Business Management

Online student magazine takes Kenyan campuses by storm

In just two years new student-run publication, Magazine Reel, has expanded to cover 17 Kenyan campuses and has plans to expand across the continent. With incubation from iBiz Africa and prize money from the Safaricom Appwiz Challenge it looks all set on the road to success. Kenyan journalist, Festus Mbuimwe catches up with the founders to learn more.


The stereotype that accompanies a Kenyan university student, whether enrolled in a public or private institution, is: class-party-class. Reading? Only when it’s exam time, thanks very much.

However, that didn’t stop Fred Oginga and David Mabiria, Egerton University students, from starting blogs that targeted their fellow Yolo (you only live once) fraternity. Fred, a nutrition studies student, blogged about campus affairs, and David, a fourth year computer science student, blogged about technology.  

“For us, it was a hobby. We were blogging once a week,” Mabiria says. However, this frequency bored them, and together with Dennis Shisia and George Kiambuthi, also bloggers about Egerton campus life, they closed ranks. “We had the same urge, we saw a gap that students really needed to know what was happening around them, what was happening outside campus,” Fred Oginga. “But, there was no single channel to give them that.”

In 2012, the quartet flew from the print airport and crashed after the launch issue of Magazine Reel because their readers couldn’t afford the $1.45 cover price. “The buying power of the students was an issue. It was a lesson learnt,” Mabiria explains. The four would-be magazine barons fled the print wreckage for the hangar to try and fly again, this time, from an online runway.

David spent the entire December 2012 building the site, and it went live in January 2013, without crashing their server. However, that didn’t mean that the online edition, which carries campus news to entertainment to politics, would be turbulence-free: “We had to look for other writers; that was the first challenge,” Oginga, now the site’s editor, tells us.

This was because Magazine Reel expanded from Egerton University into other 16 universities. The difficulty of getting good quality of writers has been tackled by training. The second issue has been pricked egos: “We have opinion articles and opinion articles that can rub you the wrong way,” Mabiria, now the site’s CIO, explains.

Nonetheless, he’s proud of their readers’ support so far. “The moment we see a user comment, it tells us that it has had an impact on them. So, in general, the response is good.” Magazine Reel uses a mix of word of mouth and social media marketing to spread awareness of its existence. The results: 50,000 monthly views, approximately 5,475 Facebook “friends” and around 4,165 Twitter followers.

These numbers have been catalysed by the ubiquity of smartphones among many Kenyan universities’ students (the swag factor) and subsidised and reliable internet access to universities via the Kenya Education Network (KENET); an organisation which aims is to connect all Kenyan universities to the internet.

The Magazine Reel audience doesn’t practise brand monogamy. So, how does the site stay relevant to them? “We come up with content according to their comments. We usually do whatever they tell us,” Oginga says. Pundits usually advise entrepreneurs to have a work-life balance, but, that’s not a tenet the site’s founders follow currently. “It’s all gobbled into one. We could be in a matatu (public transport minibus) and chatting with a user. At night, you’re called, there’s a strike and the reporter is sending you photos,” Mabiria says.

The need to bring in advertising to sustain an online business is one thing Magazine Reel can’t ignore. In its infancy, the founders concentrated on attracting and retaining traffic. It’s only in 2014 that they pitched to advertisers and some opened their wallets. However, Oginga and Mabiria are unwilling to disclose revenues. “Talk to us after three years for that,” Mabiria says.

In July 2014, the quartet applied for incubation at iBiz Africa, an incubator for startups based in Strathmore University, Nairobi. They were accepted the following month after submitting an online application and a face-to-face interview. “The good thing about being incubated here is that as a business starting out, you don’t have capital for rent, for internet, for office furniture, for mentorship. These are some of the things we’ve been able to find here,” Mabiria, says.  He adds that the site will be incubated at iBiz Africa for at least the rest of 2015.

In December 2014, Santa arrived bearing approximately $18,700 in prize money after Magazine Reel won the 2014 edition of the Safaricom Appwiz Challenge, both as the overall winner and winner of the youth content, media and entertainment category. However, you’ll be hard pressed to see any one of them covered in bling to announce their improved financial statuses.

“I still wake up from the same side of the bed,” Oginga says. Furthermore, they’re under obligation to invest all the winnings into the business, which he adds means that they can now afford to pay themselves salaries.

In the short term, they plan to establish a dominant presence in the 60+ public and private universities in Kenya, and in five to 10 years, a continental presence. Now, that’s “reel” ambition.        


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