2 Aug 2010

Getting the news out

The biggest challenge facing our local newspaper programme, for the moment at least, is a logistical one. For the paper to meet its objectives, it must be available right out into the more remote parts of the district. But how do we get it there?

This isn't an unexpected challenge, and we would not have decided on using print media if we didn't feel a solution could be found. But with the first issue of the paper due to be published later this month, working out that solution has recently been a priority.

The answer lay in adapting Twaweza's five networks idea to the specific context of Njombe. Twaweza's idea is that if you want to reach a significant number of Tanzanian citizens, you can only really do so by piggybacking on one or more of the following networks: mass media, mobile phones, teachers, religious institutions and consumer goods, all of which reach out across the vast majority of the country.

Localising this idea meant thinking about the specific networks that have wide reach within Njombe district. Twaweza's five networks all qualify, and we can add to this the local bus networks, which reach out to the majority of villages around the district, and various government structures - schools, clinics, ward and village administrations.

We needed a system that doesn't undermine our independence and doesn't tie us in the public imagination to any particular affiliations, which largely rules out the government structures and religious institutions. Mobile phones obviously can't be used to carry a newspaper, and if the mass media was already physically present in the areas we're targeting, the problem wouldn't exist in the first place. So we were left with teachers, consumer goods and local bus networks.

The second question was how to pay for this. We keep being told that the spirit of volunteerism is alive here, but surely a more effective and sustainable system is to harness the profit motive. We sell the paper to agents at one price - say 200/ - who sell it on to vendors at a higher price - say 250/ - who sell to the customer at the cover price of 300/. A small profit is made at each stage of the process, so everyone has an incentive to sell as many copies as possible. And we don't have the administrative (and expensive) nightmare of paying people for time and transport costs. And we don't have to monitor whether the paper has really been distributed - any agent who claims to have distributed a number of copies will have to pay for that number, so if they're not telling the truth, they lose money.

This private sector distribution system fits consumer goods and local buses better than teachers, as it builds on the way they already operate. So we needed either to go with the buses or to identify the right consumer product to latch on to: something that reaches as wide an area as possible. Coca cola? Mobile phone credit? Soap? Exercise books?

In the end, we've chosen to go with the buses. The conductors will be our agents, each with the task of selling to customers along their bus route, either directly to people on the bus or through vendors in the villages along the way.

Why not consumer goods? A simple answer really - they all rely on a vendor running out of supplies and come back to the wholesaler for more. That might happen every few days, or not for a few months. For distributing a newspaper, we need something that's reasonably reliable and regular.

Regular, private, independent and with a wide reach, local buses seem to be the best bet.