EXCLUSIVE (Zimbabwe Investor) – In September 2012, a Zimbabwean social media enthusiast started a Twitter platform, @263Chat, for Zimbabweans from across the globe to converge and discuss burning topical issues in the country. From politics to education, marital issues to government policy, arts and culture to health, lobola to human rights, no topic is too important or too small to tackle. The man behind the @263Chat phenomenon Nigel Mugamu, going by the Twitter handle @SirNige, talks to us about his initiative, politics, business and personal life.
(Zimbabwe Investor) It has been a year since you initiated the #263Chat concept. Can you remind us again how the idea came about?
(Nigel Mugamu) In short I wanted to create a way for green, blue and yellow Zimbabweans to have a discussion that centred on Zimbabwe and Her development. I knew that the internet was the best meeting place given the demographic space the internet provides. My NGO friends taught me the use of that expression – ‘demographic space’.
What have been the high and low points of your journey hosting #263Chat over the past year?
The high points of the #263Chat are many but I will point out that learning from the discussions is something I cherish each day. I read the daily and weekly conversations that I pick up by following the #263Chat hashtag and/or the @263Chat twitter account. Those many thoughts shared openly by my fellow Zimbabweans and others are gold. If I was a policy maker I would pay more attention to our daily conversations.
Winning the Highway Africa Award was also another high point. Being recognised within the region for work I do every day in Zimbabwe was and still is very humbling.
The various collaborations borne from @263Chat and now that I’ve shifted the focus slightly so that 263Chat is sustainable going forward. It has become the social enterprise I wanted it to become from the beginning. @263Chat is now a registered business and is involved in social media services amongst other things.
The lows include the personal analysis regarding my motives for setting up this initiative up. Some believe that I have political ambitions or that I support this political party or that party. If I partner with a non-Zimbabwean entity to host certain events then some suggest that I’m taking on my partner’s agenda instead of simply seeing what @263Chat is actually designed for – DIALOGUE. It’s often sad when people adopt this ‘tall poppy syndrome’ as well. All I ever wanted to do with @263Chat is to use the tech tools available to encourage much-needed dialogue especially amongst the youth and the diaspora.
@263Chat platform has been receiving widespread recognition including award nominations and perhaps Zimbabwe’s northern neighbours Zambia to come up with their own platform #Insaka. What would you attribute this success to?
The internet and its use in Africa will prove to be more useful than anywhere else I believe. The success that @263Chat as platform has had is mainly down to the people who continuously support the initiative every week and now daily as we share and discuss issues. By simply following @263Chat on twitter, one is able to gauge what issues a section of Zimbabwe is discussing and/or passionate about.
Do you see social media increasingly influencing policy and development in Zimbabwe and Africa in general?
In the long term YES. However we need to resolve many of bread and butter issues right NOW. Our hospitals need to be improved, water and ZESA related issues need to be addressed if the economy is to reach its true potential just to name a few issues we need to address. For social media to really influence policy & development, it needs to touch the 70% of the population who are the youth and more importantly the 65% rural population in Zimbabwe.
Even well before @263Chat the various social media accounts you run, from Facebook or Twitter to your blog sirnige.com, already had decent followers. Is there a key ingredient everyone else is missing?
Thank you J I use social media to share and discuss issues revolving around Zimbabwe and Africa in general. I want to add value in the hope that others add value to my life & others around us. That’s how I’ve grown the following – value addition is at the forefront of what I do every day. Even though I’m a private person, I have had to learn to put that aside, openly share my journey and play my role in helping to tell the Zimbabwean narrative the way I see it.
It would appear obvious that your social media activity is not what brings food to your table. Any commercial ventures you are involved in?
I’m involved in a small chain of bookstores based in Harare. However I have also been making strides in ensuring the social media activity I’m involved in is also sustainable. It has to be and things are starting to happen in the background.
How have you found Zimbabwe’s business environment?
The business environment is tougher than it was say in 2011. The liquidity crisis is very real. Government needs to work harder to ensure we have a conducive environment for business. There is still a great deal of work to do. After saying this though there are some opportunities if one has a long-term plan for this country. Zimbabwe as a business environment requires a long-term investor.
