Giving African newsrooms, particularly community media and non-profit organizations, the ability to leapfrog into the mobile era is at the core project of Iindaba Ziyafika’s work in South Africa. As Anne-Ryan Heatwole reported last year on this site, our Knight-funded NIKA Content Management System, which was designed and coded in South Africa using Drupal as its base, provides powerful SMS and IM “in and out” service. When combined with the largest citizen journalism program in Africa at Grocott’s Mail, it has allowed an unprecedented level of interactivity between our newsroom and our community of about 100,000 people.

Last year, we launched Grahamstown Now, a mobile site that offers Grahamstown residents a wealth of reporting and information about what’s currently on the go, or coming up soon, among other details. Local event listings, business specials, news from Grocott’s Online, current weather conditions, views from various local webcams, ride offers/requests, local radio and cinema schedules and a Grahamstown Guide (a directory for the town) are all on offer.

In a small South African town where mobile phone penetration far outweighs that of Internet connectivity, the service is rapidly gaining users, as I reported here.

New Version

As with all software projects, we rely on constant feedback to guide improvements. In February 2011, we launched a new version with a critically important new user management system. Local businesses can now manage their profiles and listings. We have added maps and enhanced the integration of Facebook and Twitter. Right now we’re busy adding a MobiStory feature (for citizen journalism contributions) and developing a comprehensive customized alerts system. We’ve also revamped the branding.

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Content on Grahamstown Now, particularly events and business specials, is now prioritized by imminence. This is critical to both the business model and the journalism model and, hopefully, to the two of them working in an ever more virtuous interaction, leading to financial sustainability. Take a look at the site at any given time and you might see that a 2-for-1 pizza special is on right now (and ends in three hours), or that a public workshop on a civic issue is starting in 30 minutes.

Grahamstown Now has three main objectives: become financially self-sustainable, improve community life through better access to core information and good journalism, and become a replicable model that can be used by other community media outlets in Africa. To share more about how we’re doing this, I spoke with Michael Salzwedel, the driving force behind Grahamstown Now and the online editor at Grocott’s Mail, about the project’s strategy and success in each of these areas.

Q&A

Q: Michael, great code only goes so far. African media is, like their counterparts globally, being battered by the ongoing recession. How will Grahamstown Now become financially viable? What is the business model?

A: Our premise here was that almost everyone in Grahamstown would like to know about how they can save money in Grahamstown — or anywhere else. This is poor town, and with world food prices rising so fast, this is a critical area even for people who have a reasonable income. So, we set out to become an aggregator of local business specials, charging businesses to list their specials, and providing the information about specials free to our users. So far we’ve partnered with 28 local businesses, with more on the way as we grow. We’ve signed up over 600 individual users since the user registration system went live in early February this year.

Q: So you don’t charge users anything?

A: No. We examined that model, and we had a plan to charge users just a few cents a day, but we’ve reverted back to what I guess is a more traditional advertising model. But because we want and need business to come to the party with really good “loss-leading” specials, offers that will get customers, our users, to their stores, especially for about-to-expire fresh goods, we keep the costs low for businesses.

Q: What kind of specials are you looking for?

A:  We encourage businesses to come up with specials that are valid for narrow windows [in order to] to enhance the sense of urgency and to fit in with Grahamstown Now’s time-focused nature. We’re looking into refining this model to focus more on exclusive specials and deeper discounts, incorporating a Groupon-like approach, thereby offering much deeper value to users. It is hard for business to get their heads around this. Merchants are comfortable with offering a 10 percent discount, but that doesn’t light up the mobile space or get everyone talking. A short-lived window, say an hour or two, where you can get 50 percent discount on fresh food, or everyday conveniences, something that people talk about, that has a bit of “wow” factor, are what we are after now.

Q: Isn’t that a very risky approach? What if you don’t get these kinds of specials?

A: It is taking a lot of work because it is about behavior change. No one has tried this kind of Groupon, high-value discount, short-time-of-offer model before, that we know of, in Africa. (And if anyone has or is, please get in contact with us!)  But you have to work with each business, big and small, to custom-make offers. You have to be creative, thinking about 2-for-1 specials, free coffees with that burger, higher end specials for richer users, and deep discounts on basics for the less well-off. Merchants are not exposed to what many of them fear — a huge rush of thousands of people to get the 50 percent off on, say, potatoes — because that deal might only be offered for an hour. But you generate buzz and even if people do respond in large numbers, that should be great, as you’ll hopefully sell more than just that discounted bag of potatoes when they are actually in your store.

