Botswana: Local Language Newspaper Aims to Capture Hearts and Minds of Nation

This large potential market, however, does not assure success. Methaetsile Leepile, founder of MOKGÓSI, shares with RAP 21 the newspapers strategy to increase its market share amongst high competition, and the newspapers successes and challenges along the road to one of its ultimate goals raising the profile and usage of the Setswana language.

Botswana has a population of 1,7 million, with an adult literacy rate of 79 per cent. Other than MOKGÓSI, there are seven other newspapers that compete for news and ad-spend.

To differentiate MOKGÓSI, from existing titles, we packaged the newspaper as a broadsheet, the countrys first, says Leepile. The writing was initially intended to be light, easy to follow. Good photography was to be an integral part of the product. This paid off. Within six months of its launch, the paper won a number of prizes sponsored by MISA Botswana: Best Designed Newspaper; Journalist of the Year and Photographer of the Year. Last year MOKGÓSI won in the Business Reporter of the Year category.

Initially Leepile used commissioned personnel to run the paper. Not even the editor was on the payroll. Key services, such as design and production, accounting, newspaper distribution and printing were also outsourced.

This brought some complications. It became apparent during the first six months that you can’t outsource the services of key staff such as the editor or commercial manager; neither can you depend on stringers and freelance sales persons for editorial or advertising copy. We continue to outsource printing and distribution. However, we have to closely monitor the distribution of our paper. It’s something you can’t leave entirely to an agent, he says.

Today the newspaper boasts 15 in-house staff members in total. Seven people work in editorial and graphics, five in advertising and marketing, and three in service and administration.

There were initially eight promoters, who I advised to get more people involved as this was no ordinary business project. Capital would not be enough for it to succeed. MOKGÓSI needed as many people from as diverse a background as possible to buy into the concept. This pool would be required to inject all the necessary intellectual, professional, networking and financial inputs that are required for the development of the company in the medium to long-term.

Today the number of shareholders in MOKGÓSI stands at forty.

Leepile notes that the large number of shareholders has had some drawbacks, the primary being that the existing business model is not a particularly tidy one to follow. From the beginning, financial contributions have come in irregularly, which meant that the programme of action was compromised due to undercapitalisation.

The high number of owners posed other problems. It’s been quite a challenge managing such a large base of shareholders, many of whom paid token amounts, really. Most people went into the project for sentimental reasons – the desire to do something about a neglected language; their language. Others may have gotten into it for financial reasons. The latter may wish to see the fortunes of the paper improve in a short space of time, something which does not happen with newspapers, especially start-ups like MOKGÓSI, he says.

This large number of shareholders also has a distinct advantage. The paper will not be able to generate sufficient advertising revenue in the short to medium term; and this is where the critical mass of shareholders will come in handy. We intend to use this very mass to market the paper through subscriptions. We call it direct person sales.

The one competitive advantage we have over all others is that we publish in the country’s main language and are about the only ones doing so. We need to capitalise on this. We have just unveiled a new strategy to sell the through subscription, piggy-backing a youth and children’s section of the paper. We are targeting schools, individuals with disposal incomes and business enterprises. We are going to have to mount a countrywide campaign to turn Setswana enthusiasts and teachers into MOKGÓSI readers and buyers. It’s a big challenge, but one that is not insurmountable, he says.

Today the newspapers revenue from advertising versus that of cover sales sits somewhere around 95 per cent.

This is a norm here given the low population (1,7 million). But we are going to try to reverse that within the next 15 – 24 months through the subscription based strategy. Advertising tends to feed on numbers; numbers don’t come out easily with newspapers. In a newspaper all you sell is a brand name. The MOKGÓSI brand name will take another 3 to 5 years to gel, says Leepile.

Although the MOKGÓSI has already surpassed a number of hurdles and received numerous awards, in looking to the future, Leepile sees a number of areas where the newspaper can still improve.

We need to develop new products targeting a different clientele. We are doing that with ’Basha’, the youth and children’s section of MOKGÓSI, a monthly insert. The response has been good. We also need to repackage the paper, providing a menu that will suit both serious language followers and the casual reader. At present the paper is a bit top heavy on language. We have to balance the desire not to compromise quality with the realities on the ground.

Leepiles ambitions for Setswana language are not limited to the domain of media. He would also like to develop Setswana language for use in scientific, technological, social and economic fields and to inform Batswana in the national language on Government development plans and other policies at the central and local government levels; and to promote the use of indigenous language systems.

Changing public perceptions is one of the biggest challenges that MOKGÓSI faces. The truth is that there is a widespread perception that reading Setswana is difficult. That was exactly the perception with English a decade and half ago when I used to work for an English language paper, he notes.

Another distinct challenge to printing in a vernacular language is mindset. The system is such that people do not believe or have confidence in the technical wherewithal of the language. They are accustomed to doing things the English way. You could say we are fighting the mighty “English”, supreme and unchallenged. It was not always like that – not even 10 years 15 years ago when the language was treated with some respect! Setswana was supreme and you sort of looked misplaced if you tried to write or talk to people in English. Back then it was the language of the educated. People have to be re-educated that English is not synonymous with being educated.

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