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When in January this year, Ramadhani Oluoch (popularly known as Ramzzy or Rama) – a digital strategist, vlogger and influencer – served a cease legal notice to his ex-wife Shiku Nguru’s current lover and media personality Mike Mondo, asking him to stop sharing photos of his children on social media, their public online feud prompted an examination of the ‘sharenting’ phenomenon in Kenya.

Shiko Nguru was allowing her current partner to share pictures of himself and the children. 

Sharenting (a term derived from the words ‘sharing’ and ‘parenting’) – the phenomenon of parents sharing news, photos, videos and other information about their children online – is not new in Kenya. It made its appearance in 2003 with the first legion of Kenyan bloggers.

However, there was an explosion of influencers between 2019 and 2023, with one of the fastest-rising ones being child influencers and influencer parents featuring children in their accounts. Driven by Kenyans’ appetite for reality TV, their popularity has led to brand endorsements, advertising campaigns and influencer marketing engagements.

Kenyans on X – where Ramzzy became the trending topic for a day – expressed their concerns regarding the well-being of the couple’s three children whom they felt had become caught up in the fallout. The feud also shed light on a dark corner of Kenya’s social media and influencer marketing – the violation of children’s privacy by their parents.

From sharenting on blogs to YouTube

In 2019, Ramzzy and Shiku – one of Kenya’s pioneer YouTubers – live-streamed the birth of their third child on YouTube. That video of their unassisted birthing experience was viewed by millions, catapulting the couple to vlogging stardom. It also obliterated the boundaries of sharenting.

Before the couple’s viral birth video, sharenting had not dared to take the leap from what was then referred to as mummy blogging. Their YouTube channel, The Green Calabash, heralded a new sharenting age, transforming the young couple into the mavericks of a fledgling influencer marketing industry just as the Kenyan blogosphere was entering its sunset years. 

Many of the posts that appeared on The Green Calabash, as well as the blog posts and some of the current Instagram posts from the couple’s individual accounts were sponsored by brands.

Then, just like that, three years after that viral video, the couple shut down the channel that had amassed more than 14 million views, pulling down all the videos they had shared of their parenting and homeschooling journey with their three children. They also closed the eponymous blog. Soon afterwards, the couple announced that they had separated.

While speaking during a media interview, Oluoch explained that he wanted his children to grow up without having had their right to privacy infringed. 

Influencer marketing – a billion-dollar industry

Modern influencer marketing on social media started around 2005 with the launch of YouTube. Driven by the demand for alternative content, the expansion of technology, and innovation by content creators, social media usage in Kenya has been on a meteoric rise.

According to Data Reportal’s Digital 2023 report on Kenya, there were 10.55 million social media users in January 2023, representing 19.3 per cent of the total population of 54.56 million. WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok were the most used social media platforms in that order.

Currently valued at US$13.9 billion, the market share of global influencer marketing (based on average advertising spend on influencers across Facebook, Instagram and YouTube) has more than doubled since 2019 according to Statista. The industry is set to grow to approximately US$24 billion by the end of 2024.

As Africa’s digital influence continues to accelerate, Kenya’s social media usage – which ranks fourth in the continent – has been a catalyst. Driven by a demand for more authentic brand endorsements and organic engagement in the last five years, influencer advertising and digital content creation have become a multimillion-shilling industry. 

In 2021, Wowzi – a Kenyan-founded marketplace for influencer marketing – raised US$3.2 million in seed funding. With the ad spending in the global Influencer advertising market projected to reach US$2.1 million in 2024, Wowzi – which currently has a physical presence in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – now plans to expand the reach of its platform and set up operations in Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa.

According to insights published by OdipoDev, a data analysis and visualisation company, there were 22,000 mentions about influencers in Kenya in 2018. OdipoDev also noted that ‘while influencers have become synonymous with Instagram and Twitter, Facebook is where the majority of audiences actively report following influencers’.

The rise of sharenting, reality shows and child influencers

Ramzzy and Shiko are hardly the only Kenyan couple who have used their children in influencer campaigns. However, what their 2019 live birth viral video did was spur a whole subgenre of ‘sharenting live’ – Kenyan influencer couples live-streaming the birth of their children – and the rise of YouTube live reality shows about a child’s every milestone. Rev. James Mbugua, a psychologist based at Africa Nazarene University, is of the view that they are aping the West where what is portrayed as reality is actually “often stage-managed and some situations and scenes hyped up for marketing purposes”.

Although some of the influencer couples appear to have “gone overboard”, others have taken a strategic approach and are using influencer marketing to complement their children’s budding careers.

Lamar Munene became a vlogger at just seven years old. For Lamar, influencing was a natural progression from his career as an award-winning child actor and model. The 12-year-old has lived his life in front of the camera since he began modelling at the age of three years.

Lamar’s mother, Aisha Wanjiku – a radio show and TV host – started his Instagram account in 2015, just as he began modelling and doing TV commercials. “It was just something that I started going through and realising that it was a lot of fun,” Lamar told me (His mother allowed him to speak to me on the phone during my interview with her.)

