Meet BlackRhino VR, the Startup Behind Building Kenya’s Virtual Reality Industry

“We are passionate about changing the visual narrative of how stories are told in Africa by equipping the youth to be the next generation of storytellers.” —BlackRhino VR.

I first came across BlackRhino VR, a startup from Nairobi, Kenya in 2016. VR still felt like a fresh industry in Los Angeles, my base at the time, but BlackRhino VR was the first VR company I had heard of in Africa.

Excited to connect with them for possible collaboration, I checked out their website before our call. The website had the look and feel of an up-and-coming tech company; it was sleek and well designed, albeit incomplete at the time. I clicked on the ‘about’ section and paused — the headshots of the team members were all white males, none of whom had been present in the other photos I had seen of BlackRhino VR.

It arose questions of curiosity about the VR industry in Africa; are the VR companies being built and invested in by Africans, or foreigners? What are the barriers to entry? How developed is it, how diverse is it?

The BlackRhino VR team.

On my first call with them in 2016, I mentioned to Brian Afande, the co-founder, that I had stumbled across the ‘about’ page on their website. Hearing the question marks in my voice, he laughed, and told me that all those headshots had been pulled off the internet to be used as fillers as the website was completed. He also added, half jokingly, that the white headshots helped with clients.

“VR is still largely uncharted waters in a majority of African countries. There are a number of challenges that need to be overcome for VR to be a reality in Africa. Connectivity is one of the biggest obstacles.”

BlackRhino VR is one of the most professional and resourceful teams I have collaborated with; they have been able to accomplish quite a bit with a pretty small team. In a region where the barriers of entry to the VR space is higher, BlackRhino VR has been able to identify ways to overcome the challenges. They continue to tap creative ways to build their company; whether that involves pulling glamour headshots off the internet, building equipment from scratch due to lack of supply in Kenya, or teaching themselves the relevant skills through online VR forums.

Today, they describe the VR industry in Kenya as “still in its infancy; however the appetite is steadily increasing.” BlackRhino VR has since landed several clients such as Safaricom, UNICEF, and Nestle. Contrast VR and BlackRhino VR just collaborated on a short docmentary as well, following a young woman who has turned to classical music as a refuge through the community program Ghetto Classics.

Two years after our first encounter, we talked to BlackRhino VR about their work and what’s happening in the VR industry in Africa.

Ghetto Classics, a collaborative piece between Contrast VR and BlackRhino VR.

CONTRAST VR: How would you describe BlackRhino VR?

BLACKRHINO VR: We are a virtual reality production company specializing in creating cinematic immersive experiences for different companies and organizations, while concurrently creating our own content that is adaptable and relevant to the African market.

We are passionate about changing the visual narrative of how stories are told in Africa by equipping the youth to be the next generation of storytellers.

What is the kind of work you do?

Our business focuses primarily on two major aspects: commercial and non-commercial work. The commercial work involves creating branded immersive experiences for different corporate organizations while the non-commercial work is about having a positive impact on society and changing perceptions. We do this through crafting documentaries and news format stories that are immersive, compelling, and engaging.

We aim to tell stories that connect with people.

How did BlackRhino VR come to be?

Back in 2014–2015, we were running a boutique film production company and we always wanted to create video content that was different from the regular linear video format as we know it. So we started praying about it! As luck would have it, we heard about Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus for over 2 billion dollars and this caught our attention.

We started doing research on the reasons why Facebook had such a keen interest in VR technology and voila! There was our answer.

So we embarked on a research and development phase followed by a feasibility study on what VR was and how relevant and applicable it would be for the African market. After that, it was clear that we wanted to start a VR company and that’s how BlackRhino VR was born.

Can you describe the VR industry in Kenya?

The VR Industry in Kenya is still in its infancy; however the appetite is steadily increasing.

Mobile phone penetration in Kenya is one of the highest in Africa and people are slowly learning about VR. We have been on an optimistic crusade sharing the VR gospel and demystifying this technology through the form of workshops, hackathons and networking sessions. The corporate uptake for VR is also steadily increasing with emphasis on creating immersive brand messages which have been targeted towards the millennials cascading over some facets of the economy. We believe that this can be the beginning of the widespread VR adoption into the country.

How would you describe the VR industry in the African continent?

VR is still largely uncharted waters in a majority of African countries. There are a number of challenges that need to be overcome for VR to be a reality in Africa. Connectivity is one of the biggest obstacles. There are countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt that have vibrant VR communities. We have had the privilege of shooting in Congo, Angola and Zimbabwe and it’s still such a joy to see people marvel at this technology. For the African VR ecosystem to grow, a lot of sensitization, partnerships and investments need to be done before VR can become an industry.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The demystification of VR and trying to make companies and Individuals understand the value of VR in the society and how it can be relevant in different facets of the economy. Capacity building and benchmarking is also one of the biggest challenges we have. It would be great to have an opportunity to send some of our staff members to VR companies abroad for internship and mentorship programs that will widen their scope of knowledge as well as their skillset.

What have been your biggest successes?

How we have been able to change the mindset of small and large corporations on how they perceive VR. This has lead to a great corporate uptake of VR as a communication tool. We are extremely happy to have spearheaded this revolution and we are still top of mind in the market when it comes to our VR products and services.

Can you describe the project with Contrast VR?

The Contrast VR team was very professional in articulating the deliverables and supporting us where necessary. Unfortunately the production dates fell at a very tumultuous and uncertain time in our country’s history as we were going through a post-elections crisis that was marked by sporadic violence. The worst of it being in the slums where the Ghetto Classics organization is located. Because majority of the Ghetto classics students are young children it was a huge challenge trying to get everyone who was part of the school as they all feared for their lives.

The shoot was originally scheduled for two days but it took slightly over 4 weeks to finish capturing all the footage we needed.

Needless to say, we got overwhelming support from the Contrast VR team even as we kept postponing the shooting days.

We finally managed to shoot all the days that we had planned and started working on the post-production. We have learned alot from our interaction with the Contrast VR team. Their drive and passion is definitely something that has rubbed off on us. We hope that we will get to work on other future stories with them.

It’s been a joy working with them.