The JAMLAB accelerator programme came to the Soul City Institute through sheer serendipity. Having recently transformed from the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication into the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, with a specific focus on young women and girls — we were at a turning point in our history, looking to explore new ways of doing things. The JAMLAB accelerator opportunity came from the left field, giving us the space and the support to this.
Soul City has been around for over 20 years and is prominent for harnessing popular culture to bring about social change. We are best known for our prime time television dramas that have become part of the fabric of South African life. People have literally grown up with us. Our social change methodology combines mass media with advocacy and social mobilisation. The rationale for selecting prime time drama was clear — it can reach millions of audiences, it can impart knowledge as well as shift social norms and behaviours around complex social and health issues through storytelling at scale, and it should pay for itself through attracting advertising revenue/licensing fees. We scored top marks on all counts except paying ourselves — whatever we attracted through our average audience viewership of 6–7 million per episode — accrued to the broadcaster and not to us.
So like all NGOs doing good work, we have had to go cap in hand to donors and government to support what we do. Things were easier when South Africa was in its early post-apartheid period and it was still sexy to fund development work here. But it is not so easy now. Global recessions, wars, refugee crisis, and other competing priorities have meant a rapidly diminishing pool of resources down South. Also, despite being one of the most inequitable countries in the world — a greater predictor of death and disease than absolute poverty — South Africa is a middle income country and therefore less eligible for donor funding. Another down side to this scenario is that donors and government funding is great when agendas are well aligned, or if you are willing to bend your purpose to fit into these agendas. But if you are an advocacy organisation that wants to speak truth to power, or you want to chart your own agenda regardless, then the going is increasingly tough.
Tired with this scenario, as Soul City Institute we decided to take a long hard look at ourselves and assess whether we are still “fit for purpose”. This led us to some important realisations — we needed to take a fresh look at the way we “do business” — one that would achieve our social change objectives while simultaneously generating sufficient revenue to pay for itself. We wanted to “do good by doing well” — but in a more radical kind of way. We had come up with a few crazy ideas and pitched two for the JAMLAB accelerator. And that’s how we became part of the programme at the Tshimologong Precinct exploring — for the next few months — the feasibility of these ideas. Our aim is to create a financially sustainable media platform that will provide a home for young women fed up with patriarchy. Our crazy ideas range from a commercially viable, feminist radio station that captures in a constructive way, the angry mood of the #MenareTrash generation, to the feasibility of becoming a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, providing cheaper data while offering a range of services with appeal to young women and providing a platform to engage on issues of patriarchy, sexual rights and other matters of relevance to the this generation.
The JAMLAB experience has challenged us to think practically while thinking big and has introduced us to tools that are helping us do this. We are encouraged to be agile in our thinking, adapting our ideas to new insights as we research and test our assumptions. The lab also provides a great opportunity to work on our ideas individually while still cross-fertilizing with the other JAMLAB fellows. This combination has generated a group energy and enthusiasm which is creative and dynamic. Being in the lab is a bit like having a bipolar disorder. We fluctuate between the high of being the next Facebook; Airbnb or Uber to the reality of what it takes to make it in the world of commercially viable digital innovation. We remain optimistic that Soul City will make it out alive, with a bankable business plan that can help make our world a better place for young women and girls to live in.
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