Umuntu Media: Snow in Cape Town Today

Umuntu Media currently operates in 17 African markets. Over the next two years it plans to roll its iPortals across 28 countries and drive bespoke local content via its Mimiboard technology. Kathryn Cave speaks to CEO, Johan Nel in Cape Town to find out more.

Umuntu Media currently operates in 17 African markets. Over the next two years it plans to roll its iPortals across 28 countries and drive bespoke local content via its Mimiboard technology. Kathryn Cave speaks to CEO, Johan Nel in Cape Town to find out more.

Palm trees covered in snow doesn’t quite look right,” observed one Tweeter on Monday. “We don’t see it very often. Snow in Cape Town, South Africa,” added a blogger, or as Debbie contextualised on a forum: “I spent the weekend lazing on the couch watching dvds and not worrying much about what was happening in the outside world ......... you can imagine my surprise when I saw [the snow] on Facebook. What is happening to the weather these days?”

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Chances are if you live outside of Cape Town you missed this news – why would you be interested?  But local events like weather, elections and sport are all encompassing to the people who live in those towns. It is what people talk about, share on their own social pages… and by facilitating this, is what makes Umuntu Media so unique in Africa.

When I speak to Johan Nel, CEO of Umuntu Media, on the telephone on Monday, Cape Town is caught in the middle of the freak weather, “we have snow here today so [content on our Cape Town sites] is going to be all about users’ snow photos, helping people out who have been devastated by the wind. Tomorrow it will be about something else again… it changes on the fly, depending on the local market.”

Nel hails from Namibia, is based in South Africa, and two and a half years ago launched Umuntu Media to solve the local content gap in Africa. He is passionate about the continent and wanted to deliver a solution that people needed but did not exist. He began by building portals in nine African countries and producing news on a daily basis. “I had journalists on the ground, they uploaded it to the CMS and it got published in Namibia, South Africa [or wherever the local market was].  These are continuing and are called our iPortals.”

In the process of doing this however, Nel realised that the problem went well beyond simply producing content and extended into facilitating the creation of information people wanted to read, “We saw the challenge in how content is being produced.  For example we’d have a journalist in South of Namibia then something new would happen up North. How do you get that information in real time… and get it on your site? That’s when we built the technology to solve the problem.”

Kenyan Comments on the ‘Technology’ Election

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In August 2012 Ubuntu launched Mimiboard. This technology is open to anyone and allows third parties to embed it in their sites then curate and publish the content.  “Everywhere in the world people are sharing information. We just needed to tap into that. People share breaking news on Twitter, Facebook; we wanted to create an environment so people can share using our platforms. This comes in real time and publishers can curate, edit and make something from it.”

There will always be a thirst for local information – wherever you are in the world - but this has special appeal in African countries, which have traditionally been underserviced. This year Mimiboard technology became integral to coverage around the Kenyan election; an event, which itself, put technology at the centre. “In Kenya during the election five media organisations got together and said how are we going to cover all angles of the news for the election?” explains Nel. The result was a dedicated 2013 Elections website, created by Capital FM Kenya, and run through Mimiboard.

Umuntu has already seen some incredible success from its Mimiboards. “They are used in 17 African markets by local radio stations, bloggers and community newspapers. We currently serve over 30 million impressions [the sites are funded by advertising] a month.”  However, the next stage is for Umuntu to use Mimiboards to begin to create bespoke new content on the local level.  “The content model is changing. [We will be] replacing traditionally-created content with information built from stories from the ground.”

The secret to all this, not surprisingly, is that everything is run at the local level: “We produce different types of information for different markets and we never know what that is going to be from South Africa. [So] we appoint people on the ground. They produce the content. Even when we switch to Mimiboards, a local person in those markets will manage that experience.”

Local stories are driven by the local culture, which is part of the hurdle in setting up operations for the company: “People do business differently across the African continent. This is one of our biggest challenges, excitements and lessons all at the same time. There are different cultures.”  There are lots of lessons, he laughs: “Like how do you deal with the Nigerians who only want to do business at 12 o’clock at night.”

Umuntu currently has presence in a wide range of countries including, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Rwanda and Tanzania and deals with around 100 local publishers. Things are moving quickly and Nel himself seems amazed by the results: “We’ve just opened our first partnership in the Gambia [one of the smallest African countries], I have never been there, don’t know anyone there… but they use Mimiboards to create content on a daily basis!”

Over the next two years he would like to “be using our own technology to produce our own local content, all running mimiboard as a content creation machine.” In tandem with this he would like to have 28 iPortals (across 28 countries), quadruple the publishers on board to 400, and use this to serve 2 billion impressions a month.

“Our best lesson is partnerships,” Nel he says: “Entering a market like Kenya, Nigeria or Ghana as a small South African country, with not a lot of resources, our biggest success story is finding that key influencer in a country and making them believe in what we do in terms of helping the continent.” The secret, as always, is to utilise local expertise: “We find an influencer, make them a believer and then they help us out.”

South African Fly Larvae Drives Sustainable Food Production  

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Nel is extremely passionate about the African continent and the more he talks about it the more animated he becomes. “In general, doing business in a lot of African countries over the last year I have felt an amazing energy on the ground. If you speak to anyone who is running a business or who is involved in technology or innovation it feels like this is Africa’s time. Everyone has the same goal, let’s work together and make this a continent of the future. Every single talk I’m at, speech I do or meeting I have we find this same passion - it is unique and amazing to feel - and I hope this next generation of Africans can make this happen.”

Local differences are prevalent throughout the continent of course, and Nel admits that with the exception of South Africa, the Southern countries like Namibia, Zambia and Botswana tend to be a bit slower on innovation than other parts of the continent. “Maybe it’s the amount of people in those countries, because they’re not hugely populated, or maybe it is the amount of news coverage, but you don’t see so much innovation from those countries. But places like Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda are amazing, not only the entrepreneurialism, but the true passion of doing business and the openness for doing business. We can pick up the phone and speak to the head of a bank in Kenya and in some other countries you would take two years to make an appointment! Everyone just wants to help grow this continent of ours.”

“There are some things which make a difference in the world: information, communication and technology are certainly part of that - otherwise I would never do what I do. Then the other big things: I’ve been all around the world to start-up competitions, speeches, presentations from Austen to New York to Europe and it is very interesting how we [Africans] solve typical problems that make a difference in one’s daily life. Not hey I’ve checked in somewhere. We want to solve a real problem: how we share information, food shortages, water scarcity, electricity problems. I found that quite unique. The Brazilian start-ups have the same sort of vision. They create things that matter.”

Nel goes on to describe the Larva Project, this year’s winner of the “African Innovation Prize.” This is an incredible idea based on the concept of ‘nutrient recycling’ and includes drying out fly larvae to create cattle feed to drive sustainable food production. Things like that just don’t tend to come out of Europe or the US, because there isn’t the same need. However, as Nel stresses, everything is driven by finding: “we welcome companies coming over here and investing. There is a big opportunity for venture capitalists to fuel the next generation of African renaissance.”

Umuntu Media is doing something truly unique by helping deliver information to African countries as diverse as South Africa, the Gambia and Kenya. But as someone sitting in an office just outside London, the really beautiful thing about organisations like this is that they help show people from around the world that Africa is not one big, black homogenous continent. It is a collection of 54 unique sovereign states, each with a myriad of different local customs and interests. And yes, sometimes there are droughts in Ethiopia… but it can equally snow in Cape Town.