A Passion for Print

Why newspapers are thriving in Kenya

Not long ago, I was party to a minor squabble between two guards who work at the apartment complex where I live here in Nairobi. One of them had asked soon after I moved in two years ago whether she could have my newspapers when I’d finished with them, and I’d said yes. But recently, another guard had come around at odd hours asking if he could have the papers. At first I acquiesced, but after realizing that the first guard was annoyed, I suggested to the second one that maybe he could get the papers from his colleague after she’d finished.

Hardly the makings of World War III. But it gives you an idea of how highly prized newspapers still are here—at a time when they’re dying like flies in the U.S. Kenya may be one of the poorest countries in the world (it ranked 149th in per-capita GDP in 2006) but its nearly 40 million citizens, both middle-class and otherwise, have a seemingly unquenchable passion for print.

Why that’s so has something to do with culture. Patrick Quarcoo, a successful Ghanaian entrepreneur who started a new Kenyan newspaper, the Star, in 2007—yes, you read that right, a new daily newspaper—says it was his grandmother who taught him about the significance of print in an African context. “She had no real formal education, but she always used to say in Pidgin English ‘Book no lies,’ ” he recalls. “She completely believed in the power of print to shape our destiny.”

That belief continues to be widespread today all over the continent. “People want to see it to believe it,” says Joe Otin, the media research and monitoring director at the Kenyan affiliate of Synovate, a media research and watchdog firm.

Each newspaper in Kenya is typically read by fourteen people, and those who can’t afford to buy a paper sometimes “rent” one. My neighborhood news vendor charges the equivalent of thirteen cents for thirty minutes with one of the major dailies, all of which are in English. That compares with fifty cents to buy one, a significant sum even to office workers earning $20 a day, and out of reach for the far more numerous casual workers who generally earn no more than $2.

The continuing popularity of newspapers undoubtedly also has something to do with the fact that most Kenyans can’t obsessively check the Internet. According to Otin, only 5 percent of Kenyans fifteen years old and above access the Internet daily, and only a minority of those have home computers. (Some 38 percent of households own a TV.) Still, I’m not so sure that greater Internet access will make the same differences here it did in the West. “Newspapers will not die here, definitely not,” says Daniel Kasajja Orubia, a twenty-eight-year-old manager who is among the small number of Kenyans who own a mobile phone with Internet access. He says he regularly uses it to check the BBC or other sites, but, he insists, “I’ll still be reading newspapers in twenty years.”

Orubia lives in Busia, where I went recently to meet some locals who gather every morning to read newspapers and talk about current affairs. I know a lot of journalists in Nairobi, and a lot of people who follow the news closely, but I wanted to see what role newspapers play in a more rural area. Busia, a small town on Kenya’s western border, serves as the commercial center for the district’s farmers as well as a stopping point for trucks on their way to Uganda and Rwanda. Its central market area includes everything from banana and arrowroot sellers to the Busia Wedlock Center, which offers a one-stop wedding service.

The market also boasts several news vendors, among them Simon Ondudin, whose “shop” consists of a large board on which he tacks the front pages of several daily newspapers and an assortment of magazines as an inducement to buy. Ondudin says he sells an average of 150 papers a day, a number that surprised me given that his business operates on a muddy patch of ground near stalls selling second-hand clothes and sandals made out of old tires.

The group I’d come to see meets every morning at the home of Stephen Otieno Obala, a Busia photographer. Obala, who says he fell in love with newspapers in the second grade, recalls, “There was a cartoon in Taifa Leo [a Swahili-language daily] that I read every day. From then until today I would choose reading over eating.”

In order to provide enough reading matter for the daily gathering, which takes place in a shed-like room equipped with wooden benches, Obala buys bales of month-old newspapers at a cost of about seventy cents a bale. It doesn’t matter that most of the papers are old, he says, because many of the attendees never saw them when they were first published. His motive is simple: “I wanted others to benefit from reading and to help the community.”

On the midweek morning I was there, a total of about thirty people came and went over a two-hour period. Those in attendance included several farmers, a couple of boda-boda (bicycle taxi) operators, and three or four small-business owners. Most were men, but there was a sprinkling of women, and the age range appeared to go from early twenties to late sixties.

