Built in Africa: Seun Osewa on building Nigeria’s most popular site


Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that are born on the continent and empower the continent’s citizens.

Online communities and discussion platforms are the cornerstone of the internet. In this second instalment of our “Built in Africa” series, we feature one of the most prominent online communities to come out of Africa — Nairaland — and its founder Seun Osewa.

In Africa you don’t really hear about forums or insanely popular platforms (which work like Reddit or Craig’s List) that are built in Africa for an African market. Africans are active on forums, but those these are generally part of other networks, such as gaming, chat and specialised groups. Nairaland is the exception.

I first came across Nairaland while at university — all the Nigerian expats used it to connect with home, keep up with the local gossip and be part of the society that seemed so far away.

The platform is an online community targeted at Nigerians, and with more than 1 198 439 registered accounts, it is currently ranked as the seventh most visited site in Nigeria according to Alexa.com. The site receives more than 6-million unique users from around 16-million visits, and it reportedly has more than 60-million pageviews monthly.

Building a multi-million dollar internet empire

The founding of the platform and the company that followed happened almost by chance.

“The process that led to the decision to start Nairaland started when I stumbled on a website called hotornot.com,” Osewa tells me.

The idea of rating the opposite sex (and seeing how other people rated as well) was a simple concept that Osewa got addicted to very quickly. Soon enough a business idea was born.

“I learnt that the creators of the site made money by selling ads on it. That was the first time I realised that one could make money by building a popular site and selling ads on it,” he says.

The first iteration of Nairaland was born.

The journey to monetisation was a little trickier for the new community. The task for Osewa was figuring out how to make money out of the growing traffic. Learning about ad networks and how they could help him circumvent having to sell ad space directly to clients was key.

“I read a blog post titled “blogging for dollars” where a blogger described how he made thousands of dollars monthly by just joining the biggest advertising network,” he says. “This was essential, because using an ad network allowed me to focus on growing Nairaland’s traffic knowing that if I could make Nairaland popular, I would automatically make a lot of money. It allowed me to be focused on traffic.”

It was only years later that Osewa began to introduce the idea of forums to the site as mobile telephony became popular in Nigeria. At the time, Osewa says that “the government had just allowed private telecom companies to build GSM networks”.

I noticed that the forum had something no other Nigerian forum had at the time — it was focused on issues that Nigerians at home cared about. Other Nigerian forums online focused on issues only Nigerians living outside cared about, like racism and US politics, but on that little forum, we discussed truly Nigerian issues.

For the internet entrepreneur, this was the last piece of the puzzle to his multi-million dollar empire. So instead of just a rating site, he decided to build a forum that all Nigerians at home and abroad would care about and use.

According to Osewa, the goal was to gain enough traffic to be able to turn a profit through advertising. What happened, however, surprised him.

“I didn’t expect it to become the most visited Nigerian/African website and hold that position for many years,” he says. “That was a pleasant surprise.”

Monetisation challenges

As the site became more popular it would make sense that Osewa would reach his goal — to make a lot of money via ads. As it turns out, it’s not that easy.

“Initially, monetising the forum was very easy,” he explains. “I had some previous experience with the best online advertising network available at the time, so I knew that they could convert traffic into money reliably.”

Osewa and his team would focus on making Nairaland more successful, and in return the ad network would reward them with impressive cheques every month. It seemed simple enough.

“It wasn’t entirely cost-free, of course: we were required to censor our content to make sure that nothing they didn’t approve of would appear on any page of Nairaland. Some of our members didn’t like this censorship — nobody likes to be censored — but we thought it was a small price and didn’t really have any choice, anyway.”

But censorship wasn’t the only problem that the platform had to find a way around — it was also becoming a victim of its own success.

As the platform grew bigger it became harder for the team to guarantee that none of its millions of pages wouldn’t contain any content that the advertising network didn’t approve of.

The team scrambled to “more aggressively” censor what they could in order to remain part of the ad networks but in end it was no impossible — the members of the community would have the final say.

So the ad network “kicked us out for good,” recalls Osewa.

In the end getting kicked out did wonders for the platform, as the team decided that it would be better to build their own ad platform and keep Nairaland as free of censorship as possible.

Always solve the problems people complain about

“Problems worth solving are usually the ones that people complain about all the time,” Osewa says when I ask where African innovators should focus their talents.

He argues that it really is that simple when it comes to innovating.

When you this from a Nigerian perspective, the problems that need solving become glaringly obvious. Nigerians and Nigerian Twitter are concerned about power and the cost and lack of electricity.

“We complain about power all the time. We complain about the cost of buying, running, fueling and maintaining the small generators that every business must buy in order to be able to get anything done.”

Nigerians are also concerned about the cost of travelling outside the country and the current healthcare standards.

“We complain about having to travel out of the country, which few of us can afford, and to get good healthcare if faced with challenging medical conditions.”

Nairaland and the future

When it comes to Nairaland, Osewa feels that doing the same thing over and over in different locations makes no sense — which is why he feels that Nairaland is likely to remain a very Nigerian forum and not expand to other parts of the continent.

“For Nairaland to expand outside Nigeria, we’d have to change the essence of what Nairaland is about,” he tells me, and that’s just something he will not do.

Photo Credit: Webtrendsng



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