Ink in her veins

2008-02-19 00:00

GENUINE is back. And if editor Mbali Dhlomo has her way, it’s here to stay. “I’m 100% positive it will fly,” she says of her relaunched lifestyle glossy aimed at aspirant young black readers in KwaZulu-Natal who are encouraged by the magazine’s motto to “be who you are”.

Dhlomo’s enthusiasm for her magazine, which has been her “life” since 1999, is infectious. Her confidence is born of years of hard work, solid market research and, more recently, external funding. The pioneer edition was launched in 2001, but production shut down in 2003 “largely because of finances”, explains Dhlomo.

Now, she’s been given a second bite at the cherry. “I am the proud beneficiary of a grant from the MDDA,” she says, referring to the Media Development and Diversity Agency set up by Parliament to develop community and small commercial media.

Dhlomo is certain of a large and eager market for the magazine. “At the time I first launched Genuine, there was nothing specifically for the people of KwaZulu-Natal,” she says. That market — about eight million people — is ready and waiting, she believes. “Now we have no funding limitations, it’s up to us to push the boat as far as we can. Failure is not an option this time.”

Since the relaunch in January last year, feedback has been positive and recent letters pages are still filled with messages of praise and encouragement. One recent letter reports that sales in a Durban supermarket were so brisk that they “ran out of copies on the first day they were distributed”. When the magazine is shown to a couple of my younger colleagues, they fall upon it, complaining that they can’t always find it in Pietermaritzburg.

“People are hungry to read about themselves”, is how Dhlomo explains the magazine’s appeal. Generous amounts of space are given to photographs of KwaZulu-Natal people at birthday parties, celebrations and events. Targeting 18 to 35-year-olds, the magazine tries to appeal to both genders by featuring men and women on the front cover.

Dhlomo believes the letters pages reflect an active engagement with the magazine’s contents. “People are writing in with questions and requests,” she says. As well as profiling successful individuals, and giving dedicated space to local fashion designers, the magazine has a strong practical focus. Informative articles appear on issues ranging from how to start your own business to dealing with sexual harrassment at work. There’s a regular HIV/Aids advice column, general health pages, recipes and short profiles on the latest books, cellphones and motor cars. Space is also given to aspiring writers of fiction in the short story pages.

In short, there’s something for everyone.

Sales figures have been rising steadily since the third relaunch edition, but have not yet met Dhlomo’s exacting personal targets. “I’m analysing the sales patterns and my intention is to possibly spend more time promoting the magazine in townships where sales are high.”

Thus far, she’s piggy-backed on Independent Newspapers’ established distribution network with positive results. “It [Independent] is a big company and I didn’t know how the people there would respond to my request, but they were very supportive and have even given me advice when I needed it.”

The current print run is 5 000 and the publication is sent throughout the province.

A reputable distributor was one of the conditions attached to her grant. So too was a protracted period of “capacity building” as well as MDDA-funded market research. So, while Dhlomo secured the grant in 2004, it was not until the end of 2006 that the funds came through and she was able to relaunch in 2007.

“It’s been difficult, but what drives me is the passion for what I do,” says Dhlomo who describes herself as a self-taught journalist who does everything from writing to layout and has had to become familiar with every step of the production process. Although she originally intended to become an accountant, it was a stint as promotions assistant with Thandi magazine from 1991 to 1993 that sowed the seed of her desire to have her own magazine.

As a component of a part-time marketing course at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she developed the magazine concept and, at the end of 1998, despite having been offered a promotion, left her job as a technical analyst at Ithala Bank to launch her dream.

She did her market research, set up a close corporation under which to operate and opened an office in Durban. She set herself a target of R100 000 for advertising.

“Well, none of it materialised,” she says. “I realised I would have to start from scratch. Advertisers wanted to see a dummy copy, so I had to produce that first.”

She bought a computer but her printers told her she would be better off with an Apple Mac, so she swopped her PC with a friend who had a Mac. Then she taught herself Freehand and Photoshop.

Preparatory work took her to 2001 when an educational institution gave her a loan to print the first two editions. The magazine started off with six staff members, but eventually all of them left to pursue more stable jobs and Dhlomo was left mostly with volunteers.

Today, she retains a hands-on approach to the publication, stepping in to do most of the layout, although she insists on outsourcing her covers and the first couple of fashion pages to professional design artists.

“My past experience has made me scared of employing people. Although I can now see the direction this publication is taking, I still end up doing a lot myself, which is a weakness I am fighting hard to overcome.”

Her plans are to produce the magazine monthly (currently, it is produced every two to three months) and increase its size. Ultimately, she would like to see the publication “go national”.

Until then, she’s content to focus on her home province. “I have the support of the MDDA, my family and others ... It’s all systems go.”

• Genuine magazine is available in Pietermaritzburg at Shoprite and CNA stores and retails for R12.

Mbali Dhlomo: Bringing Development home to Umbumbulu

AS a child, Mbali Dhlomo loved to draw. Her mother used to comment that she should be an artist. “I ended up resenting that suggestion,” she says, eventually going on to enrol for an accountancy diploma at M. L. Sultan. “But at heart I am creative and I love interior decorating.”

She’s decorated her parent’s home in Umbumbulu, the rural area where she was born in 1968, and now shares a home with her parents and her student daughter. “When my parents go out, I’m always moving the sofas around,” she says.

Thirty-nine-year-old Dhlomo radiates an energy that belies both her age and her workload. Perceiving a need for a community-based newspaper for Umbumbulu, this year she launched a free monthly Zulu-language newspaper called Intuthuko or Development. She funds it from her own pocket, but intends to apply for a grant to cover at least some of the outlay until advertising revenue can sustain it.

“I’m not only talking about government-related development,” she says of the paper’s title. “I’m referring to development of people.”

She realised the need for a newspaper in an area where the people had little to be positive about. “Umbumbulu is a rural area with limited services. It was only last year that Umgeni brought water to the area. There are few TVs, mostly radios, but no newspapers.

“While I don’t wish to promote the government through the paper, there are things that it is doing around access to grants and HIV/Aids information, for example. I want people to be aware of what is available.”

Dhlomo does the layout and personally distributes the paper through high schools and shops all the way from Eston to Umgababa. Her aim is for each subsequent edition to carry more local content.

When she introduced the newspaper to the principal of Khayelihle Secondary School, he was excited and intends using the paper as a teaching tool. “The school distribution network is working perfectly because, this way, the paper reaches homes and the children read it to their parents and grandparents. They engage with issues such as HIV.”

Concerned that young people should be exposed to as many career options as possible, Dhlomo also wants to invite a group of school children interested in writing or photography to do work for the paper.

“Until you get exposed to something you really love, it’s difficult to know what career to choose,” she says.

Now that she’s sure she’s in the right field herself, the tireless Dhlomo says she’s keen to pursue a course in communication or journalism.

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