Umuntu Media’s Mimiboard looks to create social engagement for traditional media and a new monetizable business model

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Profitable online business models are hard to come by in Africa because although the number of Internet users has shot up, it’s still hard to get a critical mass of regular users and make money from what they do. Russell Southwood talks to Johan Nel, CEO, Umuntu Media about its forthcoming launch of Mimiboard.

Johan Nel used to work for South African media giant Naspers and woke up one day to realize that he had ideas and that he wanted to become an online entrepreneur. So he sold his house to raise the initial capital to launch Umuntu Media:”I started purely because there was a huge gap for proper local content and someone needed to fill it.” Having put up his own initial capital, Nel found a Dutch VC group eVentures, who have put in seed money first and then second round funding in September 2011.

His first move was to launch two country portals, iNamibia and iZambia. “I wanted to provide something more than uni-directional news so we offer things like houses for sale, job, accommodation booking, etc. We employed local teams with a support structure based in Cape Town. The content is a combination of bought-in and self-developed.” Each local team pursues advertising opportunities and the sales are then closed by the support team in Cape Town.

It now has eight of these country portals (having added Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana) and a ninth, Tanzania, will be added in May. Umuntu Media has 100,000 Facebook fans and gets 200,000 visits per month across its network of sites. Its first site, the Namibian one, reaches 35,000 out of the 120,000 online users in the country and is the second largest site in Namibia.

Its latest product will launch on 15 May is a virtual pinboard called Mimiboard (Mimi means me in Swahili):”We’ve learned that we need to be better at connecting with audiences on the ground and creating communities. There’s a need to create a platform for that and it needs to be open, stand-alone and solve this same need for engagement for all publishers, not just for ourselves.”

It offers media owners – whether they run radio or TV stations or newspapers, a virtual notice board at any level from the national to the very local neighbourhood. Listeners or readers can add notes using SMS, smartphones (initially Android), tablets, PCs or laptops:”It’s aimed at creating communities who want to talk and trade together.”

The Mimiboards are embedded on the media owners website and it allows them to have live, SMS speed reactions to news, talk shows and all kinds of programming and articles:”Our strategy is to launch with media companies who will promote it to their audiences.” It will launch in Namibia with a radio and a TV station and a radio station and newspaper group in South Africa:”People trust media brands and they are launching it as their own product.”

The interesting twist (which we’ve already seen used as a promotional tool in the growth of social media network Eskimi) is a virtual currency that in this case is called Mimibucks:”Publishing is an interesting space. New monetization models have to be prepared as the traditional banner advert is probably a dying business model. We looked at Ten Cents in China and MXit realized that there needed to be micropayments incorporated from the start.”

The virtual currency allows Mimiboard to work on a freemium model. The virtual notices are free to post and read but if you “flip” the notes and want to add details like more words or photos, you have to pay the equivalent in Mimibucks of R0.9 cents. You top up your Mimibucks by sending an SMS message. The media owners and Umuntu Media will do a revenue share on the turnover of Mimibucks on their site.

The usual pattern of online content development across emerging markets has been that the big international brands like Facebook, You Tube and Twitter establish market dominance but these are then followed by a combination of less well-known international variants and local versions, often in vernacular languages. Mimiboard seems to fit this pattern and have a business model that’s a bit like online classifieds. So watch this space….

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This week on Balancing Act’s You Tube channel:

Editor of Stuff magazine Toby Shapshak on the changes in the use of devices in Africa

Philippe Jacquier, Orange Business on the launch of its cloud-based service, Flexible Computing

Dare Okoudjou, CEO, MFS Africa on selling mobile life insurance and the potential for mobile health insurance

Johan Nel, CEO, Umuntu Media on the launch of Mimiboard, an online pinboard for Africa

Roukaya Kasenally, Director of Comms, AMI on its new mobile news apps incubator

Ofer Ronen, Sales Director - East Africa, GilatSatcom on doing business in South Sudan

A special for Balancing Act readers:

Erik Hersman, founder of Kenya’s iHub in conversation with Russell Southwood, Balancing Act about the successes and failures of ICT4D:

Part 1:

Part 2: