Kenya’s seasoned voice actor on the openly 'hidden' profession

Tuesday September 20 2022
Jennifer Kanari

Jennifer Kanari, a voice over artiste, poses for a photo at the Nation FM Studios on September 8, 2022. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG


The person you’re calling cannot be reached, if you wish to leave a voice message, then please do so after the tone.” Does this message sound familiar? That is the automatic answering message used by Safaricom on its mobile phone network service.

The EastAfrican recently went behind the scenes to interact with the woman who in 2009 brought that message to life.

Jennifer Eniye Kanari voiced that automated standard voiced message. It is one of many such interactive voice responses (IVRs) on the automated phone system feature that the teleco giant has deployed to interact with callers via its automated menu service for the different products.

Today if you call Kenya Power the voice on the other end of the line will say: “Welcome to the Kenya Power Stima Plaza.” That too is Kanari's voice.

Yet, the two voices are incomparable. In fact, one would be forgiven to assume they belong to two different people. But she has a seemingly simple explanation: “Each embodies different characteristics.”

Kanari is an international voice actor and voice and communications coach, based in Kenya.

Jennifer Kanari

Jennifer Kanari at the Nation FM Studios on September 8, 2022. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Annual convention

I met her this September, in a week that African Voice Actors were having their annual convention, and justifiably so, virtual. After all, everyone has a lovely voice.

“I am in the field of voice acting and in this area of work it helps to get into character for every role, and to the client's specifications to do it well,” she explains. In all these roles she adjusts her speaking tempo to match the required voice. “I can speak like a child if that’s what the role requires,” she says as she switches to a child-like voice, “you must immerse yourself into the context and convey the intended message convincingly.”

“By and large, you’re taking someone else’s words and speaking them as your own. You must make the words come alive. It goes beyond just reading,” she goes on, as she explains too, that the message has to be conveyed correctly in every aspect to represent the brand image of a company or product.

Soft-spoken, poised and grippingly eloquent even in person, Kanari tells The EastAfrican that a voice can be conjured to take on whatever construct the situation or job requires.

Still, she seems perfectly made to convince anyone about, well, just about anything. It is an art she has honed over the past 20 years.

“There’s a skill required in understanding the client, the product and the value they’re trying to showcase to their audience or the public, so that you can speak as their representative and sound convincing. Voice actors have to take the script, understand it by reading it enough times, asking questions or doing some research if required, in order to make it very natural on screen or audio. You must be convinced about it yourself to be able to convince other people,” added Ms Kanari.

“Emotion, voice modulation, tone and personality make for good voice overs. When your voice captures the characteristics and purpose of a script, then you seamlessly elicit the sought emotion from the audience.”

She says, “It’s important to understand what your client wants. They communicate this through a ‘brief’ or ‘Job description’ and ‘Art direction’, describing their product, their target audience, and the tone or mood of voice they are looking for. With this, you can assume the corresponding disposition required for the role,” she explains, “So, in the actual sense you’re an actor. We are more aptly referred to as ‘Voice Actors’ or ‘voice over actors’ or ‘voice talent’.”

Indeed, her exploits transcend work with corporate organisations. During her many years of professional practice, she has taken up a whole range of jobs in the sector from the Interactive Voice Responses to voice recordings for On-Hold messages, Award Presentations, e-Learning or training projects, Info-mercials, travelogues, documentaries, Podcast intros, Audiobooks and Video Game and animated Board Game characters.

Voice Health

To sound her best at all times, she says one has to be very purposeful with ensuring optimum vocal health. “Your voice is an extension of your whole being. So, taking care of yourself, and maintaining your health is important. You don’t want a cold to lose you work opportunities. Drinking enough water is important. A dry or sticky mouth can affect your performance. Fatigue and stress are audible in your voice and stress makes you irritable and difficult to direct. You enjoy your work less, and you and your voice tire easily.”

Even though she does admit that the Kenyan and East African voice talent industry is still very much a fledgling one, describing it as “young, small and not yet well understood”, she is quick to add, “the wider community is gradually getting to know about the sector and of the support offered by the Voice Actors League of Kenya (VALK) which has slightly under 200 official members even though we may be double this number given that not everybody we interact with is officially registered with the League.”

She says due to the lack of professional structures, theirs had been a sector reeling in economic exploitation. In 2012, Kanari together with a few others set up the Kenya Casting Agents, Models and Talent Welfare Association (KECAMTWA), to (together with VALK) advance the welfare of the Voice Art talent as a profession in the region. The society also acts like a hub for peer-to-peer learning.

“We were so frustrated. There was no rate card. The amount of money we were being paid vis-a-vis what other suppliers were getting was very little. Then, we were often paid when our contractors felt like it. Being such an integral part of a commercial we were being viewed as not. The industry was very inconsiderate to the key role of the voice talent in their productions,” she recalls.

“However, we were becoming more and more aware of what the international rates are because once in a while an international advertising agency would come to Kenya, and the pay amounts were like black and white,” said Kanari, “and that is when we thought about creating a structure by first getting a rate card. And as we started that conversation we found that there was a group that had already come up with a rate card in 2005. But had hit a brick wall and had gotten a huge pushback from the advertising community agencies.”

