By Mary Kadewere

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, all businesses got weary of their future. Uncertainty was pervasive and the media was not spared.

Well established brands saw their earnings through advertising and other revenue streams decline as advertisers cut their ad spend in the wake of slowing business due to government-imposed lockdowns and travel restrictions.

At around this time, Malawian journalist Mallick Mnela had decided to quit his full-time job as an editor at one of Malawi’s leading media outlets, Zodiak, to launch his digital media company, iHubOnline.

“I had two job offers on the table. But I remained hopeful that my earnings as a consultant would continue to finance my start-up. To be honest, I was motivated by a passion for quality information on social media than profit or money,” said Mnela, adding that his decision was unpopular among family and close friends.

He added that while his pessimism grew, the validation he got from colleagues and friends kept him going.

“I am privileged to have a strong support system. My key professional mentor is BBC’s Sophie Ikenye. She encouraged me to always yearn for good journalism,” he recalled.

He also had colleagues such South African based Jamaine Krige, a correspondent for the SABC and Al-Jazeera, who offered to help with editorial work.

He said with the strong support network, poor journalism was out of the question.

“Good journalism is slow to grow. It does not thrive on sensationalised content so there is no exponential growth in likes and reach. It requires patience and a lot of resources which we did not have,” he added.

The following grew to around 3,000 on social media and the reach on some of posted content reached 20,000 impressions — most of the viewers/readers being youths, with post-secondary education.

The idea of iHubOnline, however, very much remained more of a hobby, mostly due to a lack of direction in managing a media enterprise at a time of calamity.

“The first instinct was to just shut down. But Wits University’s Jamlab offered us a lifeline,” said Mnela.

He explained that being part of the Jamlab Accelerator Programme saw the start-up grow in all spheres. Most importantly, it helped him remain focused.

“We got to understand who we are and our offering to the world out there. We realised how we could take advantage of our environment to grow,” he added.

He said having noted a growing interest in live-streaming, the start-up carved a niche in this portfolio.

“Our uniqueness was on the fact that we used mobile journalism and collapsed all barriers to entry. It was mostly to do with utilising media innovations to offer new services that could add value to our offerings,” he noted.

Through one-on-one coaching sessions with Phillip Mgodi of Jamlab, said Mnela, he got to understand the business and started investing in more professional gear.

“We never realised we were going to be of service until Save the Children offered us the opportunity to live-stream two of their events. This was a turning point,” he recalls.

Since then, iHubOnline has streamed or coordinated more than a dozen virtual events, raking in enough cash to not only stay afloat but acquire Blackmagic equipment and professional cameras.

“I remember one day during our virtual class, I expressed my intention to shut the news services to concentrate on the streaming business. Phil noted the confusion and we had a couple of one-on-sessions and the puzzle was solved. We were to remain who we are as iHubOnline while taking advantage of growth opportunities,” he adds.

Mnela notes that having a start-up that operates without a template of the business model gets exciting when you have mentorship that does not only value money-making but quality journalism.

He says his small start-up has been entrusted to manage major virtual events including the Economics Association of Malawi’s first-ever Annual General Meeting (AGM), the virtual launch of the country’s development blueprint, the Malawi 2063, the European Union-funded National Electoral Review Conference, and several other high profile events all of which were patronised by the country’s president Lazarus Chakwera and his vice Saulos Chilima.

Nonetheless, the cost control measures and the business uncertainty meant that all iHubOnline resources were now being focused on virtual events, leaving the news section to die.

Then an opportunity arose.

During a Jamlab virtual class on the sustainability of operations, a discussion was held on various revenue streams including grants. This was the moment that iHubOnline was saved!

“Coincidentally, at around the same time, the International Media Support (IMS) with funding from the EU had a Covid-19 Media Recovery Programme. We applied at once. Then in about 2 months’ time, I broke the news that iHubOnline had been offered a grant of close to €10,000. It was so surreal,” adds Mnela.

As part of the grant, iHubOnline will procure Personnel Protective Wear, get operational expenses paid for three months and conduct virtual Covid-19 awareness.

iHubOnline has since upgraded their website enabling them to stream in high-quality resolution.

The grant adds value through the brand association. He says a brand associated with a programme run by the Wits University, a website and social media platforms run professionally and the association with global players such as the IMS plus other local leading brands offer an advantage that is not easy to replicate for other start-ups, at least for the time being.

According to Mnela, with media innovation and flexible business skills, the media have greater room for thriving even if all forecasts seem to suggest doom.

“We’re now operating our news website, as well as our commercial events, live streaming sections simultaneously. We can only hope that our sustainability will be guaranteed after leaving the Jamlab programme,” adds Mnela.

He says iHubOnline will be working on creating more stable revenue streams while enhancing its component of journalism that caters to broader communities.

“About the future, we hope to keep our eyes open. We will innovate to thrive. That’s what Jamlab training has been about. Creating value and take advantage of the market environment.”

  • Mary Kadewere is coordinating the Covid-19 Media Recovery Grant media activities at iHubOnline.

The JamLab Accelerator is a six-month hothouse programme for journalism and media innovators. It is based at Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in the heart of Johannesburg.


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