In just the past two weeks, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made headlines with surprise visits to Nigeria and Kenya — his first to sub-Saharan Africa. He met with senior political officials (for which he shed his characteristic t-shirt and jeans for a suit and tie) …
— We ASOcial (@DigiCommsNG) September 2, 2016
… and with tech developers and entrepreneurs at tech venture incubation spaces — including Co-creation Hub Nigeria (CcHUB) in Lagos and iHub in Nairobi.
According to Bloomberg Technology, some 16 million Nigerians use Facebook. The country is one of three (the others being South Africa and Kenya) where the company has seen double-digit growth in users — a credit, in part, to Facebook’s opening of a Johannesburg office in June last year.
Zuckerberg’s visit to Nigeria unfortunately coincided with news that has a direct impact on that growth. On September 2nd in Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket underwent what was supposed to be a routine engine test that, instead, triggered a series of explosions that destroyed the rocket and its payload, the Amos-6 communications satellite.
Per the Telegraph, “Facebook was contracted to use the Amos-6 to provide broadband internet coverage for large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and other remote parts of the world as part of the social media giant’s Internet.org initiative.”
While a setback, it did not derail Zuckerberg’s meetings with the country’s best and brightest in the tech space. He told the CcHub audience that Facebook support for Hausa language will be soon joined by other Nigerian languages. While the official language of the country is English, there are more than 500 languages spoken in the country, of which seven dominate: Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Ibibio, Edo, Fulfulde, and Kanuri. His statement was reported widely in Nigerian media, where it also sparked some controversy between Nigerian political opponents on the importance of Hausa.
We wrote previously on how CcHub Nigeria has fostered innovation in the language space, so Zuckerberg’s appreciation of the CcHub audience’s interest in Facebook localization may be of no surprise to our readers.
“I’m here to meet with entrepreneurs and developers, and to learn about mobile money,” wrote Zuckerberg in a September 1st Facebook post.
As Zuckerberg himself noted, Kenya is the world’s leader in mobile money adoption. The world’s most successful system M-Pesa — which allows a full range of banking and payment services via mobile phone — was launched by Vodafone in Kenya in 2007. It has since expanded to 9 additional emerging markets, including Egypt, Ghana, India, and Romania. According to Quartz, M-Pesa and its competitors were responsible for the flow of about $20 billion USD through the nation’s financial networks in the first half of this year alone.
The earliest report of Facebook’s interest in the mobile money market came from the Financial Times in spring 2014, when it noted that the company was just “weeks away from obtaining regulatory approval” from Ireland’s central bank to operate as an e-money institution. The official announcement of the rollout in the U.S. market came the following March, with Facebook saying that the send money to friends feature in Messenger would be available in the U.S. via Facebook apps for Android, iOS, and its desktop version.
Facebook forecasts that it will reach one billion monthly African users by 2018 — up from the 120 million that already accessed the platform each month as of August of last year. Combine that with the continent’s mobile-first approach and IDC’s prediction of strong growth in cross-border payments in some of Africa’s most important markets and you have a situation absolutely ripe for Facebook’s investment in mobile money technology.
The Way Ahead
Zuckerberg’s travels in Africa were greeted with enthusiasm across Facebook and other social media, including coverage of Nigerians and Kenyans abroad, some of whom work for Facebook in the U.S. While a story of successful local marketing, Facebook’s other initiatives show that there are still reasons to act with caution.
Earlier this year, Facebook’s Free Basics initiative was rejected by India and subsequently welcomed in Africa. While India saw it as an effort by Facebook to dominate the Internet access that it would sponsor, African countries think otherwise. It remains to be seen how online communities in India and Africa will benefit from their respective decisions.
In any case, we can expect that Zuckerberg’s experience with India informs his efforts to localize and promote Facebook in Nigeria and Kenya. Certainly, the company’s efforts — including its investment in tech education in the region — make it a bright star in the sub-Saharan African tech development space. Look for its satellite in the African sky soon.