It was, however, not until 2019 when he was seven that he began creating his own content for the Alteya & Lamar Channel, which he ran together with fellow model and friend Alteya. Their first video, which was shot by Alteya’s father, was a review of the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. He soon created his own separate channel – Lamar Munene Channel – and began posting his videos. Although it amassed a paltry 1.7K views, the channel became Lamar’s launch pad into the world of the child influencer. 

Nowadays, Lamar posts more on Instagram than on his YouTube channel. To his 17K Instagram followers, Lamar shares carefully curated aspects of his life as an actor and model as well as the digital influencer campaigns he gets engaged for.

Many of the sponsored posts on Lamar’s Instagram feed are campaigns for family brands such as Downy, Ting Ting Bubblegum or Ilara, as well as retailers such as City Walk, The Hub Karen and eateries. Aisha tells me that she chose to work with the brands as they align with her son’s interests and their family values. Aisha grew up in a devout Muslim family in Mombasa and her beliefs also play a part in the choice of brands that she and her son choose to work with. 

“So last year, he did a Ramadhan series for the Egyptian market, and we got to travel to Lebanon,” Aisha says of Lamar’s most recent influencer engagement with an Egyptian apparel brand. This year, that brand opened a retail shop in Nairobi and once again, they got to work together on another campaign. Aisha has had such “coincidences” occur before, where a brand came initially for social media influencing but then also ended up engaging Lamar for TV and outdoor advertising.     

For many of the influencer campaigns, the brands – mostly household brands – will often engage them both. Even so, Aisha has learnt not to dictate which brands Lamar works with and instead, to discuss each potential engagement with him beforehand.

“Even though I’m an actor, I can’t fake a smile,” Lamar adds to clarify why discussing each potential engagement is important to him and how he will “sell it”.     

Aisha created Lamar’s profiles to give her son a head-start until the time comes when he will be able to manage his social accounts himself. Since then, Lamar has become a famous brand beyond social media and outside Kenya. Yet, not many children, or even adults, have the same level of self-awareness or share his outlook about social media – as merely a tool. 

“At first I felt a lot of joy,” he told me, “But I remembered that it all came from God, so you always have to be humble. At the end of the day, I am still a human being.”

Not all child influencers are fortunate enough to have a mother like Aisha who understands “the rules of the game and how the game is played” while still keeping their children grounded. “It has taken a lot of guidance,” she tells me. “Parenting is difficult so I am grateful for the divine guidance.”

Aisha does all the content creation and all the posting on Lamar’s Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. “His accounts are his brand,” Aisha tells me. She finds herself reminding her son of this fact constantly in order to keep him safe online.

Lamar co-manages his page with his mum and they moderate the comments together. “I show him the comments and he replies. Sometimes we also do the captions and the music together.”

There are some personal things that she keeps away from the public. Aisha feels that it is wrong for parents to share very intimate details about their children’s lives. “We don’t share everything with the world. There are still certain aspects of our culture and religion that we still hold dear.”

Aisha believes strongly in sharing her own experiences with Lamar as a way of safeguarding his mental health and his safety online. “Lamar and I have very personal discussions,” Aisha tells me. Drawing from her experience as a TV presenter, she finds it easy to have conversations with him, particularly regarding the media industry which has various parallels with the film industry. Aisha was only 19 years old and still in college when she discovered she was pregnant with Lamar. She did not drop out. Instead, she fought to continue her studies in multimedia journalism – a story she has often shared to encourage women not to give up on their dreams. Aisha often uses her own life lessons during her conversations with Lamar.

When it comes to the business aspects of being an influencer Aisha is an old hand. She doesn’t use a standard rate card for all their digital gigs as the clients’ needs vary. She can charge anywhere between KSh150,000 and KSh200,000 per campaign. She also does not keep money matters away from Lamar. “He knows about his money,” Aisha tells me. For them, the money conversation usually commences once a brand expresses interest in engaging them.

Lamar also has his own bank account. And despite his earnings, Aisha tells me that as a parent, she has never been tempted to use his money, even when it comes to his school fees. “His education is still my responsibility,” she says.

Aisha is an outlier in the world of sharenting, particularly in the Western world where the phenomenon is undergoing its watershed moment, with many parents in this unregulated world being accused of child labour as news reports emerge that children are, for the most part, not entitled to a single cent of what they earn.

Legal concerns 

Social media has become fertile ground for marketers looking to push their brands – foods and other household goods, toys, kitchen appliances, family-friendly hotels and travel… And who better to promote them than families or children that have their own dedicated following?

But not everyone is taken in by cute photos of toddlers on social media. Legal and digital security pundits are concerned about what this new craze portends.

‘You as the parent are opening the door and allowing, not just friends and family, but you’re allowing the whole world to enter your home and have access to your child,’ Jentrix Wanyama, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, tells me. 

