THE Directory was the 'it' book back in the days when mobile phones in Kenya were a preserve of the few super rich individuals and internet was hardly used to communicate.
The heavy large book by the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation was vital to businesses and homes alike. It was the only way to get addresses and the location of various businesses and people.
The Directory was a book most households kept religiously, but as internet use grows and use of fixed telephone lines drops gradually, the Directory almost became obsolete, almost.
Now, being published by Kenya Postel a company partly owned by Telkom Kenya and the Portuguese government, the publishers have found crafty ways to maintain its relevance.
The company has been in operation since 1992 and has so far published 18 editions of the annual directory which is distributed free to Telkom Customers in the various regions covered. The 19th edition will be out end of March.
With the country's numerous SME businesses that are struggling to get exposure at an affordable rate, the Directory has been given rise to another bye-product the Mobile Business Directory.
The new version of the book features mobile phone numbers of various businesses for free for a normal entry and a little extra charge for any enterprise that wants its contact boldened or published in red colour to stand out.
For fixed lines listing, Kenya Postel still publishes the Landline Directory although its a much thinner version than its old version when it was a publication of KPTC, perhaps a stark reminder of how fast these lines are becoming phased out by the mobile phone.
"Most SMEs are run as a one man show therefore the owner is the accountant, in charge of sales and marketing as well as distribution. Most of them do not have enough funds to set up a fixed phone line and employ someone to man the office and who will answer calls to a land line, so they mostly operate with mobile phones," says Bertha Ngaru the head of marketing at Postel.
And even though Google, social media and mobile phone applications have made it easier to get contacts; Kenya Postel believes that its easier for a business to get serious customers by being listed on the Mobile Business Directory than on the internet.
"First there is segmentation where businesses offering certain products or services are listed by segments, secondly anyone whom we have listed on this directory gets a lot of exposure because they are automatically also featured on our website yellowpageskenya.com and lastly print always has more credibility," argues Ngaru.
On online pages, she says, the visibility of a business depends on the search engine which mostly favours the large businesses often overshadowing the SMEs, especially since the big firms have got the marketing funds to pay to appear top on such search findings.
While a basic entry on this Directory is free, a business would have to pay Sh5,500 to have its name and contacts printed in bold or Sh6,500 to have it in red; to stand out from its competitors listed in the same segment.
"Anyone who wants to transact serious business with a company refers to the print and that has sustained the Directory in this era of internet and mobile phone technology," says Ngaru.
The Postel executive also points out that the rates charged, are more than cheap compared to advertising rates in mainstream media and online thereby serving the SMEs better since its a one off rate for a book that will be used for a whole year for contact reference. Kenya Postel depends on advertising revenue as the directories are distributed for free except for its other smaller product, the tourism guide.
And unlike the days of KPTC, the current Directory together with its mobile contacts version are printed out of the country, a move Ngaru says it to make it conform to standards set out by the Portuguese government as its a major shareholder in Kenya Postel.
Knowing that it has to go the extra mile to survive in business, Kenya Postel has also diversified into printing a tourism guide for Kenya with all the relevant informantion for visitors that highlights all of the country's tourist attraction sites.
When he first came into the country in early 90s to head Kenya Postel shortly after the joint venture deal was started with Telkom Kenya to publish the Directory; Jose Saldanha who was on a two year contract then had not anticipated he would stay in Kenya for long; perhaps because the print business has numerous uncertainties.
His standard joke has now become: “When people ask me how long I have been in Kenya, I used to say I am here on a two-year contract then I pause and add for the last 20 years!"
It has indeed been a long journey for the Directory but like the post office box business, its taking technology change head on and riding the waves to survive.