VENTURES AFRICA As technology continues to drive growth and development in Africa, the need for local content in ICT crucial as the continent takes shape. Although local content is available, the challenge of capturing, repackaging, storing and disseminating them to a wider group of users cannot be overemphasised.  Thus, local content needs originators with motivation and innovative minds to create, adapt or exchange it.

In this interview, Ventures Africa speaks with Johan Nel, the brain behind Africa’s leading online publishing platform, Umuntu Media (Umuntu) which runs local content portals across Africa. The company, through its i-Portals and Mimiboard innovation, has presence in about 17 African countries including Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Rwanda and Tanzania.  It continues to challenge traditional models by filling the gap in online publishing targeted at Africans.

Johan developed the concept for Umuntu using his experience as a marketing and new media specialist. His concept Mimiboard was awarded “Best innovator Award” at the Nokia and World Bank Innovation Summit.

Recently, Johan was in Milan as one of the 6 South Africans selected to represent the country at the U-START BLOOM Global showcase Event in Milan, Italy – an event that puts dynamic entrepreneurs worldwide in touch with investors most focused on innovative, high growth and impact-driven projects.

Johan talks about his business, his hope for the future of Africa tech scene and how his company plan to take over the Africa tech scene fully.

VA: What was growing up like?   

Johan: I was born in Windhoek, Namibia where I spend most of my childhood. My father was the dean at the University of Namibia and my mother worked at the Afrikaans culture society. In 1995 they send me to boarding school in Stellenbosch where I attended Paul Roos Gymnasium. I then just walked to the other side of the river in Stellenbosch and attended University. I was always a media and marketing man. I was a finalist in the young entrepreneur of the year award while studying and Naspers offered me a position right out of university. That was when the media bug really bit me and I enjoyed every second working in such a dynamic media company.

VA: Have you always been interested in technology?

Johan: As mentioned earlier, my career started in the newspaper world. From an early stage in my career I was always fascinated by the future of media and how technology will shape the future of content creation and consumption. I knew I had to learn more and move into the digital space. My mind really became a sponge for digital when I moved to a company called Acceleration. I was their marketing manager and we had to understand the issues publishers face in the move from traditional to digital publishing. We worked on consultancy projects with some of the world’s largest publishers and helped them shape their digital vision.

VA: What is Umuntu and how does it work? 

Johan:“Umuntu” means “people” in Ndebele. A very widely spoken African Dialect.

I wanted to solve the local content creation and access to content problem in Africa. We started out by publishing local content websites / mobile sites across Africa. The traditional digital publishing model: Appoint local content teams, publish, and sell the advertising space to local advertisers across the continent. This worked/s well and then we quickly became the leading local websites in 9 African countries, secured 1st time digital spend by most of the local advertisers and build a really strong pan-African brand.

VA: How far has Umuntu gone in filling the local content gap in Africa?

Johan: Umuntu aims to fill the local content gap in Africa. During my time at Naspers, I realised that local content is a rarity. And not all African nations have managed to provide local information and news. So it was then, that I realised there is an opportunity to provide local news and information in certain African countries. So we followed the traditional publishing approach and launched News and Information Portals. With Journalists on the ground providing hyper local content on a daily basis. I think we have been fairly successful due to the fact that they were small enough to move quickly and adapt to what the market wants. We only used the best of breed technology and with that we were able to position ourselves as one of the better Media companies in respected countries. Our knowledge of Digital Marketing and use of Social Media also benefitted us greatly as we relied heavily on Facebook to grow our audience.

VA: How have you been able to use your product to harness technological development in Africa especially in bridging the gap of providing local content for African people?

Johan: We have opened our technology to other publishers as well. So all other Media organisations will be able to gather and curate user generated content. If our reach and adoption is good enough, we should be able to say that we are solving the ultimate challenge of improving local content creation and access to this content in Africa.

VA: How does the iportal and Mimiboard work? To what extent have they (iportal and Mimiboard) been able to help Umuntu achieve its goal?

