Dan Swinhoe (Africa)- Social Networks Across Africa

Dan Swinhoe gives an overview of social media across Africa

The 695 million mobile subscriptions in Sub-Saharan Africa today equates to 65% mobile access, and represents a 4000% increase over the last 10 years. Four out of every five Internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa accesses the Internet via mobile phone, compared to one in three globally -Social skills in the classroom: Digital media use in Sub-Saharan Africa

Those are some impressive stats; and as mobile technology continues to spread across the whole of Africa at a rapid rate, the rise of social media grows with it. But there's more to Africa than simple Facebook numbers or Tweets. Social Networks are helping to change governments and save lives.

"Social media is doing something different in Africa as opposed to the rest of the developed world," Brett St Clair explained at a recent forum in Johannesburg. "There, most people use the Internet to find things, check e-mail, and do social media. In developing countries, we find that people use the Internet primarily for engaging in social media activities and to be entertained."

Social stats, on the go

Across Africa, PC ownership is low and household internet connection is practically non-existent in large swaths of the continent. In contrast, mobile ownership is at least double the PC ownership in many countries, so it's no surprise that most internet access comes from mobiles. According to Research In Africa, social networking is a major part of mobile use. For the majority, if they are using the internet on their phones, they are using it for social networking too.

Facebook hasn't yet made the kind of inroads it has in other emerging markets. The average penetration rate for the continent, according to SocialBakers, is 5.7%, compared to 36% for South America and 22.7% for Asia. And in total numbers, Africa's 45½ million pales to S. America's 133½ million and Asia's 245.7 million. India and Brazil's individual number of users both outnumber all of Africa. However, despite these lower numbers, Africa is on the up. In the last three months, only Senegal has seen Facebook numbers decline, while the continent as a whole has seen a higher percentage growth than any other continent with a 21% rise.

For Twitter, Africa is becoming quite a hotspot. Communication with friends and monitoring the news were the most popular uses for the microblogging site. Around 57% of Tweets in Africa are from mobiles. In Northern Africa, Egypt is the Tweet king, with 215,000 users compared to four and half thousand in neighbouring Libya and Sudan, and almost 8,000 in Algeria. South Africa is the biggest African Tweeter overall, with 2 ½ million users creating over 1½ million tweets a month. The total number of African Tweeters is hard to find, it was 5 million in 2010, but that figure has certainly shot up massively since.

The other social networks

As with every country, there's more to social networking than just the big boys. Africa is home to a wide range of social networks. Chief among them is Mxit. This South African site is a major player, with almost 50 million registered users across Africa. It's actually the biggest social network on the continent, with users sending 750 million messages per day.

Also from South Africa is Yookus. A sort of acronym for ‘You Own Your Kosmos', it claims to be a "quintessentially African social network that helps Africans interact, socialise, share information and access entertainment that is relevant to them" according to the group's chief executive officer, Tomisin Fashina. It currently boasts 7 million users, but is aiming for a heady 100 million by the end of next year, essentially vying to become the biggest social network on the continent.

There's also LAGbook. Founded in Lagos, Nigeria during 2010 by twin brothers Chika and Chidi Nwaogu, the site currently has around 370,000 users and has been growing rapidly with 4,000 daily new sign-ups. As a format it's pretty similar to Facebook, even down to the logo, though the ‘LAG', stands for ‘Ladies And Gentlemen'. There's also Motribe, Afroterminal, Bongoline, AfricanZone, Konekt Africa, the list goes on.

Despite social media appearing all across the continent, there are two major players. According to TNS Digital Life, Egypt has embraced social networking in a big way. They have the most users on Facebook, and much prefer active activities, such as blogging, uploading videos and music, posting messages and chatting. Communication makes up almost 50% of Egyptians' time spent online, according to the study. South Africa is the other country that's social media. On top of the 15 million Mxit users, there are 5.3 million on Facebook, 2½ million Tweeters, nearly 2 million LinkedIn users, and 150,000 Pinners in South Africa. These numbers are still growing at an impressive rate - although urban Facebook/Twitter users outnumber their rural counterparts 2:1, the latter are at the same sort of numbers now as urbanites were 18 months ago.

The Cheetah Generation

One of the ways social media is making more of an impact is through grassroots protesting. Obviously the Arab Spring was heavily facilitated by the likes of Twitter, which lead to the Egyptian government shutting down the whole of the country's internet. But there are also less high profile ways communication is helping. Young, tech-savvy people are asking questions and making their voices heard. Known as the ‘Cheetah Generation', they are "the hungry grassroots who have been let down by their governments." This generation of bloggers and talkers are creating a "paradigm shift in narratives about the continent," according to Mariéme Jamme of Africa Gathering, through user-generated content that is holding government leaders to account.

In areas where conflicts may be brewing, something not wholly uncommon in certain areas of the continent, social media is being looked on as a way to help stymie the impact of violence. Social media has the potential to warn people of possible conflict hotspots and reducing casualties, and helping clarify situations in zones with conflict or less-than-honest state-run media outlets. Currently Africa's politicians have yet to really engage with social networking (Twitter in particular), and are missing out on some real opportunities to interact and really engage with people.

Despite all this good news, certain governments have been wary of their people getting involved. Only three countries appear on the Internet Enemies 2012 report from Reporters Without Borders; Tunisia, Egypt and Eritrea. Despite the Arab Spring and change of government, RWB says little has changed, the ruling army has actually strengthening censorship. In Eritrea, the country's regime "is now waging its propaganda war on social networks. Pro-opposition websites have been targeted for cyber-attacks on an unprecedented scale." Meanwhile in Tunisia, Ammar 404, the censorship system set up by the former regime, may not be enforced, but things are still precarious. But elsewhere things aren't completely free either. At least seven people have been arrested this year across Africa due to certain activity on social media, and things are in the balance in some countries: Nigeria's president has called for social media censorship; "just-in-time" blocking of websites has arisen in Northern Africa; and Sudan has also been blocking various sites. Even new press laws in South Africa are threatening freedoms.

Social media is having a massive impact on Africa and becoming an ever bigger force. As long as governments choose to accept that rather than censor it, good things will happen.