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‘Bridging gaps between people on different sides of the world’: Meet Makmende Media


Story by:

David Wouters

Interview by:

May 13, 2022

It has been a month ago since I started out my adventure as community manager at A Lab. With COVID-19 amongst our midst, the community at A Lab is spread. Some A Labbers are working from home, others are slowly but surely returning to their labs. In these times, it certainly is a challenge to start out as a community manager without really being able to meet most of the community.

However even from a distance I can feel how vibrant and close the community at A Lab is. It’s like I’ve entered a family. Together, our members are on their own and sometimes even on shared journeys in creating and making a social impact. They all have stories to tell and I believe that in these times, stories is what connects people. Stories elicit emotions that allow us to understand and empathize with others, they provide us with the tool to form opinions, to challenge our perceptions and ultimately to learn from each other. I believe this is what brings people together at A Lab, it’s a creative hub for those that are trying to make a difference.

One of those stories is that of our new member, a storytelling agency named Makmende Media. ‘Makmende’ is Swahili for ‘doing what is impossible’ – which is exactly what Ivan and the team are doing. Even in times of lockdowns, quarantines and social isolation Makmende creates stories and acquires content coming from all over the world. I meet up in the virtual with Makmende's managing director, graduated filmmaker from the Film academy, former journalist and always-storyteller: Ivan Mikulić. We talk about A Lab, stories and about bridging gaps on an intercultural scale. Curious? Read our conversation below.

Ivan M.CEO & Agency Lead at MAKMENDE Media

Hi Ivan, could you tell me a little bit more about MAKMENDE Media?

Together with a team of 7 creatives, a producer and an editor we run a concept and storytelling agency in A Lab aimed at amplifying social impact. We work mostly project-based with both NGO’s (Non-governmental organizations) and the soft side of brands like H&M foundation, Cartier Foundation and (Run by Facebook). Usually they are strong brands that are making a social or environmental impact around the globe. We do research and integrate storytelling concepts into their communication strategy to create meaningful campaigns. We produce 40 campaigns each year and to pull this off as a small team we’re collaborating with our global network of local filmmakers, producers, photographers and researchers throughout Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. Why fly in crews, when there's talent everywhere.

An example is our most recent campaign with IKEA Foundation and AgriProficus, a Dutch NGO. The campaign focuses on promoting jobs in agriculture to youth in East Africa. For this campaign we work with influencers in Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Tanzania to promote the importance of agriculture in the region.

How did MAKMENDE acquire all of that local expertise?

Back in 2006 we started out as a journalistic network of over 2000 journalists publishing articles from the African continent. Unfortunately this was not a good business model. As a last resort the previous CEO bought 100 blackberries with our last money. The phones were handed out to journalists in countries like Kenya, Ghana and Uganda and they were asked to visit partner NGO’s to film their projects. We then sold these simple videos as visual reports. At this time, the company went from journalism to visual storytelling and that was what saved us. In a heartbeat you could get visual content from the ‘Lutjebroek’ of Ghana.

So how did you end up at MAKMENDE Media?

After graduating from the film academy, I ended up working on really cool projects in advertising. But after three years it made me question what I was doing, I wanted to create campaigns that made an impact, not just sell bullshit to people.

That’s how I ended up at this company. What really appealed to me was how we use our local network to create stories about things that matter. Later the team and I revamped the company to what it is today. We focus on campaigns for organizations, small NGO’s to brands that are starting to act responsibly. Our strength as an agency still is this network of filmmakers in developing countries across the globe that help us to create meaningful and authentic content. They know the trends, what’s relevant, who the local influencers are and have a different view than we as Western people have of their culture.  

Have you always been inspired by stories, ever since you were a little kid?

Definitely. I grew up in times of communism in ex-Yugoslavia. I had a Disney book you couldn’t get anywhere and a pile of books about Greek myths and tales. I would read them hundreds of times and it would totally consume me.  

Could you tell me more about why you chose for A Lab?

We are a small team of 8 people and by only spending time together in one office we sometimes feel isolated from the rest of the world. In many office spaces there’s a lack of connection with others. I missed the crossover and the excitement of meeting new people. I came here because A Lab is an eco-system. It allows you to meet others, to connect, to work together, to have inspiring talks and to create together.

In what way do you think A Lab and MAKMENDE are similar?

What we do as a company is connecting people. We create the right matches between projects, brands and storytellers. A Lab is the same in that way. You’re connecting people with each other. It’s amazing how that works. In the beginning Lucas already came to me and started connecting me to some people in the building.  

What’s the most beautiful project you’ve worked on?

One that sticks with me is our recently finished project for Cartier. Its foundation hands out annual awards to women in over 7 regions in the world owning a social business that gives back to communities. Out of the nominees, Cartier picks a couple of winners who then receive a large sum of money and coaching to go scale-up. Without ever leaving our office, MAKMENDE created portrets of those women with local crews in 21 countries. The campaign is to be seen on all socials right now. This project speaks to me personally as it combines two things I’m very passionate about: business and making a positive impact.

