World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers


Innovation Key to Kenya's Mobile Boom

Innovation Key to Kenya's Mobile Boom

Article ID:

16207

From the epicentre of Africa's mobile boom, Dickens Onditi Olewe is forging new ways for Kenyans to interact with the media. Readers can now send in their own news reports on their cell phone to Star Reports – a citizen journalism application that integrates new voices into The Star's content.

By Alexandra Waldhorn

Faced with a tough job market just two years out of school, Olewe says he might have been in the right place at the right time. “I just happened to be in the boss' office on the day that they needed an intern to manage digital media,” he said.

Olewe was first tasked with expanding the paper's digital and social media presence back in 2010. But Olewe, now 31, also had ideas that would ultimately take the country's exploding mobile market to new levels. Today's mobile phone penetration is over 77%, according to the latest Communications Commission report.

“We are increasingly seeing how can we use this tool to get it to work for us. It's just amazing,” said Olewe. “I don’t know where it will all end up, but it's all exciting.”

The five-year old paper's first venture into mobile news consisted of breaking news alerts that cost subscribers 50 Kenyan Shillings (0.57 US cents) each. But with five alerts pushed out per day on average, this premium rate ended up being an unwanted expense for many readers. “Whenever we sent out a breaking news alert we had at least 10 people unsubscribing from the system,” said Olewe. “It just wasn't working and we found that our competitors with the same system had the same problem of people unsubscribing.”

Olewe suspects that many subscribers didn't find the need to pay for mobile news, especially with the advent of sharing news over social media. For example, Olewe saw that between 7am and 9am, Kenyans shared traffic and commuting information – all for free – by posting updates on Twitter and Facebook. This observation hatched a larger idea where citizens could report on all kinds of stories happening around them.

“At the end of the day, if they put it on social media their reach is probably not as big,” said Olewe. “But if they share it with us we have the credibility, the reach, as well as the resources compared to the average citizen journalist.”

In this context, Olewe and two other colleagues launched Star Reports in September 2012 with a grant and mentoring from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Mobile News in Africa programme, which has thus far backed 15 mobile projects across sub-Saharan Africa.

In five months, 700 people have downloaded the application. A boon to the paper's brand, the service has amassed stories from around the country that normally would have never made it into the news cycle. For example, a peace pact following the theft of 1,000 cattle on the border with Uganda was highlighted in a late-September citizen report.

“It's simple but he wanted to share what amazing news it was that the cows had been returned and there was some sort of peace meeting,” said Olewe. “This is exactly what we want to do, however mundane or whoever they are, or whatever agenda they have.”

Star Reports is garnering even more importance in the run-up to the 4 March elections, the first vote since 2007 that claimed over 1,000 causalities and displaced more than 600,000 Kenyans.

“I’m really keen on taking the coverage of this election to where it should belong,” said Olewe. “It's not about the politicians and egos, it's all about the citizens.” Details of the election coverage have yet to be publically announced but Olewe says he hopes the service will give all Kenyans a platform to amplify their voices.

Beyond news consumption, the proliferation of cell phones has had a momentous effect on the daily life of Kenyans. Olewe remembers the 500 km bus ride to get his high school test results. Today, they are texted to students. Back in 2007, voters needed to check their registration in person before casting their ballot but now the Electoral Commission sends voting information via SMS.

The key to making mobile phones work in Africa is knowing where the people are and the type of technology they have access to – whether it's a smart phone or a simple handset. “Sometimes we aim so high – we are not in Europe or America,” said Olewe. “We are in a different market with different levels of access.”

Dickens Onditi Olewe is a journalist and web administrator for The Star newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya. He also presented at the 2011 World Newspaper Congress in Vienna, Austria.

Author

Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop

Date

2013-02-25 18:09

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