Q: How do users know there is a great special — that might only be live for an hour — happening?

A: We’re working hard to beef up our customized alerts so that users can be notified immediately via email, SMS or IM whenever a new special in their preferred category or from their selected businesses is listed or is about to start. Alerts are also great to notify users about new events listed by organizations in our Grahamstown Guide that the user has expressed an interest in, for example.

Q: How’s that going?

A: It is still early and each business is a sit-down discussion, loads of follow-up, but hopefully others will get on board at lower acquisition cost to us as the word spreads and we start generating success stories. We’re hoping that a combination of exclusive, high-value specials and associated personalized, just-in-time alerts, will take Grahamstown Now from doing alright to doing great as far as revenue is concerned. Pushing relevant information to users, rather than having them pull it from us by arbitrarily visiting the site, should make a big difference.

Q: Grahamstown Now is also about trying to improve public participation and opportunities for community problem-solving. How does that feature on Grahamstown Now?

A: A broad aim of our Iindaba Ziyafika project (of which Grahamstown Now is a part) is to connect people to each other and to local power elites, by providing accessible platforms that open up the flows of information between ordinary community members and, ideally, the people who can — and need to be pressured to — make change happen, which are the guys who run the local municipality, both politicians and officials.

We took a hard decision to make Grahamstown Now accessible by even the most basic of internet-enabled cellphones, so that we have the potential to reach, inform and empower a large proportion of Grahmstown’s population. The idea is to let community members know more about what’s going on in Grahamstown (not just business specials), and thus make more informed decisions.

Q: What kind of information and journalism does the site offer to do that?

A: We’re adding a comprehensive section for the local government elections coming up in May, which will inform people about their wards, their counselors, their polling stations, etc., and, crucially, let them voice and discuss their concerns relating to electoral matters. Tie this in with customized notifications (you can get SMSed when the counselor for your ward is mentioned in the news, for example), and you’re onto something quite powerful and empowering, we believe. We’re partnering with a local NGO to use Grahamstown Now as the platform to capture and visualize data relating to the efficiency and effectiveness of local governance service provision, which will involve community remembers reporting, using their phones, on the quality of the current services that they are receiving.

Q: You’ve got Rhodes University as the biggest contributor to local GDP in Grahamstown — probably half the town’s economy revolves around it — how are you working with them?

A: We’ve also begun working with Rhodes University to set up a centralized digital presence (on Grahamstown Now) for all community engagement organizations and projects in Grahamstown. Grahamstown Now users will be able to be notified whenever an event or project has been planned for their specific hyper local community or for their specific interests, and easily communicate with the organizers. This is handy for ensuring full attendance at free skills workshops, for example. And for term times, for about 30 weeks a year here, there are 7,000 plus students in the town, and these have to be a vital part of Grahamstown Now’s success.

Q: Part of your mandate is to create something that others in Africa can use. But the software, although open source and free, does need good tech skills to install and use, and the business model does require, it seems, spending a lot of time getting merchants, and service providers to think beyond column inches and mere advertising. Is NIKA and Grahamstown Now a  replicable model?

A: Ultimately we want Grahamstown Now to work seamlessly with NIKA to enable other publishers to easily publish to print, web and mobile from one place. We acknowledge that we need to simplify the requirements for setting up data sources that do not come from within a newspaper — we’re lucky to have the oldest newspaper in South Africa, which comes out twice a week, as a big source for our journalism.

Q: So you don’t have to be an existing community newspaper to give this model a go?

A: No. The idea is that any community media group, or aspiring group, even if they don’t have their own existing paper, will be able to install NIKA and their own customized instance of the Now software and, with minimal technical complications, be ready to reach cellphone users with all, or most, of the features and functionality of Grahamstown Now. 

We’re strongly considering an in the cloud solution to achieve this, which would take away the need for individual in-house installation, and replace that with a web-based service. Of course, getting local business in on the loop is up to the users: a deep-discount business strategy can work, but as Groupon and others around the world have found, you have to turn local businesses on to the opportunities this kind of approach can offer!