Maria Sarungi Tsehai, Founder & Director of Production, Compass Communication Company Ltd.

Words of Wisdom: Don’t fall into the trap of stereotypes. We shouldn’t believe that in order for women to be successful she must have kids; she must be married; she needs to do certain things, or cannot do certain things. We need to define ourselves who we are as women. We will become whom we want as women. We don’t need to be told by anyone such as husbands, parents, or colleagues.” – Maria Sarungi Tsehai

Interview with Maria Sarungi Tsehai, Founder & Director of Product of Compass Communications Co. Ltd.

Maria Sarungi Tsehai, Founder & Director of Product of Compass Communications Co. Ltd.

Promotional 5 min YouTube video of Maria’s interview:

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Compass Communications Co. Ltd is an independent production company registered and operating in Tanzania since early 2000. It is best known to the Tanzanian public for its market leading weekly TV programs Art ‘n Style, Facets and Chombo Na Mwendo . Compass Communications is also the license holder and organizer of the Miss Universe Tanzania beauty pageant; it achieved exceptional results in 2007.

Compass Communications’ is the only recipients in East Africa of the prestigious Commonwealth Vision Awards (UK) highly commended award for excellence in TV production; as well as being awarded the UNICEF award at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) 2007 with our educational film “Elfu Huanza Moja” for the “Say No to Abuse” campaign. Amongst other awards. Founding Member and currently Chairperson of the Tanzania Independent Producers (TAIPA).

Maria Sarungi Tsehai, Founder & Director of Production, Compass Communication Company Ltd.

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

You started a production company in 2000, and you are one of few women to start a production company. What was the catalyst for starting a production company?

Not getting employed. When I went for a job at the TV stations, I received very disturbing answers. Sometimes they would say I am under qualified, sometimes they would say I am over qualified. I was told that I want to do BBC type programs for a local audience, and that really frustrated me. I had just come back from working in Europe and receiving mentorship in the US. I came back with a lot of expectations and I felt my dreams where being dashed.

The person that told me you can do better on your own, was my husband. He told me to become independent, why do you need to be employed? He gave me the kind of support I needed. He is an economist by profession. He gave me the structure. He said if you want to run your own business this is how you do it. That is how Compass Communications started.

There is a good message there, have an adviser who knows how to build a business.

Can you give us insight how he guided you as an adviser?

That is really important. He brought in the formal structure. I brought in the passion and the production knowledge. As the Managing director he said, in order for a business to run you are going to need:

  1. Auditing
  2. Finances in place etc

He trained me and said although production is your passion you need to know how the company is run. I would say he was also my mentor from this point view. He also makes sure that management of the company stayed separately from the production. He does the Management for now, but slowly I am becoming more involved in that side of the business, starting with finances, and moving into Human Resources.

I think that what we are doing is very valuable, because we are one of the few companies that has survived such a long time.

You have a wide diversity of programs that you produce, from Miss Universe Tanzania, to Say No to Abuse, How do you decide what you are gong to produce?

  1. It is driven by demand. It is not necessary the audience. The way production is done in Tanzania it is actually driven by the client. That client can be an NGO or a corporate sponsor.
  2. Unfortunately, we have devised programs in the past which lasted 6 or 7 years. Although the audience loved it, there were not enough sponsors. Another program that was hard hitting documentary, it was dealing with a lot social and economic issues, but again we could not get sponsorship. Corporate sponsors are very weary of supporting something that may be sensitive from a political point of view.
  3. Sometimes we are fortunate, we are able to communicate our initiative and someone supports it. That is where Say no to Abuse came from. It is a series deal with abuse to children. We met an activist who was very passionate about this subject. She came with the concept of child abuse, and I gave her the vision. The good thing is Sister G gave us the freedom and came up with the finances. She supported us all the way and ensured we were financial point view so we can focus on the vision. Sometimes we get those lucky breaks.

You are focused, on the audience, but more importantly it needs to have a sponsor.
Although not your area of expertise, do you have any insight into how to gains sponsorship in order to support your passion?

  • I am not very comfortable with it and it is always difficult to raise money. There is a lot of personal contact you need to do to raise money.
  • I think what sales a client is my passion.
    • You need to walk into a client and know what you are selling
    • Who are you selling to
    • What is your marketing strategy
    • I always do background work as this provides me with the confidence when dealing with perspective sponsors.
    • I package a tailor made program based on their objectives and an angle that is interested to them.
  • Firstly it is important to know your client. If you can’t get everything from the website, have a casual talk with someone senior from the organization to learn more about their strategies and where they are heading.
    • It comes easier to target a program that they may be interested in.
  • It is always important to package the program so it suits the need of the sponsor as well.

So few people really understand the client and deliver what is important to them. So many understand the concept, so few do anything about it. What is you are saying is very important when it comes to getting buy-in.

Creativity plays an important role in productions. How do you brainstorm with yourself or team to come up with creative ways to implement new product?

I think at the beginning I was the sole source of the ideas, but you realize that it is a huge burden and also often what you have in your head is not necessarily something someone will understand. As a team we need work cohesively. Usually I will put my idea out to the team, and then there will be a different type of input.