Do you think Zimbabwe has a reading culture to support huge growth in your business?
In the long term yes. Companies like Kingstons survived with over 20 branches across the country at one point. The issue right now is we have low disposable income and our focus is on bread and butter issues which are more important than luxury products like books. Books in 2013 are still a luxury for most people. Having said all that we work very work and there is scope to grow and we continue to make steps forward.
How are you incorporating technology into your business?
The landscape is very different here in Zimbabwe. Yes we sell kindles, iPads and so forth. We have found that a large number of our customers still prefer the hard copy as well.
Of course you are in business to make money, but what impact would you like your business to make on Zimbabwe?
We would like to be the employer of choice. Our team is our most valuable resource. We also aim to play an important role in the area where we operate. We work closely with the other businesses to give back and invest of infrastructure so everyone benefits. For example, in Mount Pleasant, we have worked together with other businesses to drill a borehole that provides water to the Mount Pleasant District Office and more importantly the Mount Pleasant Clinic. In the future we aim and hope to do more for the community especially in 2014.
Anyone who follows @SirNige on Twitter gets a sense of someone very optimistic about Africa. What is your view of Africa future both in the short and long term?
Because of my faith, I am an optimistic person in general. I firmly believe that Africa is the future and I want to be part of that journey. We have so much to do to achieve our true potential – and we have lots of that. As an African, I feel that I should share my journey and indeed my reality as openly as possible. I have choosen to use social media for my journey. However in the short-term and in reality, we really need to understand the fundamental issues that provide many obstacles to Africa’s progress. In the long-term, we really need to address those same issues by communicating and crowd-sourcing various opinions and resources’ from far and wide including those in the rural areas, women and the African diaspora.
Six months ago, you told an African pop culture online magazine that you want social media to help you share what you called the “Zimbabwean & African narrative”. Could you tell us exactly what that entails?
I’m tired of non-Zimbabwean and/or African telling our reality. Social media if used properly can help shift that existing narrative. That’s what I meant. We have the power to collectively shift the narrative from that struggling continent to what it really – a work-in-progress project!
What would be the two things you see currently as either stopping or delaying Africa in achieving what you say?
Leadership in particular ‘servant leadership’ is problematic in Africa. We don’t have enough of it even though that is the kind of leadership we desperately require right now.
What is your view of African politics in general and Zimbabwe’s landscape in particular?
I could write a thesis on this topic but what I will say is that we need to find our own kind of political dispensation and solutions. Adopting other solutions without localising or understanding the context especially ours would not be wise. Our children will ask us in time why we didn’t think things through. I don’t want that problem for Africa for the next generation.
What are your thoughts on the elections held in Zimbabwe in July 2013?
The elections had to be held at some point this year. Economically the country has suffered greatly because of the usual election uncertainty and ongoing liquidity crisis. I am very thankful that the violence we witnessed and experienced in 2008 did not take place this time. However the elections themselves were not 100% perfect and I think more could have been done to communicate more about the process with the people. I do hope that some of the issues that marred this last election will be resolved in time for the 2018 elections especially the issues relating to the first time voters and the documentation required for that process.
Where do you think MDC went wrong and ZANU (PF) got right?
I think any election for MDC was always going to be tougher with several MDC factions. Irrespective of the reasons behind their split, unifying was always a determining factor in any election going forward. Just looking across throughout Africa, it is also extremely difficult to remove the political party that took power after independence. For Zimbabwe, as long as any political party can communicate effectively to the 65% rural population I spoke about either, there is a chance to win the election overall.
What do you think the future holds for Zimbabwe under the new political dispensation?
I have feeling that we will be very shocked by what happens within the next 5 years. From the conversations I have held with various people in or connected to government, it seems that these guys want to get Zimbabwe working again. I just wonder how Zanu will afford some of their promises based on their manifesto. The priorities are simple right now – bread and butter issues. We need ZESA sorted out to help grow the economy and attract investment. Indigenisation urgently needs to be demystified fairly quickly. I’m curiously watching what government does next.
