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Challenges and Opportunities in Digital Media in Namibia 0

“My life goal is not to be successful. I want to be significant. I want to create platforms that allow other people to be successful and significant. The reward for me is to see other people succeed,” Brendan Ihmig who runs PointBluntPro in Namibia. Ihmig is the epitome of a digital media entrepreneur.

Ihmig helped establish electronic sports as an official sport in Namibia, and he’s an early adopter of new technologies and the latest digital media platforms. In short, Ihmig is representative of the kind of talent Namibia needs to embrace if it is going to take advantage of emerging technologies and invent its way into the future.

A former youth minister, music teacher, and avid gamer, Ihmig has always turned to technology as a way to connect and understand the world beyond his immediate geography. At just 31 years old, however, he is already facing burn out given the tough cultural resistance he faces while trying to introduce new concepts to a resistant business community in Namibia.

“When working with Namibian businesses to establish websites and digital or social media marketing plans, one encounters a mix of diverse factors and barriers,” Ihmig shares. Of course, there are the typical barriers to new technologies that involve convincing clients to move from the status quo. For instance, it took him 18 months to convince a travel industry client to establish a Facebook page. But there are even more basic barriers to action.

First, “time” is a Western concept. “In the African culture, beliefs are based on nature,” Ihmig said. Time is determined by seasons or sunlight and not artificial metrics. “How this often translates to business,” he explains, “is that many Africans seem to resist planning ahead. They might plan 9 months ahead, but for some, there is no such thing as planning 5-10 years ahead.”

It also translates to the way people work. “My father would encounter laborers who didn’t know what a straight line was because truly straight lines don’t exist in nature. Their frame of reference might be a tree, a river, or a stick – all of which are kind of straight, but not really.” The point being, when fundamental concepts such as time and geometry aren’t shared, there are bound to be challenges when introducing Western business practices. There are opportunities, however, for the dedicated talent to overcome the challenges.

“People in their 30s are starting to be more influential in the business realm,” Ihmig believes. “We are the last generation that has a choice to live with or without technology. The first time I saw a mobile phone was during my last year of high school. Today, most kids in Namibia today are given mobile phones as early as second or third grade as a way to keep in touch. There is only a 5-6 year age difference between my sisters and me, but the differences in how we approach technology are quite noticeable.” What this means to Ihmig is the younger generation is more likely to approach business with an inherent knowledge of the potential of digital technology-driven solutions.

This inherent knowledge will be critical since the vast majority of Namibian companies are still not aware of the potential impact social media or digital technologies can have on their businesses. For instance, Ihmig has encountered many hotel and business owners who have had reviews on Tripadvisor.com of which they weren’t aware.

“They still don’t realize that others are talking about their business,” Ihmig said. “This is not only a potential negative, but it is also a missed opportunity to promote or market their businesses on free sites particularly beyond Namibia.” It’s the same with LinkedIn. Ihmig encourages Namibian businesses to get online and fill out LinkedIn profiles. “So much could be done with technology that people are currently doing in person,” he said.

Getting new technologies adopted is not going to be easy. “Social media and ecommerce face interesting challenges as they’re being introduced to Namibian culture,” according to Ihmig. Some of the challenges are shared with Western culture such as resistance to or fear of new technology. “The bulk of Namibians, say 30 and older, still think the Internet is for porn and predators. The commonly-held belief is the Internet is a place that takes you for a ride. It’s just a place where marketing ads are translated or Nigerian scams happen.” There’s also an added twist. “People 45 and older don’t understand icons. It’s not intuitive to “download here” when there’s an arrow,” Ihmig explains.

They also don’t have a catalog culture which is something Americans take for granted when it comes to our acceptance of ecommerce as a business model. As noted above, Namibians have long relied upon direct contact when conducting business.

“In the U.S., for decades you’ve had catalogs as a way to buy and sell goods from unknown vendors. That has never been a practice in Namibia. Namibians don’t understand catalog culture. Namibians want to touch, feel, and hold an item before purchasing it. We didn’t grow up with catalogs so moving from print to digital catalog shopping is a truly foreign concept,” shares Ihmig.

It’s the same with magazines. “Local magazines don’t really exist. In fact, local content in any form is hard to come by,” Ihmig explains. “There are few original magazines in Namibia, and those that do exist are more like advertisements made to look like stories, but they’re not explicitly identified as such.” This reality is as much a by-product of economics (low country population – only 2 million people — of which the majority have limited, if any, disposable income) as it is a reflection of lack of talent.

“The quality of journalism and writing is not particularly high in Namibia. Often you see content written in “Namlish” which is a mixture of the various languages — Afrikaans, tribal, German, American, all tossed together,” Ihmig said.

Of course, as with many African countries, there is also the issue of Internet access, but that is improving. There is also a growing reliance on mobile devices as a primary platform with more than a million Namibians — half the population — owning mobile phones. Nevertheless, it will still be some time before the majority of people are connecting online in this way since affordable mobile access to online sites with large amounts of downloadable data is still not a reality for most. The demand is certainly there, however, with more than half of Namibians accessing Facebook via mobile devices, according to Ihmig.

All of these challenges provide opportunities for the current generation of entrepreneurs. They have an opportunity to start creating platforms for sharing information – whether they’re online or print form but that’s only if they stay around.

“It’s hard to keep talented individuals in the country,” Ihmig said, “Ninety percent of the students leave. They usually go to places like South Africa for school and then end up staying because they can make careers there. The highly-educated people are not coming back to the country because the opportunities to build businesses and specialize in any one thing are so limited.” This talent drain presents an interesting dilemma because there are few 30 year olds in leadership roles across the country.

It often seems as though the majority of people in government positions are either too old to be inspired or not interested in considering new points of view,” Ihmig thinks. He’s hopeful, however, those barriers will start to lessen as officials get more comfortable with new approaches and new generations start working in politics.

In spite of the barriers he faces, Ihmig continues to be optimistic about Namibia’s future. “So many factors make entrepreneurship such a challenge here, especially when you want to go against the norm or are stepping into uncharted local waters,” he shares. “But I am consistently motivated to take a step back and then to take a leap forward.”

By Shelby Barnes

Shelby is a graduate student in Digital Media at the University of Washington in the United States. To connect with Shelby, go to http://outofseattle.wordpress.com/.

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