The case of Lifeinred.com and other failed sites

In 2002, Kenya was going through some interesting times. We were headed to the first elections in the country’s history where the incumbent would not be on the ballot box. There was feeling of a new age in all spheres of life. It was at this time that I got to work in my first website as a writer having worked on sites previously as designer and programmer.  The site was Kelele.com a website that had built its name as the official website to know what was going down in Nairobi.

Having worked for a few months on a mainly voluntary basis, the holding company decided to do more that tell the public how much its author had drunk in the last weekend offering mobile ringtones and the like. This was because the website, even with a volunteer writer and staff pooled from other (profitable) parts of the company, was not sustainable.

It was at this time that the rumour emerged that Coca Cola would be investing in a new web property called Lifeinred.com. The site was developed by the hottest web company then 3mice led by young hotshot Paul Kukubo. It would be doing whatever we did at Kelele.com, cataloguing Nairobi parties only this time with a Coca Cola focus. The rumour was that they would be investing about 3 million in their project which for those early days in the internet was quite a reasonable sum for a site that would be regularly updated.

I was taken aback thinking that Lifeinred.com would hire serious writers and my musings which were raw at best would leave me exposed for what I really was; an amateur. I opted to leave Kelele.com before I got myself kicked out. I used to do that a lot then.

Lifeinred.com came with some vim engaging consumers and getting traffic that if I would get on this site would crash my server and force me to fork out quite a few bob to my web host. A couple of years later Coca Cola ended their project and moved on. A search of Lifeinred.com today will show nothing of interest to a party goer.

In 2004, I was invited to Nairobi Net cyber cafe at Norwich Union on Mama Ngina Street in Downtown Nairobi to the launch of a new website called Maagonga.co.ke. The website with the strange name was supposed to disseminate information on HIV/AIDS to the public and had been funded by a few NGO’s. I want to suggest that USAID was one of them but I could very well be wrong. The site was being unveiled at a cyber cafe as this was supposed to be the hip new way of getting the word across as cyber cafes filled every available space in the capital. For the sponsors of the project it made sense to invest in the new technology as they would get its first users who would then influence the rest.

One year later, the domain failed to be registered and the information was lost as the website project died. I really wish that I had copied that information then and saved it for future reference. However, I could not have anticipated that only one year on, the site would be no more.

Fast forward to 2012 and recently the government gave out large sums of money to companies and individuals to help develop local content. There were very few reactions.  Railing against the government isn’t considered a very bright idea as permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo and ICT board CEO Paul Kukubo might get mad putting one out of the running for future funding.  Many blogs took the press release and posted as news. Robert Alai’s reaction was the most memorable with a venom filled attack on the government for investing in “leeches” with a special invective being reserved to the international company that had gotten Kenyan funding.

The number of websites that are born on a daily basis is quite high. The thing is that funding or not funding a website is not an indicator as to whether the project is going to succeed. As showed here with the examples of Life in Red.com and Maagonga.co.ke, investing will not give project sustainability if the initiators of the website have no long term vision for their project .

It’s not just locally that we have seen Internet ventures that were well funded struggling. America Online was the biggest Internet property going for a while going as far as buying one of the USA’s biggest TV companies. The internet arm of the business has since vanished from the company’s public persona. No one is safe.

The difference between the successful sites of the world, like Facebook and Google, and local sites is quite big. Those companies – please note companies not individuals – are able to get venture funding from people who can see the future and want to get into the game early. They are willing to invest a few dollars in the knowledge they will be making some serious monies in a few years. This doesn’t apply here locally. When Kenyan Investors invest one shilling, they want it back as soon as possible and then start getting one shilling a month forever as the initial shilling goes to look for its friends in a new project.

It is left for the government to help where it can. Or rather the World Bank (the government has its work cut out buying MPs their chairs) to give money for the projects like these that involve technology. There needs to be structures to justify the giving out of the money and thus people interested in the projects have to show that they have experience in the project that they want funded. This means that those who are already in the industry are more likely to get the funding as they are more versed in filling forms asking for money having had some previous experience.

The only thing that for the guy with the next Facebook to do is to continue working on their project quietly and hope to be discovered by the suits one day. This doesn’t always work out for the quiet guy as once what they doing starts getting any visibility, the bigger boys find out what they are doing they will quickly steal < co-opt> their ideas like Google did to Mocality or Kenyabuzz did to NairobiNow stealing their listings in recent times. It’s a cut throat place to compete with such little money and investors who have no idea what the Internet business is about.

I have to mention something about the government investing in foreign firms to develop local content. It’s sad that locals couldn’t think of a way to develop the same case and sell it to the Kenya ICT board and secure funding. That said, in principle I support the government giving the money to any comers whether local or foreign. It sends out the right message that Kenya gives everyone a shake that money cannot buy.

I support in principle the money being given to the companies and can’t fault the process in anyway. All I want is for massive education to be given to the next generation of webbies to allow them to be able to fill those forms properly. This is because the money will always to go to those who can fill applications the best; especially in paper obsessed Kenya.