For example: production has a lot of technical elements to it. Sometimes I will put out an idea that needs one shot, but that shot has a lot of technical preparation that must happen.

It is very important that you effectively communicate with the production crew, or you might be ready with actors and on the set and everyone is ready, but technically you are not ready. You can waste a lot of time on the production.

In production, creativity also has to be fluid. You can’t say, this is the shot I want, you need to learn with the situation. You don’t work with the same sophisticated equipment like you may have in the West. You have to recreate a lot of scenes. If you can’t recreate, then it is better to be creative in a different way. 

From a creativity perspective, when do you come up with the ideas? And when you come up with them how do you communicate it, then how does it get transformed once it is communicated?

My ideas come to me out of the blue because I read a lot; I watch movies.

Once I have an idea, I like to discuss it with my husband because he has a more realistic view. I bounce ideas off him, and if he gets excited then I know I probably will get a lot of other people excited.

When it comes to films I do communicate in a diagram and I share with the crew.

I take feedback from the crew,

Then I go to the client, but sometimes the client is not that creative.  Sometimes the client will tell you what they like and what they don’t want and you need to alter it.

I often say, clients don’t know what they don’t know, that is why they hire us. It is up to us to challenge their way of thinking. Sometimes it will influence them, and sometimes it wont.

I would imagine with Miss Universe Tanzania, anyone who is talking to camera, how do you coach them to connect with the audience on the other side of the camera?

  • I think it is the hardest thing to do. Often people freeze when they see the camera. I often say the camera is cruel because it doesn’t give you any feedback. It doesn’t smile when you smile, it doesn’t laugh when you crack a joke. I tell people to imagine someone you know or you comfortable with and imagine them there.
  • Sometimes when people look at the camera, they tend to look at the cameraman, instead of the camera. It is very difficult to get people to concentrate to look into lens.
  • Often you feel like you are being scrutinized. We refer to it as the eye of the devil. It is really intimidating.
  • What I usually do when I prepare someone, I record him or her and get them to watch themselves, so they get familiar with how they look on screen. Then they reconciled with that. We help identify mimics. It is a sensitive process. It is a very sensitive process because you have to disassemble any ticks they have in order to build back up to make a more perfect presentation.

Have you ever produced a show that didn’t gain traction? Why did it not gain traction?

I was told that a show didn’t gain traction. The show was Facets, the documentary. Post broadcast, however, it gained lots of traction. It was based on the 60 minutes formula. It took a lot of energy, the broadcaster said no one really liked it. Then we decided to change the language it was broadcast in, from Swahili to English. Our entire programming was almost around Facets and although we were doing some other programs this one took most of our time.

We were told this one was too serious for this market. I only realized six months after stopping production that I would go to meetings with very high government officials and important CEO’s they would ask, “What happened to your program, we miss it?” I never felt it. I don’t know if I marketed it wrong because I didn’t get the proper support from the broadcaster, and by pushing the broadcast time around people didn’t know when to expect it. It was a good lesson to me, from then on I stopped waiting for the broadcaster to help promote my program, I started promoting it myself.

That is where the social media comes in.

It took time for me to promote myself. The Tanzanian society wants women to be humble. If you start blowing your own horn people thing you are stuck-up or snotty. It is better to blow your own horn then not. We need to be more aggressive. To be aggressive is not bad. When it comes to men people will say: “he is assertive.” I do think as women we need to be aggressive, and I don’t see that as a bad thing. We are afraid of confrontation, so we hesitate, so it becomes our weakness as well.  

What do you think Miss Universe Tanzania brings to the Tanzania society?

When I first started I looked at it from a production point of view. We will have a program that we can talk about for several months.

Later it grew, I started dealing with a lot of young girls. I realized they would all come from different walks of life. They all had one thing in common, they lacked confidence.

Beautiful girls walk-in, I would get them to look into the mirror. Many thought it was ridiculous, they could not look at themselves. It was a huge physiological barrier I started to see in young girls. I felt that when we did a competition they would excel. For me it became like a feminist movement. I look at girls are shunned, they are not suppose to stand out, they are not suppose to speak, they are not suppose to be out there. I encourage them to do that. I tell them it’s ok to be on stage, it’s ok to declare you are beautiful, it’s ok to declare that you are smart. And it’s ok to pursue your education and to become more than what you are.

  • I think what has happened in this society, suddenly you have young girls that are considered not to be that meaningful, not contributing to society, and now they look important.
    • A good example is when we got the license of Miss Universe in 2007, we had a girl that won the title, very simple and modest. She had shaved her hair. People wondered in the boot camp why she was not wearing a wig. I said all we need is a beautiful girl, someone is not defined by their hair. When she won she went internationally. The media was in a frenzy that Miss Tanzania is coming without hair. She had a lot of interview.
    • Today she is working as a model in New York.
    • A very modest woman made her dream come true through this pageant.
    • Today young girls consider the pageant that can achieve their dreams.

Do you think with our production company you are conducting your purpose?

Yes, but I think my purpose has changed. It has expanded. You are given the opportunity to do so much more. I could have stayed in Europe, and been a lot better paid working as a TV journalist, but I felt there was something I need to do in addition.

