Kenya’s Nation Media is piloting a daily paywall. Could it work elsewhere?

How Kenya's Nation Daily reaches 21,000 daily paywall subscribers

Nation Media daily paywall

Nairobi-based Nation Media Group says it has signed up hundreds of thousands of registrants since introducing its paywall in January 2021.

Most of them don’t pay for a rolling monthly or annual subscription. Instead, the company is betting on users paying for daily access via micropayments on their smartphone as and when they need it.

Nation Media subscription strategy: No free lunch

In January last year, NMG editorial director Mutuma Mathiu wrote an article for the website of Nation Daily, the company’s flagship newspaper, entitled “No free lunch, no free content”. In it, he announced the business would move to a new model.

He said: “In the current scheme of things, the bulk of the advertising money does not end up with the content creator and, therefore, the creator can’t continue creating unless an alternative source of revenue is found to sustain its operations.”

That alternative source of revenue was to be a paywall. Kenyan media had been slow to charge for digital news, but NMG was well placed to start asking for payment.

The company is East Africa’s largest media group, having been founded in 1959 by the current Aga Khan – the hereditary, royal Imam of the Nizari Muslim community – when Kenya was still under British rule. Today the Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in Kenya, and the brand owns newspapers, radio, and television channels across central and east Africa.

According to the group’s head of strategy Max Okeyo, the paywall was planned as just one part of the new model, which would also encompass advertising and what he described as the “development of marketplaces and opportunities to engage our audience with suppliers or vendors”.

Subscription platform company Evolok, Okeyo said, “have been very, very supportive in terms of helping us build a team, not only for the digital platform in Kenya, but integrating the other brands across the region.” (Evolok is one of Press Gazette’s commercial partners, but has not paid for this article.)

The plan was not to make money immediately. 

“We’ve made some revenues – probably about $200,000 In the last 12 months. But that has not been our focus.

“Our focus is to develop an experience that is world-class, that keeps the user engaged, and that will help us monetise. Right now we’re just trying to optimise the experience for the customer.

“It might be that the experience is a lot more about the technology that we’re using, the ease of access, ease of use, and the content, the quality of the content. Once we get that right – and I believe we’re getting there – then the money discussion becomes a fairly easy one.”

Whether turning reach into revenue is as easy as Okeyo says, reach is certainly growing. Between November 2021 and January 2022, Okeyo said NMG grew its registered reader numbers from 130,000 to almost 500,000. It aims to get over 1m before the end of the year.

Behind that figure, he said, were 60,000 individual subscribers, with 21,000 per day on average paying to read content. Approximately 80% of subscribers buy the daily pass, which costs 10 Kenyan shillings  (£0.07 or $0.09) – though Okeyo stressed that subscriptions are currently discounted by 50%.

[Read more: Paywalls are coming to India – interview with Indian Express Online CEO Sanjay Sindhwani]

Toss a coin to your paper

Daily or article-by-article paywalls have repeatedly been suggested in the UK and US as a way to fund news. In light of that, Press Gazette asked whether Okeyo thought there were any lessons NMG might be able to pass northward.

“The consumption habits are different. We prefer to have micropayments; in your environment, you prefer term subscriptions.

“In our environment, people seek alternatives for free before they pay for content… In your environment, issues around basic needs – health care, education – those are policies sorted by the government…

“I think the reason [micropayments are] successful here is because of the mode of payment, the M-PESA. Mobile money payments make it really easy to just make the micropayments. So it’s our way of life, the same way card has been your way of life over the years…

In Kenya, the use of credit and debit cards “is much lower. It’s much lower than the use of mobile money, because people are sceptical about [putting] their card details online. In your environment it’s easy…

“A lot of people here still believe in cash payments. Like I said, the issue around spending power: there are people who live on even less than $1 a day. People live on wages who go to work, and at the end of the day they get paid. So they have to manage their budgets on a day by day basis.

“So he’ll pay for a subscription today, for example, and tomorrow, if he doesn’t make money, he doesn’t pay for the subscription. So, instead of paying for a whole month or a whole year, he’ll only pay for what he can afford now.”

Okeyo mentioned that Kenyans prefer to get their news for free – something no doubt true of Brits too. But was it easy to get reliable free news in Kenya?

“Reliable news, no. News, yes, but reliable, trusted, authentic news? No.”

Okeyo said that Nation Media’s competitors were not, in his view, rival legacy news outlets.

“We’ve got Facebook, we’ve got Twitter, all those are our real competitors – competing for the audience out there in the digital space.”

Pay to verify

Since the launch of the paywall, investment in journalism has increased, Okeyo said, because “You have to deliver the brand promise to the customer”.

And had people been happy to pay?

Okeyo said the paywall had been “taken up positively. It’s been good so far, considering the environment we’ve been through – the COVID times, so to speak.

“But I’d say people are willing to pay for content for as long as it’s making a difference in their lives. Be it human interest content, or educative, or health, or medical, it doesn’t matter – as long as it’s making a difference in their lives and it’s good quality and trusted, they will be willing to pay for it.

“What Nation has done, we’ve built a brand over 60 years. Our brand equity is high up there. And so what people do in the market is – they’d read a piece of content out there, and they always come back to verify on our platforms – be it free or paid for, they’d still end up paying for it, just to verify that content…

“People are beginning to appreciate that good content comes at a cost. So we are slowly and gradually making the shift in that acceptance. We are still a developing economy.

“Where your product is, this is a model that was adopted many years ago and appreciated. In our environment, people still believe they can get it for free… So it’s a process. It’s not going to be an overnight success.”

[Read more: Paywalls, micropayments and donations – how regional press giants are trying to make news pay]

Picture: Nation Daily homepage screenshot

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