Careers, community and a life-changing love of Africa

7 min

“I always remember being so surprised when I saw my whole house being packed into a container to go on a ship.”

Funny, isn’t it, the things that stick? It’s often said that when huge life changes happen, we remember the small things really clearly. Especially when time passes and we begin to celebrate milestones and anniversaries, as Katie Simmonds is right now. Katie is Education Programmes Manager at Canon Central & North Africa, but from this title you would never guess how her life has changed in the past ten years.

We celebrate inspiring changemakers at Canon – people who are working hard to make a difference in the world. From time to time, it’s important to turn that lens on ourselves and seek out the people who, through passion and conviction, will turn their own lives upside down to create opportunities for others. Katie is one of these people.

These days, when you speak to her, she has an accent that bears all the hallmarks of a world citizen. It shifts easily from the tell-tale signs of her British roots to subtle inflections that she’s picked up from being in dozens of African countries since 2014. Because Katie is one of the founding team behind our Miraisha Programme, which has educated more than 7,000 people in its 10-year tenure, helping to nurture their skills and creativity, and secure employment or set up their own businesses.

As you might expect from someone who has given over their entire career to helping others learn to tell their stories, Katie is an accomplished photographer in her own right. But she jumped at the chance to work at our European Headquarters in West London, where she looked after the Ambassador Programme. It was a role which introduced her to dozens of the world’s most admired and respected photographers and filmmakers, who were not only creating incredible work, but often teaching others how to do the same. At the same time, Canon’s reputation was growing in Africa. “And this is where the idea came for the first workshop,” Katie recalls. “Because we were thinking a lot about training and giving back to communities and African countries have so many stories to be told. Yet there were very few Africans telling their own.”

A woman and a man, both dressed in red t-shirts, are sat in the back of a truck on a game drive. They look into the viewfinder of a camera.

Katie on a photography workshop with children of the Maasai Mara, Kenya.

23 people, most in red Canon branded t-shirts gather for the camera in front of trees on a sunny day.

The educators and participants at the first ever Maasai Mara children’s photography workshop in Kenya.

These early workshops in Kenya were the early seeds of the Miraisha Programme that we run today. But they also lit a fire in Katie, who having accepted a six-month secondment with Canon Central & North Africa to be closer to the programme, found herself quickly immersed in making things happen. And this meant travelling, relationship building, learning about the creative industries across Africa and generally picking up the Miraisha ball and running with it. “I'm somebody who likes to just talk and find out about things,” smiles Katie. “I was just curious and interested in the industry, and everybody's super friendly in Africa and were happy to connect me. So, I met a lot of people.”

But she had just bought her first home in London and was in the process of furnishing it when all the arrangements were made for her to head to her temporary base in Dubai. “I think my sofa arrived less than a month before I was due to head out. So, I got to sit on it for three weeks,” she laughs. Because six months turned into three years. “And during that time, I was travelling between Dubai, London, and wherever I needed to be in Africa.” So, Katie took the huge step of leaving the UK and making Dubai her full-time home. She sold the house that she’d barely lived in, plus quite a lot of her furniture and arranged for what remained to be sent to her new home country. Where it sat in a container in the port for a week because she was in Africa and unable to claim her possessions – which brilliantly tells you everything you need to know about Katie’s priorities. “And eventually I got to sit on my new sofa!”

A group of people sitting on a wooden platform on blue chairs in front of an audience. Behind them is a Canon banner and a huge banner saying ‘Canon Alumni Exhibition’ in front of it. They are all surrounded by grass, trees and foliage.

Katie at the LagosPhoto Festival programme where Canon hosted a Miraisha alumni exhibition for Miraisha students from our storytelling and photography workshops.

One of the biggest and most welcome differences for Katie, right from the beginning, was the sense of community she felt everywhere she went. “When you do business in African countries, there is often the question of ‘how are you going to support our community?’” she explains. And while organisations seeking to make social impact is a relatively recent thing in Europe, it has been established practice across Africa for many years. So, by taking the kind of thoughtful educational programmes into communities that result in both careers and the amplification of African voices, Katie found herself received with a warmth and kindness that filled her with joy and fuelled the passion she already felt for the programme. “For me, I care about people, and I care about their journey. I want to see the students succeed because I remember when I was first starting out and I feel like there's so much opportunity for these young people – so many treasure chests that they can open.”

This might sound like an unusual way to view the careers of young people, but this is a golden time for the creative industries in Africa. Across the continent, they are experiencing unprecedented growth and Africa is increasingly being represented on the world stage through the arts. Stories are being told authentically and African identity celebrated. So, the generation of students who have participated in Miraisha over the last decade have been in the right place at the right time for the myriad possibilities available to young African creatives. “I tell my students that where I'm from I would be a small fish in a big pond, because the market there is oversaturated. But here, I can see that they could all be big fish,” says Katie. “The opportunities are there and it’s so exciting! I want these talented students to know that they have a whole world ahead of them.”

A woman crouching on a beach holds a Canon camera to her face.

A passionate photographer, Katie has always travelled widely with her camera. Here she is in the middle of Siwa Oasis, Egypt.

A woman rides pillion on a motorbike. She grins for the camera and gives the thumbs up.

“When your car breaks down in the middle of a village in western Uganda and you need to take a ‘boda boda’ (a motorbike taxi) to reach your next destination!”

All of the above makes uprooting yourself from your home to go and live on the other side of the world and do a job you’ve never done before in dozens of new countries sound like a breeze, doesn’t it? Of course, Katie has dealt with her fair share of challenges and – that old troublemaker – doubt. “To be honest,” she admits, “there were times and situations where I was like, oh my goodness, what am I doing? I can't do this! But life's too short. I've doubted myself and felt guilty for being so far away from my family. And while it's not always been easy along the way, they’re always very supportive and proud of me.”

The exercise of reflecting on last decade has been a kind of second wonder for Katie because while she travelled, taught, grew Miraisha and experienced Africa in all its complexity, beauty and unpredictability, she was 100% living in the moment. “I didn't necessarily think about what I was building because I was just more focused on what I was doing.” But build she did. To the extent that when you meet her former students – so many of whom have gone on to be successful photographers and filmmakers – they refer to her fondly as “Mama Miraisha” and speak of her as though she is one of the family. They stay in touch as much as is possible when living fast-paced creative lives and, it’s true, in watching the students grow into adults and take on prestigious jobs or start their own businesses, Katie does feel like something of a proud parent.

And as for life at Canon Central & North Africa? Well, of course Miraisha has been a huge success, but it too is now part of a wider family. “We now have six different educational programmes running in our territory,” she explains. “So, every day is completely different. One minute I’m having a meeting with somebody in Nigeria, about setting up a Miraisha programme in an informal settlement. I could be talking with somebody in Egypt about case studies for our Print Hub programme. I might be travelling to meet with stakeholders or overseeing our Canon Academy Video Roadshow.”

And while her base is in Dubai, and her roots are in the UK, her heart belongs to Africa. In taking the bold leap from her role back home to the enormous challenge of the Miraisha Programme, she has embraced her bravery and it’s paid off. “I love it because every day in Africa is unpredictable,” she laughs. “Maybe there'll be a lion in the middle of the road when you're trying to go to work – because that happened to me once before – or you’re going to miss your flight because the traffic is so bad, so you have to leave the taxi and get on the back of a motorbike with your suitcase. It's these kinds of crazy things that make me feel free, so free. I feel weightless when I'm in Africa.”

This year, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Miraisha Programme. It’s just one of a number of ways that we empower young people and help them to look to the future and find their voices. Learn more about these and other ways we support local communities.