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Fri Apr 18 12:39:46 SAST 2014

Join the board of Africa

Toby Shapshak | 31 May, 2012 00:13
Computer. File photo.

Notice boards have always been a part of community life. Stuck up next to neighbourhood shops, or on the walls of the corner café, telling residents of lost cats, houses to rent and adverts for a handyman.

For decades, they have informed the residents of both rural and urban communities about things happening in and around their neighbourhood.

"We took the concept of the notice board and made it virtual," said Johan Nel, whose company Umuntu Media specialises in Mimi boards. Mimi is the Swahili word for "I".

While community notice boards are an old concept, Umuntu has created a noticeboard for the digital era. A frequent traveller to his native Namibia, Nel noticed how notice boards still thrive in the rural areas there.

"With all those travels, I saw a huge gap in how local content was shown, a gap to do proper local news in Africa," he said.

In small Namibian farming communities, for instance, he wanted to enable farmers to ask if anyone nearby had tractor parts available or wanted to share a car trip on a 150km journey to the nearest shop.

"This is a very important thing for me: I want the rural communities to start communicating. Instead of driving into town to see what was stuck up on the board, it can be virtual," he said.

"If we virtualised the notice board, that is the best way to create meaningful community communication and content," he added. Accessing the Mimiboard is easy; all that's needed is a cellphone with internet access.

At the Open Innovation Africa Summit this week in Nairobi, Kenya, the Mimiboard was voted the one of best devices on display by participants at the event.

Using his own funds, Nel built two websites for local news in Namibia and Zambia. He said these quickly became huge hits on Facebook in both countries.

Initially, the goal of Umuntu was for the Mimiboard to serve as a stand-alone platform, but Nel soon realised it would be better used in the hands of local publishers. Nel has done deals with radio stations and a TV station in Namibia, among others. The TV station, Nel says, is "creating their whole homepage, based around community-driven content". The boards are audience-specific, so car sales bids will follow a car show.

Nel has now secured outside funds and is hoping to extend the service further in Africa.

In Kenya, Umuntu has partnered with the yellow pages, which has 150 000 business listings on its website, all of which will have their own Mimiboard.

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