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.”