Understanding Africa’s social media storm – Facebook experiments with how to make itself the “on-ramp” for first-time Internet users

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Facebook took Africa by storm and became the social media that everyone seemed to be on. Now Facebook is experimenting (with mobile operators) to use Facebook as the way of attracting first-time users to the Internet. Russell Southwood reviews Balancing Act research on social media use in four African countries and talks to Nicola D’Elia, Head of Growth and Partnerships, EMEA, Facebook on what it’s trying to achieve.

One of the things a recently published major market research study by Balancing Act (click on www.balancingact-africa.com and look in the right-hand column. It’s free to download) looks at is the state of the social media market in four African countries. It’s a sign of how fast the market moves that What’sApp was not on the radar in Africa when the questionnaires were being written.

The face-to-face, nationally or regionally representative samples cover: Ghana, Northern Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. The percentages below are based on those who use social media and are for those doing so once a day or more: in other words, regular users:


Facebook    55%
Google+     18%
Twitter        27%
You Tube    16%
Eskimi          5%
MXit             5%
2Go             5%
biNu            3%

Northern Nigeria

Facebook    53%
2Go            44%
Google+     27%
MXit             7%
Eskimi          4%
Twitter         3%
biNu            2%
You Tube     1%


Facebook    57%
Google+     23%
You Tube    24%
Twitter       16%
FaceDakar    7%
Eskimi          5%
2Go              5%
biNu             3%
Twoo            2%
Hi5               2%
MXit             1%


Facebook       71%
Twitter          51%
Google+       40%
You Tube      34%
2Go               3%
biNu              2%
MXit              1%
Eskimi           1%

There are five key conclusions that can be drawn from this data:

1. Facebook is the dominant social media platform but Google+ takes second or third position a long way back.

2. The only regional player of any scale in these countries is South Africa’s 2Go in Nigeria, demonstrated by its significant showing in Northern Nigeria. All the other less-well known international and regional social media are also-rans.

3. The francophone market Senegal contains a very different range of social media platforms but it’s still Facebook and Google+ in the number one and two positions.

4. You Tube is only in the top 3 in Senegal, which probably reflects data prices and speeds in that country.

5. Twitter only makes a significant market share impact in Tanzania. However, it is billed as the “opinion formers” platform and if that’s actually true, then the slightly smaller market share does not matter.

Nicola D’Elia told me:”We recently announced that we have 100 million users in Africa. The biggest country markets are Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, very much in line with population size”.

“In Sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of that use is on mobile and that is at the core of our strategy. The strategy is focused on growth (adding new members) and engagement (increasing time spent on the platform)… We want to help mobile operators provide a good data journey.”

One of its initiatives has been to work with Tigo in Tanzania, offering Facebook for free to those with a data connection. He’s cagey about who’s picking up the costs:”The balance of costs vary between ourselves and the operators. They can help us reach non-Facebook users and provide technical support and we can provide insights at the aggregated level.”

But as he says affordability is the key:”Affordability is a barrier to access. Facebook tends to be the first service many access so we are using several models with different partners to overcome cost barriers. We want to impact on their numbers and come up with the right products.”

These include Facebook Zero, a promotion where you get Facebook free for one month and discounted data packages to access Facebook. It has also launched an information product with Airtel in Zambia through its Internet access alliance, Internet.org . (see video clip interview below for more detail)

Facebook is in discussions with many mobile operators but he’s understandably reluctant to talk in detail about them. But he made one telling observation:”It depends on the market. If you’re the incumbent, you’re less likely to be a risk-taker.”

As with that other high-profile Over-The-Top (OTT) operator, the primary effort is to grow Internet user numbers in general and Facebook users only as part of that overall effort. The bigger the Facebook user numbers, the more advertising sales will become possible but it’s getting the user numbers up that comes first.

There’s a certain tendency to monopoly in a range of Internet platforms. If I say search engine to you, you’re most likely to say Google. If I say online book seller, you’ll say Amazon.

The same is also true of social media platforms; with certain notable exceptions (Russia), Facebook is the dominant player and Google+, the “who?” option. Platforms like this feed off critical mass: if your friends are mostly on Facebook, why use another platform?

The other tendency is for the OTT players to imitate each other and extend to similar functionalities. Everyone plays with news feeds. Everyone would like to add easy purchase options. Everyone wants instant messaging and voice calls. And so on…But maybe not everybody wants everything on a single platform. The group and one-to-one research illustrated that users are often quite fickle and move to other platforms. Also they use different platforms for very different things. Hence Facebook’s prospective purchase of What’sApp which it didn’t want to talk about because the deal is not yet complete.

So for mobile operators – whether they are incumbents or not – the time to get on the bus is now. Tomorrow’s users actually care about things like the price of data and their Facebook account and won’t show much loyalty if you don’t get them right.

See video interview on the link below:

Nicola D'Elia on Facebook as an "on-ramp" for Africa's first-time Internet users


Digital Content Africa: Balancing Act’s web TV channel Smart Monkey TV has launched a new e-letter called Digital Content Africa. On a fortnightly basis, it will cover online film, music, publishing and services and applications. We have already produced 20 issues and these can be viewed on this link:

Essential reading for those in mobile VAS to anyone just interested in what African and relevant international content they can now get online. If you would like to subscribe, just send an email to info@balancingact-africa.com with Digital Content Africa in the title line. Some examples of past issues below:

Digital Content Africa Z24: The South African TV announcer who runs a fashion blog from Moscow which she is going to turn into a business

Digital Content Africa Z19 – The Mobile Deal that is keeping Africans from having more music, film and TV on their mobiles

Digital Content Africa Z16  - MTN Play Côte d’Ivoire is looking for digital content that will play well on mobile phones

Videos interviews to watch:

Nicola D'Elia on Facebook as an "on-ramp" for Africa's first-time Internet users

Raul Martinez, Millicom on digital content in Africa and how it's backing start-ups

Mark Bennett, iSchool on using low cost tablets to change learning methods in Zambia

Babatunde Olaifa on the biggest football website in Africa, Goal.com

Nkiru Balonwu, CEO, music platform Spinlet on how mobile operators take most of their revenues

John Davies, Intel on ways to connect the last 4 billion people unconnected globally with examples from Kenya, South Africa, India, Bangladesh and Colombia

Bastian Gotter of Lagos incubator Spark on providing services for Africans coming online

Fikayo Ogundipe, co-founder ToLet.com.ng on a Nigerian lettings site like no other

Gillian Ezra, Simfy Africa on launching a music streaming service with MTN in South Africa

Jose Soares, Net 1 Mobile Solutions on the solar powered Wi-Fi lamp designed to change lives

Sascha Meinrath, X-Lab on using Mesh Wi-Fi to connect the unconnected in Somaliland and Tunisia

For breaking news, follow us on Twitter: @BalancingActAfr