“We were beginning to lose a lot of work to South Africa where they had rate cards and working systems. Kenya was becoming very expensive but very cheap in the talent and this destabilised the sector where we were losing work from international contractors and creating such poor quality ads because we weren’t hiring good talent. It was frustrating for more experienced talent to do the work for so little.”

“We’ve since put in place systems to advocate for the welfare of artists in this industry, educating members so that they are less likely to be exploited.”

Regionally, too, Africa’s Voice Over actors are getting organised. Last year, Voice Over artistes in Nigeria organised the first annual VOAfrica Voice Over Conference bringing together hundreds of talents on the continent. This month VOAfrica 2022 (September 9-11) hosted the second such meeting.

“At last year’s VOAfrica 2021 Voice Over conference we realised that we’ve facing the same issues on the ground across the continent.”

“The VOAfrica 2022 Voice Over conference has provided a platform where we can start talking about the issues that plague the industry as a continent and equip one another in as far as putting up those professional structures is concerned. For instance, where East Africa has managed to create a community, others can follow our lead,” Kanari.

This year’s conference theme was Thrive. The conference is meant for both beginners and professional Voice Over talents. This is Africa’s largest Voice Over conference, creating a platform where voice talents in Africa can learn, network and grow their voice over business. This year there were over 20 Voice Over workshops, panels and live script work out sessions. Participants learned from some of the finest VO coaches, casting directors, actors and producers on the continent.

“It’s an opportunity to learn the business of Voice Over and how to grow your portfolio. You won’t just stop at improving how you use your voice but also how to sell and position yourself to thrive." Kanari was one of the organisers of this year’s event.

Of note is that as Swahili gains eminence on the continent, the VOAfrica 2022 Voice Over Conference also made it a point this year to talk about the role of Swahili in Voice Over. Wakio Mzenge and Musa Mwaruma, two prominent Kenyan voice over artists, and members of VALK, were on the panel to speak about the role of Swahili.

Variety of work

“There’s more work coming our way including from the e-learning platforms, international NGOs are increasingly coming to Africa in search of African voice talents to do productions for both their international and African audiences. “Internationally,” she says, “organisations and businesses are looking for the natural African accent(s) to elicit the element of authenticity to their productions about their work in Africa.”

Getting talent organised

“This is a great time to be getting into Voice Over acting but you need to learn how to position yourself,” she notes, as she scrolls her phone to reveal some of the international websites specific to voice talent jobs — some specific to African talent, “It is important for African voice actors to understand the online arena, and there’s a whole array of Voice Over acting sites and placements including for explainer voice-overs, looking for talent. The opportunities there are increasing for African Voice Talent.”

“The fact that Africa is opening up for technology, agriculture, means more people want to advertise here, and who do they need African talent so the industry is blossoming,” she stressed, taking note too of how big the dubbing industry for translation of foreign movies has become on the continent.

“We have local media houses that have impacted the space for tribal content. It behooves the voice actors to double down on that line. There are a lot of opportunities and it’s up to us as talent to put in place structures, because it makes a difference when a voice actor does it as opposed to just a random person doing it,” interjected Andrew Balongo Opere, a colleague of Kanari’s, and a co-administrator at VALK.

Movie trailers

“We are even angling for movie trailer voice overs too as Western movies incorporate more African themes,” added Kanari, saying, “At heart, I look forward to the development of more quality productions, scripted, acted and voiced in Africa, by Africans, for both African and international consumption. More African literature and history made into audiobooks, voiced by us. And content that shows the distinctly African identity of honour, bravery, family values and a moral code. We have an opportunity to leave an African trail for our future generations to look up to and follow.”

Platforming other talent

She says taking cognizance of these developments, away from her individual work engagements, she and other accomplished professionals in the field, are keen to help those interested in joining the field develop their craft and prosper as career Voice Over talents not just in Kenya but in the larger East African region.

“We want to grow the sector and open it up to more talent,” says Kanari who often undertakes voice-over casting work, and even trains children. “I train children when there’s a demand for it. In my early days as a casting agent, my focus was on children. The challenge with working with children is the heavily academic nature of our mainstream learning institutions which leaves less and less room, and time, for nurturing their creativity.”

“Personalities or celebrities too— since they are often used in advertisements — can benefit from the training we offer, to hone their skills. In Nigeria they already have voiceover acting academies.”

She is concerned about a popular misconception that just because one has a glorious voice then they’ll make for a successful Voice Over artist, just as much as she is about a growing problem of mispronunciation of words in the region. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing with the voice, apply it to the requisitioned assignment. You’ve got to have clear audible diction of words. Pronunciation must be perfect. And you’ve got to be articulate. If you slur your words, then people can’t make out what you are saying. You must be coherent. Your presentation must be interpretatively interesting to the intended audience.”

“One of the problems with Kenyan English is the mispronunciation of words. Our English teachers are teaching us wrong English. This has become a generational issue. And I’m knocking on doors of news stations to give us an opportunity to coach their presenters because the English they speak is consumed nationally, if they’re speaking the wrong English then it is being imbibed and passed down generations."

You can get in touch with Jennifer Kanari through [email protected]