Six years ago, a young man and a teenager sat down and planned to create an online user-generated news platform. Then it looked like more of a game of gamble to tap into a small target market of information-hungry consumers than a well-researched business plan. But today, theirs has grown to become one of the most popular online news platforms in the country.
Perhaps the question to ask Maxence Melo and Mike Mushi is what an engineering student and a young boy waiting to join secondary school after completing Standard Seven had in mind when they created JamiiForums?
“My passion for journalism drove me into the project. I also wanted to equip journalists with the Internet as an alternative media tool to air their stories,” says Maxence, co-founder of the popular online news site.
Interestingly, the two met online in 2006. At that time they created JamiiForums, the whole idea of social media was still in its infancy, if not alien, not just in Tanzania, but also in many other developing countries. One would be forgiven for saying that the decision was in itself a plunge into the dark by two youthful minds.
But half a decade down the line, Maxence and Mike seem to have hit the mark. In JamiiForums, the two have created a new way Tanzanians look at social media – from being essentially a conduit of no-holds-barred social exchanges, a dumping ground of raw emotions and a site of phatic communication to a platform where people from all walks of life can deliberate on pertinent issues affecting society with minimal restrictions.
Affectionately known as ‘The Home of Great Thinkers’, the platform that began as an act of youthful audacity now boasts about 100,000 registered members, attracts at least 150 new ones daily, and gets about 50,000 visitors every day.
In 2010, JamiiForums stamped its authority. It got its highest number of visitors ever on the first of November during the general election.
That seemed to have been a seal of approval to its creators – who had no background in journalism, but had a passion for the field with a lot of potential to spearhead political, social and economic change.
“I think people wanted to know what was going on around different parts of Tanzania. While others were posting results directly from polling stations,” says Maxence, the co-founder of the site.
On that day, he tells Success in a recent interview, more than 600,000 readers were glued to the site in search of updates on the general election.
Yet the most interesting story about JamiiForums is not the 96 million visits every month or the 12 million pageviews that it also gets on a monthly basis, but how what at first seemed like a little bit of a hit-and-miss plan by two young brains turned into a million-dollar project.
According to statscrop.com, which explores websites and monitors their performance, JamiiForums is worth $3,182,721 (approx. Sh5 billion). It is ranked the 7th most popular online social forum in the country, and number 9,944in the world, according to the Alexa rankings.
Maxence says that they are currently in the process of turning JamiiForums into a news portal – reporting live news events.
“We initially invested nothing in it except our efforts. When we started we only paid for the domain name and hosting. But now, JamiiForums has four different servers, each of them costing at least $900 (Sh1.44 million) a month,” says Maxence, whose company, Palvos Group, has 12 employees.
He adds: “If you look at it, we’re somehow running it at a loss. But we’re sure to benefit soon.”
The birth of JamiiForums
JamiiForums, (also known among its members as ‘JF’) is one of the Palvos Group products. It came into being in May 2008 as a successor to the former ‘JamboForums’, set up in March 2006.
“It was an online media conglomerate, bringing together a number of online forums and sites like Tanzania Economic Forum, Habari Tanzania, Jambo Network, Jambo Radio and Jambo Videos,” says Maxence.
They were compelled to change the name to avoid a wrangle on the rights to the brand name. Today, JamiiForums, whose copyright is registered in the US, is home to multiple forums, with a wider range of themes.
“We had different sites with different purposes. The aim was to set up a single site in which interested parties would converge, discuss, agree or agree to disagree. “
The aim, Maxence says, was to reach not only Kiswahili speakers across the Great Lakes Region, but also English speakers interested in the goings-on in the countries in the region.
Born in the Kantare village in Kagera Region, Maxence was a student at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) when JamiiForums began. He pursued a full technician certificate, and later went on to do a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering at the same college.
His interest in IT had begun earlier, in the 1990s. “But then it was just an interest, which was not really taken seriously,” he says.
On completing his studies, he worked for a construction company called CSI, and quit in 2010 to focus on JamiiForums after juggling the two for four years.
His colleague, Mike is currently pursuing a degree in business administration with Information Technology at LearnIT. Interestingly, the JamiiForums co-founder seems to be a media shy guy. Efforts by Success to get him to share a little bit more about JamiiForums were almost fruitless. But his colleague explained that Mike has his fears when it comes to dealing with the media – he is afraid of distortions.
While this sounds ironical considering that he is someone who has created a platform where people can tell their minds freely, his reservations are understandable.
On February 18, 2008, Maxence and Mike had what Max says it’s the “worst experience” of their life when they were arrested by the police, for an interrogation that took a full day. The two were detained on ‘suspicion of a criminal activity’.
“Many times we’ve been threatened by people who want to use the State apparatus against us. But we have no issues with the authorities, except that there are some politicians, who do not know what JamiiForums is all about in the first place,” explains Max.
This year, a member of parliament asked in the National Assembly, why JamiiForums had not been closed because to the lawmaker, it was being used to insult some people.
In some government offices, the site has been blocked, says Max. “But the State itself has not bothered us in any way, despite mounting pressure from some politicians,” he explains.
But on the positive side, the pressure and threats could be worth it after all, considering that JamiiForums pumps in an average of Sh18 million from eight advertisements posted on the site.
Currently, one of the major deals JamiiForums has struck is a campaign with Vodacom aimed at reaching the offline community via SMS.
“We're charging Sh150 per SMS, and we currently have over 1,500 subscribers. We expect the number to rise in the next 60 days as we've employed our own journalists who will be reporting live events, analysing articles and verifying contents being posted on the site,” says Max.
This year, JamiiForums, Google’s biggest Kiswahili content provider, won the ‘Tanzania Leader in Local Digital Media’ award by Vodacom.
“We are looking forward to redesigning the site to meet the current market,” Max reveals.
They also have plans to open offices in Nairobi and work on the Ugandan and French versions (targeting Congo and Rwanda).
Article written By Joseph Mtebe | The Citizen | October 23, 2012 | Email: [email protected]