19 Feb 2011

The most trusted media brand in Tanzania?

On Friday I attended a very interesting meeting hosted by one of Tanzania's leading media organisations, but one that often get's forgotten in analyses of the Tanzanian media sector. They produce a magazine that's read by 12% of the adult population (2.8 million readers) each month and another that's read by 5% (over 1 million) - easily the two most read magazines in the country and in the same range as the top newspapers*. Both magazines have print runs of nearly 200,000 copies per issue. On top of that they also produce a popular TV show, a website and are even involved in radio. You've probably already worked it out, but just in case you haven't, I'm talking about Femina, with their Fema and Si Mchezo magazines, Fema TV Talk Show, chezasalama.com and the Pilika Pilika radio programme.

These numbers are undoubtedly impressive, but perhaps what marks out Femina even more is the powerful brand they've created over the past 12 years. They are a very well-liked and hugely trusted brand, associated with young people and reproductive health (though they cover a wide range of topics), using their edutainment approach to educate by stealth. One of their staff described this as a modern version of the stories told by grandmothers to Tanzanian children by the fireside - entertaining while imparting knowledge and wisdom.

The meeting today brought together a range of media sector folks to provide input on their proposed new strategy - the Tanzania Media Fund, BBC World Service Trust, Bang! magazine, Mkuki na Nyota and Jamii Forums were all there, among others. Without going into too much detail, their strategy is to become a "civil society media platform", or "citizens' engagement media platform". Content-wise, this will broaden their focus from HIV/AIDS and reproductive health issues to include a range of other youth-related themes such as livelihoods, entrepreneurship, rights and citizens engagement. But it also involves thinking about new ways of working (where do digital / social media and social networks fit in?), different kinds of partnerships with other media and civil society organisations, and, of course, new thoughts on the business model.

Capitalising on the trusted youth brand to focus on other issues of importance to young people makes a lot of sense. The readership is there, and is eager for information, ideas and inspiration on livelihoods and civic engagement. The main danger in terms of content is probably of over-reach - that by trying to take on too much, too many new themes that are outside their comfort zone, the quality may begin to slip - but Femina have both the experience and the connections that should enable them to expand their edutainment content fairly comfortably.

For me, there are three main questions for Femina to work out how best to go forward. First, how will the theme of citizens engagement be taken forward: simply as edutainment, informing people of their rights and of the opportunities open to them to engage with councils, etc., or will they go further, into developing and promoting opportunities for citizens to engage on specific issues? In other words, do they want to go beyond their educational focus and take on some aspect of the media's watchdog role? Sticking to edutainment would certainly be the easier option, but they could also potentially use their wide secondary school-based readership to form a citizens' network monitoring some aspect of secondary education - such as capitation grant disbursements, for example. That would be more interesting and potentially have more impact, but it would be stepping a long way outside Femina's current comfort zone.

Second, how will Femina engage with digital media? The chezasalama website has struggled to become interactive and Femina is only beginning to explore mobile phones, facebook, blogging, etc. These are growing fields that are becoming an important way of reaching Femina's target audience of young people - there are now almost 250,000 facebook users in Tanzania, nearly double the number of 6 months ago, of which over 75% are aged 16-34. Reliable data for Tanzania on mobile internet access is unfortunately not available (see here and here for some bad data), but in Kenya, 99% of internet traffic is via mobile operators and there's every reason to believe Tanzania is heading in the same direction.

Third, how will Femina raise its funds for this much wider programme - how will the business model change? Donors tend to like more narrowly-defined objectives and generally manage funding for HIV/AIDS quite separately from funding for citizens' engagement, for example. At the same time, the global economic situation means that Femina's long term donors may become less dependable over the next few years. So diversifying revenue sources will be important, with the magazines' impressive print runs and readership figures suggesting the way forward. Expanding the space given over to advertising (currently just a few pages per issue) has a lot of potential. And working with partners who are willing to pay for editorial content is also an option, though one that should be handled with care - the magazines will lose readers' trust if they stray from their youth-edutainment brand or simply hand over pages to the highest bidder as other local magazines and broadcasters have done.

Finally, what's the relevance of all this to Daraja? Well, there are a lot of similarities between Daraja and Femina, not least the fact that some of the issues discussed above are very relevant to our Kwanza Jamii newspaper as well - the business model, the challenge of new media, etc. Sot perhaps Femina are our competitors, and pretty daunting competitors they would be.

But it would be a mistake to see them that way. Yes, there's an overlap, but there are also some very significant differences in what we're trying to do. Femina is about young people and edutainment, Daraja is about local government accountability. We carry only a small amount of educational content in the paper, but carry far more traditional news, investigative journalism and comment than Femina. Put crudely, we're playing the watchdog role of the media, and they're playing the educator role.

It therefore makes sense to explore ways we can support each other. Among other things, Friday's meeting was a valuable step towards doing exactly that.

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* The best data on readership (the tightly-controlled Tanzania Media Products Survey - TAMPS 2009, produced by Synovate) reports on newspaper readership by week and magazines by month so the two can't be directly compared. The readership figures given here for Fema and Si Mchezo come from this survey. TAMPS also reported that the most read newspapers in late 2009 were Nipashe (2.3 million readers per week, 10% of the adult population), Mwananchi (1.4m, 6%), Mtanzania (1.2m, 5%) and Majira (0.9m, 4%).