Johan: The iPortals are news and information portals. We have journalists on the ground providing content and we publish to the websites. Currently we also use aggregation from a variety of other news sources to provide up to the minute country specific news.

Mimiboard is a tool that has the ability to gather and aggregate specific content from a variety of Social network channels. With a big focus on user generated content, we also have the ability to receive SMS messages from users on the ground. Enabling the user of Mimiboard to find and source real-time hyper local content.

Through the use of Mimiboard and the iPortals – we are certainly on our way to achieve our ultimate objective – Solve the local content gap in Africa.

VA: You achieved commendable success with iNamibia; how has the responses been so far in other African countries?

Johan: It has been fairly successful thus far. We specifically focused on launching in countries with little or no real online competition. And with our clever use of Social Media we were able to create a serious brand presence in almost all of our 9 countries.

We are confident that with the complete use of Mimiboard on the iPortals, we will be to expand faster and offer better quality sourced information.

We now serve over 25 million ad impressions per month across all our properties.

VA: What is Umuntu’s business model?

Johan: Initially we focused on a good balance of Editorial and Marketing orientated team members. A pre-requisite for any staff member is a strong knowledge of Digital and a love for Africa. This enables us to focus on a few key elements within the Digital world, that is,  Sales, Marketing and Publishing. We have also been very lucky with Strategic partnerships and relationships that offer advice and consulting in a variety of areas. One such a relationship to mention is with eVA Fund, our current investors.

VA: What “cutting edge” does your business have among other Africa-target oriented startups?

Johan: We understand the publishing world. We understand the digital world very well. The knowledge and experience we have, puts us in an elevated position and offers us a strong competitive advantage over our fellow Media Organisations.

VA: You are already established in about nine African countries with plans to expand into three other African companies, can you briefly hint us about these plans.

Johan: We do have plans to expand aggressively into Africa. The use and integration with our technology, Mimiboard, will enable us to grow quickly and with little capital expenditure. We also aim to expand to a total of 28 countries with our iPortals. Currently between Mimiboard and our iPortals we are already in 17 African countries.

VA: What are the challenges you faced (or still face) in establishing Umuntu and how have you been able to overcome/manage these challenges?

Johan: Building a Pan African media company on bootstrap startup funds is a challenge.

VA: What has the progress been like since you launched Umuntu in 2010? How has Umuntu being able to hold its own admist competition in the African tech scene?

Johan: Progress has been excellent, however we are still very well aware that we have a long way to go. And we never rest on our laurels.

VA: As one of the 6 South Africans selected for the U-START BLOOM Global showcase Event in Milan, Italy, tell us about your experience and how it has influenced your decisions ?

Johan: It was a great honour to be selected. I always jump at any opportunity to showcase African innovation on a world stage. I was very impressed with our African team, I think we have a unique outlook and solve real problems with technology. My perception of the other countries that attended was they try and copy US companies and tweak it slightly for their own markets whereas true innovation comes from Africa.

VA: The future of Africa tech scene from your perspective. What are the challenges that need to be tackled?

Johan: We still have to sell the continent on a daily basis versus only selling our own products and services. Every investment meeting I attend most of the energy is to convince them that Africa’s time is now and that the continent has huge opportunities at hand.

VA: What do you think is making Africa’s tech scene vibrant?

Johan: Connectivity throughout Africa has increased dramatically in the last few years. Young Technical entrepreneurs are choosing to create unique and opportunistic products and services, because of the mass availability of internet and users adopting new technologies. It is also a worldwide trend, the digital era has no geographical boundaries and real innovative companies that changes a part of the world can be started from a garage. This is an amazing time to live in.

VA: Any future projects in Umuntu that you will like to talk about?

Johan: We value partnerships and are currently in discussions with key partners that will enable us to fuel our growth. We are aiming to reach the 1 billion impression mark in the next year and expand our offering to 28 African markets. No rest for us!

Thank you for your contribution Johan.

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