When I reflect, I really could have done 50% I have done here. I am more challenged here, but I get more energetic. I love to solve problems. What I have got from the challenges has built me personally. When I meet up with my previous European colleagues, they notice I speak beyond being the best journalist. I am trying to achieve much more. I don’t think that could have been achieved if I just remained another employed journalist.

Do you think you are expanding because you are a pioneer in your industry?


Do you have any advice on finding your purpose then executing on it?

I believe most of us women know our purpose, in the sense that you know what we like to do. The challenge is to translate that into that inner longing and passion into what we are doing, call it a job or a business, to do what you feel inside you should be doing.

  1. Firstly, I think we have to become very clear. It is important to get very different input form different people. Finally it will crystalize and you realize what you should do. Evaluate the options, a, b, c… and then decide what is the best option at this point in time.
  2. Get yourself a plan. Think it through what you want to do. You need to second voice, even if unpleasant voice.

What gifts do you naturally posses that help you produce a lot of different productions and in communications as a whole?

I think the most important gift is my ability to have empathy. I sit with any person that I meet and try to understand what that person wants from me, how they see me. The minute you start communicating with that person and you are open you achieve a lot more. The minute you sit with that person and you have a fixed idea with an idea of what that person is or what they want you become you are very reserved. 

That is important from me from two points of view.

  1. People I do interviews with. For example, if you do interviews with kids for Say No to Abuse we are interviewing abused children, you need to get a story from a child that is very painful, often they don’t have counseling. So you risk opening up wounds that you don’t know how they will heal. So you need to be very careful how much you want to the child to open up. If you don’t’ have the empathy, they may not feel safe with you.
  • My empathy doesn’t end at the end of the interview.  I continue to keep the connection with that person. You close it down for the person. When you leave, you talk about this issue, but now it is done.
  • I think it is a very unique gift, and I didn’t realize I had this gift, but I had conducted a number of projects and I saw that people would leave without any bad sentiments.
  • I always make sure I am open.
  1. From my client it is imperative to have empathy. I need to make the client feel good about themselves especially when negotiating money.

I call that the line of empathy, knowing when empathy becomes detriment to yourself.

Now we spoke about empathy, but how does that affect you as a leader?

  • Empathy is very important as a leader. One thing I am very proud of, is my ability to retain my employees for a long time.
  • Employees need to feel that you understand them. You must get involved, but not too involved. They feel that you genuinely do care about them.
  • Often leaders, forget that the people that report to them are people to.
  • Sometimes we cannot accommodate employees’ requirements, but you must explain why.
  • You don’t want people to do a job: we want them fired-up about that job.
  • You need to manage ego of an actor, the technical crew, assistance producers – managing people is very difficult thing.
    • Often women fail because:

                                               i.     We are not assertive enough. If our assistant is male, we start relying on them. You have to role up your sleeves. If you manage from ‘remote’

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

Dealing with clients, especially getting money from them is uncomfortable for me. When I hear they don’t have a budget, I think they are playing mind games. I am just not good at mind games. I am very uncomfortable with negotiation. Because I am forced to do it over and over you get use to it. I also question why I am uncomfortable with it? How can I achieve better results? The first six years it was very difficult, then it has become easier.

If there was one thing you could do differently in pursuit of your success what would it be?

It is very difficult, but I say I have no regrets. Whatever mistakes I had, those are lessons I need to learn.

Is there a moment or thing in career that has assisted you in getting to this point, can you identify what that moment has been?

I think it was when I had to choose what I wanted to do when I was young. I wanted to be an actor and a singer when I was young. I was told by my father, “only indecent women do that, so you can not do that.” I was told I must do something else.

When I was a kid I enjoyed reading, so I thought I would become a writer, but I realized that I did not just want to sit at home and write. So I combined the two things subconsciously, being on TV is like performing, and passion for writing and talking.  I was told that I was so bright that I should study sciences. I decided I wanted to become a journalist. I decided to be what I wanted to do.

How do you define leadership?

I don’t think it is official titles. It is the ability to manage and lead people. The ability to inspire people to do the best they can. I don’t think as a leader you need to do all those things, you just need to inspire it.

Leadership Lessons

  1. Passionate enough about what you do.
  2. This is what you want to do and how you will achieve it. Focus.
  3. Hard work is what needs to put in. You must role-up sleeves and get involved. Do it continuously. Become part of what ever is being done by your team.

Reflective Realizations

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

You can be who ever you want. In Tanzania and in any African society they must know they can do what ever they want. At that age they start talking about what they want to do. Often they are told they can’t do something.

Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?

I wish I was told it is ok not to agree with my parents and everyone else. From my point of view, I was blessed with very stubborn nature. I defied my parents and work with the guilt.

Words of Wisdom

Don’t fall into the trap of stereotypes. We shouldn’t believe that in order for women to be successful she must have kids; she must be married; she needs to do certain things, or cannot do certain things. We need to define ourselves who we are as women. We will become whom we want as women. We don’t need to be told by anyone such as husbands, parents, or colleagues.





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