You recently described the introduction of the new law which monitors phone usage as “rushed in” suggesting links to the recent Kenyan shopping mall terror attack. Can you expand on what you make of the new law?
The Edward Snowden revelations have shown me that we the citizens need to be more aware of what laws like these mean in real terms. Privacy is important to me as it should be to others. The rushed in bit was in reference to the lack of discussions beforehand. Not sure who to blame, our media and/or my lack of awareness of this. Either way I believe that I should be made myself more aware of these new rules and we should have at least discussed what it all means.
Have you attempted to have the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe or his office on Twitter?
LOL No. I wouldn’t even know who to contact to even suggest this.
If tomorrow morning you wake and you find His Excellency, the President of the Republic is on Twitter, what would be your first two tweets to him?
My 2 tweets would read this: 1) Welcome to twitter Your Excellency #263Chat #Twimbos. #Zimbabwe 2) We look forward to engaging with you Your Excellency #263Chat #Twimbos. #Zimbabwe
Would you consider entering Zimbabwe’s colourful floral industry of politics?
In my younger university days and idealist days I used to have what I refer to as quasi- political ambitions but not anymore. I’ve found that I don’t even have to be a politician to add value to our Zimbabwe so I will continue with my journey as it is.
Which Zimbabwean politician do you admire the most?
There are a few that I admire but to answer your question is a political manner, I will use 3 as examples. I like Walter Mzembi. He really wants to get things moving and you can tell that he’s passionate about his role. I like Jessie Majome. I like the way she uses social media to communicate with her constituency. You can tell that she meets with them fairly regularly. People who live in Harare West can testify to this. I like David Coltart. He seems like a principled person. He refused a ministerial vehicle. How many of us in that same position would do that?
I am guessing even @SirNige is allowed some time off, what are your hobbies outside work and moderating debate on @263Chat?
I write quite a bit and when finally I grow up, I want to write a book. I love sports especially football, rugby (union), cricket (T20) and Formula 1. I love meeting people and travelling. I have a hunger to learn especially about Africa so I read a great deal.
In between your many tweets is the occasional one on Manchester United suggesting they are your favourite English Premier League team?
What was your reaction when you read this news- “Sir Alex Ferguson retires”? – Yes I’m #ManUtd4Life. I have a 1996 Man Utd signed football – that kind of fan 🙂 I wasn’t shocked by Sir Alex’s retirement but I didn’t want Jose as our manager for sure. David’s appointment wasn’t surprising either.
Is the future of Manchester United secure in David Moyes’ hands?
We need to give Moyes time but I don’t expect us to win the league next year. Moyes needs time to understand how we work. We need to keep Rooney though.
What is your local favourite soccer team?
Highlanders. I’ve never been to any of their games but I have always liked them for many years now.
You are an avid reader as you describe yourself – who is your favourite author?
Tough one. Not one favourite writer person. Favourite books maybe. Some of my favourite books include: –
Is there a book of your own coming in the near future?
Yes when I eventually grow up.
In the time you started @263Chat, you have become a family man. How is Mrs SirNige and how has she fitted into your social media world?
Yes I have become a family man. In truth, my social media world has had to fit into our lives. I know my limits. For example if it’s dinner time, it’s dinner time. I’m blessed though. Mrs SirNige is extremely supportive of what I do on social media. She was the first person I spoke about the @263Chat idea. She is the inspiration behind some vital topics and even when I’m doing some travel blogging work, she’s usually there with me because I need a woman’s eye. She’s brutally honest with me which I need. She’s my rock.
A topic that evidently appears to interest you, not that it has anything to do with it, is lobola. What was your own experience?
It was alright. I had my whole family with me. I was naturally nervous but I actually said very little throughout the entire process but we won and got the bride. That’s why we went there.
Finally can you just tell all the followers of Sir Nigel’s Journey where you are taking them?
Wherever I’m going as a person is where we’re all going if they continue to follow me. Zimbabwe is naturally my focus and I want to encourage more dialogue about Her and for our conversations to be magnified. I want those ‘followers’ you mentioned to be part of the journey and to play some role in enabling them to tell and share their truth. Dialogue is important to me.