African Social Networks Thrive in a Mobile Culture

New and fast-growing mobile social networks could challenge Facebook’s growth on the continent.

When young maize crops began failing in parts of Kenya earlier this month, the bad news—as well as information about where farmers could get seeds for other crops—spread on many Internet sites, including Facebook, which has 38 million users in Africa.

My iCow: A farmer registers with iCow.

But it was a mobile platform called iCow—which allows 11,000 farmers and other members to receive livestock-management and other agricultural information—that helped cover the crucial “last mile” to older farmers. When a message from iCow passed along a tip already posted on Facebook about disease-free seeds available from the Kenya Agri Research Institution, that institution was, within two hours, besieged with hundreds of calls.

“Facebook has got the younger farmers on it, and iCow has the older farmers on it. We can bridge that gap to the older farmers who don’t have access to Facebook and don’t use the Internet,” said Su Kahumbu, the founder of iCow. 

The episode is a reminder of the limits of Facebook, and of the role that small, mobile platforms and mobile-focused social networks can play, especially in the mobile-centric and culturally and ethnically nuanced African market.

Facebook did not start out as a mobile platform and is still playing catch-up on mobile applications—witness the fact that it felt compelled to spend $1 billion on the mobile-only Instagram photo-sharing app. And recent moves in Ghana and South Africa show that Facebook will continue to get a run for its money on that continent.

At the end of 2011, Africa had a population of just over a billion people, and 140 million Internet users. Despite the upstarts, Facebook is still growing fast in most African countries and is the dominant network in most of them. But not in South Africa, where Mxit has 10 million active users, more than double Facebook’s number.

Mxit made an effort to become more of a platform by adding an API programming interface three weeks ago. Motribe, a South African company, used the API to create a JudgeME app—which allows users to upload their photos and get themselves rated by others. In 30 days, the App had 600,000 users and four million rated photos on Mxit.

Mxit, which allows users to connect, send messages, and share information, works on feature phones as well as smart phones. “Mxit needs to evolve in order to continue being a force in South Africa and the other countries where they’re seeing good penetration. This API is a great first step in that direction,” says Erik Hersman, a cofounder of iHub, a startup incubator in Nairobi.

In Ghana, an SMS-based mobile social network called launched only six weeks ago—and already has more than 50,000 members in countries including Egypt, Nigeria, India, and Indonesia, says Louis Dorval, managing director of a startup incubator known as MEST, in Accra, Ghana. MEST trained Saya’s founders and funded the startup.

Saya allows group and individual messaging using the user’s phone contacts—and Facebook contacts. And it works on feature phones as well as smart phones. Dorval, who spoke during an African innovation conference at MIT last weekend, said the continent’s social network growth was in its infancy. “There will be an explosion of social networks, no doubt, and a lot of them will be by Africans for Africans, with a lot of great business models there,” he said.

Later, he elaborated during a conference break: “There will be a lot more industry-specific, culture-specific, purpose-specific social networks.”

Tunde Kenhinda, founder of a dating-oriented social network based in Lagos, Nigeria, said during a conference break that Africans have particular expectations from social networks. In many parts of Africa, people are often interested in knowing ethnicity and tribe membership—and in targeting things like classified advertisements toward very specific socio-economic and cultural segments.

In a final twist to the maize story, most of the farmers finally got the seed by paying with their mobile phones, using the payment service M-Pesa. So the episode was also a lesson in the comprehensive ways that mobile phones are supplanting conventional computers in some contexts, in this case by getting crucial information out to the remote farmer who needs information at the right time, and enabling him to act on that information, too.

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