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And what do you feel is the most difficult part about your job?

As a journalist I was often disappointed about the writing style and perspectives people in Western cultures maintain towards developing countries. We the rich, they the poor. We the rich, they the needy. I’ve had a really difficult time with that. The whole MAKMENDE team thinks that stereotypes can be very harmful and this is what we try to change. As a result, we want to bridge the gap between people on different sides of the world by bringing their realities closer to home.

Is this something you try to accomplish with MAKMENDE? Bridging gaps?

Surely you can’t make stories look more beautiful than they are, but when we produce them, we want to showcase those that are meaningful and show a deeper human connection. For example, we worked on a gender equality campaign for Care Foundation. The objective of the campaign was to appeal to Dutch women in their thirties at the start of their career. The campaign was supposed to show women across cultures in their thirties owning a business. The women that were initially casted by the client were very stereotypical small-scale farmers with a couple of vegetable plants in their backyard. How were they supposed to get the message across and appeal to women here? So we requested the client to have another try and together with our local network of researchers we looked for modern farmers, the ones whose stories would resonate with successful young women here. After some time we found real stories of women in developing countries but this time, they were stories that broke the stereotypes we have about entrepreneurs in developing countries. Women who against all odds became extremely successful, like 'farmer Sandra' who never went to school, but who now is the leader of a female cooperative of 400 farmers. Together we created a campaign called “Unlikely Entrepreneur”. The campaign revolved around our own ideas of stereotypes and became a huge success.

MAKMENDE is all about challenging people to change their perception. In what way have you personally been challenged in your perceptions ever since you started out your adventure at the company?

It challenged my vision as a maker. At the Film Academy you learn that filmmaking is about control. You have to do elaborative thinking on all the aspects you can control to make the project succeed. At MAKMENDE, it’s not possible to control people on the other side of the world. We can only work by letting go of that control. This means the best I can do is provide some examples that I think match a certain scenario. I’m not present when our local producers are creating and I need to put all my trust in them. In the beginning I thought this was really difficult. I did not trust they could pull it off without me or someone of the team and I had to let go of the thought that we should be there to make the film. Once I learned to let go and accept that we are making something together, I realized that’s actually where the magic happens.

It taught you to let go of control. I think that’s a really beautiful thing. With your agency you’re all about making a social impact. If there was one project you were allowed to work on, a problem or a social challenge you’d like to tackle, what would it be?

We use our talent to amplify our clients’ work, we can make it resonate. However, it’s still a commissioned campaign. I’d like to show the world a bit more of ourselves as the MAKMENDE team. We have talented and creative people in our team with a unique voice. That’s why we’re at this point where we are ready to step out into the world and start telling our own stories. The idea is to start a new journalistic website for consumers about positive impact focussing on gender equality, entrepreneurial realities, global health and climate change.

According to you, what should we give more attention to in life?

It’s my goal to inspire and connect people with positive and uplifting stories from developing countries and to show that we are all connected somehow. I think we should connect more with each other.  

You’ve travelled a lot when working as a journalist. Which trips have inspired you?

I was working for a television show about development aid. I’d fly to Nairobi and shoot a couple of stories in rural Kenya. The stories were often quite cliché: poor kids, people playing the drum, malnutrition, etc. Once the filming was done I returned to Nairobi with the local producers and dive into the city’s nightlife. I saw people who were better dressed than people in Amsterdam, hipper clubs and DJs than I’ve ever seen before. I wondered how such a contrast was possible. Immediately I realized that by producing these stories for television, I was maintaining the image people all over the world have about the African continent. It’s an image that is not complete or in some case not even true. These trips made me realize it’s our job to create more positive, humane and balanced stories. We have to look beyond what we know.

MAKMENDE means: doing the impossible. Within your job, what feels like doing the impossible?

To be an agency in times of COVID-19 with so many clients freaking out and canceling assignments.

In what way do you experience that?

The truth is, many of the projects we’re currently working on are on hold or even canceled. Fortunately, we do still have some assignments in the concept and research phase and post-production can still continue.

We really had to redefine our way of working to attract new assignments. One of the way we did that is to work with more User Generated Content. All the local filmmakers we are working with around the world are now stuck at home without work, contacting us if we have assignments for them. We came up with the idea to ask them to reach out to everyone they know who has a mobile phone and start recording for us. This way we could gather video footage around the world though WhatsApp. Our clients are very interested in this way of working as we were one of the are able to gather stories this way during lockdown.

What are your hopes for the future with MAKMENDE?

We would like to organize a film festival revolving around social impact. That’s something we are working on. Perhaps there is someone in the building who would like to organize it together with us? Here in A Lab!

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