Ms Wanyama has worked in intellectual property and tech policy research, and is a writer and researcher active in the Kenyan tech space. She observed that the social media boom has brought with it unique challenges that were not there before, particularly concerning the legal aspects. ‘We don’t have specific laws touching on digital rights,’ Ms Wanyama says. 

“It has been difficult for the law to keep pace with a piece of invention and technological advancement. Thus, the laws that we have in real life, we extrapolate these across the board to also apply to digital spaces,” she says. “Some of these laws include the right to privacy as guaranteed in the current Kenyan Constitution, the Data Protection Act, and for children, the Children’s Act.”

Ms Wanyama’s greatest concern is privacy. “Because children cannot give consent, we’re seeing that now parental guidance is coming into play,” she tells me, adding that according to the law, the general principle has been that a child’s right to privacy is subject to the parental guidance of the child. However, Ms Wanyama notes that there may be instances where the presiding magistrate or judge may make a ruling based on the best interests of the child in a particular case. She gives the example of a case in which one parent wants to share photos of their child online while the other parent is opposed to the idea.

Such cases have been reported in the Kenyan media, including the case of Ramadhani and Mike Mondo and that of media personalities Dennis Okari and his ex-wife Betty Kyalo. Wanyama notes that, while these two cases did not proceed to a full court hearing, had they done so, they would have come before a child magistrate whose ruling would have most likely been based on the principle of the best interests of the child as provided for in Article 53 of the Constitution.

France and the state of Illinois in the United States have developed specific legislation regarding the commercial exploitation of child stars and child influencers. In 2023, France passed a stern law protecting child influencers on social media that gave judges the right to ban influencers from posting their child’s image altogether. In 2020, the state of Illinois passed a law – the first of its kind in the US – requiring adults who use “the likeness, name or photograph” of a minor in paid online content to set aside a portion of the earnings in a trust. Italian laws are also poised to clamp down on sharents. Similarly, Washington state is also taking steps to regulate the child influencer industry.

Regarding Kenya, Ms Wanyama notes that while sharenting in the country has become a commercial endeavour like in the US and Europe, the country’s laws are still far behind. “History has shown us that sometimes parents are not the best guardians of the money that their children earn,” Ms Wanyama says. “These are regulations that we do not have here.”

When it comes to the terms of contractual agreements, Ms Wanyama warns parents who do not read the fine print in the contracts, particularly concerning the question of how long brands may own and use the images of their children. “Sometimes you will have a company/brand own the material that was shot during the campaign in perpetuity and yet the child is not yet five years old. That is a permanent digital footprint of your child that they will not have a say in how it’s used,” she observes.

Besides the question of ensuring adequate remuneration, Ms Wanyama also cautions against other forms of exploitation. “What is the child expected to do?” She asks. “We have seen instances where a child is being told: “Pretend you are X and you are doing Y.’ Some of the things that they may be told to do might lead to exploitation, not just financially but even mentally.”                

In her studies on children’s rights and the Internet, Ms Wanyama has found that in Kenya, the privacy of children in the brick-and-mortar world and on online platforms is receiving increasing attention from the courts. “The right to privacy of children is the subject of parental guidance of the child; that is the general principle,” Ms Wanyama notes, explaining that while parents can share images of their children, according to existing laws, other people require written consent from the parents before sharing images of the children online.

The cases that Ms Wanyama speaks of are documented in Honey I Blogged the Kids, a blog she published in 2020. The article, which addresses the ‘sharenting’ phenomenon and the rising cases of the Kenyan blogging community violating the privacy of children in their reporting, looked into those aspects of Kenyan law applicable to publishing content about children online, in particular consent, privacy, personality rights and the best interest principle.

Beyond the violation of privacy 

But beyond the violation of the privacy of children, the case of Oluoch and Nguru has raised other pertinent concerns: child online safety (when children’s photos from Instagram end up on the illegal darknet), psychological impact, informed consent, what the data is being used for by the social media companies, identity theft, fraud, facial recognition systems, and tracking.

UNICEF estimates that there are more than four million websites worldwide featuring minors, some below the age of two. Images of sexually exploited children are not only growing in number, there has also been a surge in the number of incidents of children aged between seven and ten years being manipulated into recording abuse of themselves according to a 2022 global report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). In 2019, the number of affected minors stood at between 10,000 and 100,000 according to UN estimates.

A recent exposé by the New York Times revealed “disturbing insights into how social media is reshaping childhood, especially for girls, with direct parental encouragement and involvement”.

The report further revealed that “some parents are the driving force behind the sale of photos, exclusive chat sessions and even the girls’ worn leotards and cheer outfits to mostly unknown followers. The most devoted customers spend thousands of dollars nurturing the underage relationships”.

Kenya is having its sharenting watershed moment as the lucrative world of child and family influencers continues to grow in a largely unregulated space. But while Kenyan influencer parents may appear to be well beyond the point where they can claim to be unaware of the possible effects their choices have on their children, many have yet to reach that point of reckoning.