The day’s main topic was what Kenya should do in response to a recent Ugandan claim that it, rather than Kenya, owns Migingo Island in nearby Lake Victoria. It’s a subject that had occupied both news and op-ed columns for weeks. Some speakers, most of them speaking Swahili, urged more militancy; others said the two countries’ leaders should be pushed to resolve the matter. One speaker, lamenting the fact that many fish spawn on the Kenya side of the lake but then swim into Ugandan waters, got a laugh when he suggested that Kenya find some way of keeping the fish on its side.

Leah Asiko, a quiet twenty-six-year-old who followed the discussion carefully but didn’t venture any opinions herself, says she occasionally leaves someone else in charge of her hair salon so that she can come to the meetings. “Newspapers have a lot more information than radio,” she says, adding that she also learns new things from the discussions.

With a citizenry this devoted to newspapers, print journalists in Kenya get treated with a level of respect that their Western counterparts would envy. Paul Ilado, who worked in radio and television before joining the Star (where I am an unpaid adviser), says he noticed a difference immediately when he switched to print. “People who would take a month to call me back while I was in radio began to call back right away,” he says.

Patrick Quarcoo, who started several successful radio stations before launching the Star in partnership with William Pike, a British editor who’d previously run a Ugandan paper, agrees that Kenya’s elite takes newspapers much more seriously than broadcast. “With radio, I was below the radar,” he says. “Now, people wake me up at 6 a.m. to rant and rave, even about inside stories, especially on stories about state house or senior ministers.”

Quarcoo says that as much as he loved his grandmother, the decision to start a new daily was based on economics, not sentiment. “You can construct a business model around print,” he says. “You can aggregate the elite and you can monetize that.” His thinking, he says, was that Kenya has a strong economy and a substantial cohort of educated young people whose needs were not being met. “Print is not dying. The issue is how do you make sure it has a place in the lives of people,” he says. To that end, the Star is heavy on entertainment and lifestyle, along with large servings of politics.

The paper made a profit for the first time in September 2009, Quarcoo says. He declines to reveal circulation numbers, but others in the company say it’s now above 20,000. Joe Otin of Synovate is more conservative, estimating 15,000. (Sales estimates for all the Kenyan papers vary widely, depending on whom you’re talking to: anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 for the Daily Nation, the country’s largest paper, and from 50,000 to 180,000 for the Standard, its closest competitor.) While the Nation and the Standard have Web sites, neither of which offers much beyond what’s in the printed version, Quarcoo says he sees no reason to start one for the Star unless he can find a way of making money on it.

Advertisers seem as certain as Quarcoo that newspapers still play a central role in the country. “Politics is all-consuming in Kenya,” says Michael Joseph, the CEO of Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile-phone company. And Kenyans, he says, “do read papers. Politics drives it.” Joseph, a native of South Africa, says Safaricom spends 35 percent of its advertising budget on print. Similarly, Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, the operations director of Nakumatt Holdings, the country’s largest supermarket chain, says his company spends about 40 percent of its ad budget on print. While Nakumatt is experimenting with online and mobile-phone advertising, he says, “Print advertising in this region will still remain a key plank as most consumers still prefer to read.”

Can this last? Can newspapers in Kenya defy worldwide trends and even prosper? Michael Joseph thinks not. Pointing to the success of Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile banking service, which now has eight million Kenyan subscribers, he predicts that Kenyans will increasingly find new uses for their mobile phones, including streaming radio and accessing online news sites. Joe Otin of Synovate says that while “culture is working in favor of print, new technology is working in favor of online.”

But perhaps the experts are focusing too much on what’s happening in the rest of the world and not enough on what’s happening close to home. I remember a time in 2005, as Kenyans were about to vote on a proposed new constitution—as they will do again later this year—when everywhere I went I saw people intently reading free copies of the constitution that had been inserted in the major dailies. And I also remember the role that newspapers played in early 2008, when the country was being torn apart by violence after a highly suspect presidential election. At that moment, there was no legitimate government; the courts were regarded as fatally tainted by politics; only the country’s newspapers remained as a functioning and trusted national institution.

So perhaps those Busia residents sitting around in Stephen Obala’s house represent not the tail-end of an era but rather the vanguard of a new, more democratic one in which technology has a place but print newspapers continue to play a crucial role. Maybe Patrick Quarcoo’s grandmother knew something that the experts don’t. Whatever the case, American print journalists can take comfort from knowing that somewhere in the world, at least for now, print is still king.

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Karen Rothmyer ([email protected]) has lived in Kenya since 2007. Starting in April she will be a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, researching the value of news ombudsman.