
Again, education and side hustle ain’t easy as I’ve explained before. If I can jot down the early mornings, late nights headaches, lack of appetite among many others, you would be scared. It ain’t easy at all. However, make your decisions early. If you can do something, do it now. Don’t wait.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
There is nothing I’ve set as my new year resolution that I haven’t achieved. I hit them like darts do to the bull’s eye. I tell everyone my plans and that makes me work extra hard to achieve them to avoid shame. It works for me so well. Again, don’t copy this. It might be disastrous for you.
In five years’ time, where do you see Melting Ice Towers?
Actually, Melting ice towers is a brand name. Under it, there is MIT Photography, MIT writing consultancy and maybe in future lots of things can be under this huge body.
Personally, I want to major in production and events both in videography and photography. But I can establish and run any business at the moment if I want to. In the five years, I’m candid that we shall have employees across the country to do whatever we shall have developed by then. It’s baby steps that make a kid walk.