(by Muchiri Nyaggah & Niti Bhan from Semacraft. Semacraft is a research and consulting company that focuses on Africa and things digital in Africa)

I looked up a Nairobi-based digital strategist Mark Kaigwa last month, smart and insightful, he’s become a voice to listen to on East African social media and internet marketing affairs. Mobile quickly became part of the conversation since internet penetration is still relatively low. In fact, telecommunication companies across the continent have identified data subscriptions as the next frontier for growth as voice revenues decline due to increased competition and regulatory intervention.

The vast majority of Africans still do not have Internet access and an even smaller number is present in the social media space. Egypt, Tunisia and now, Libya are showing us that this minority connected to the Internet is still able to use their online presence to influence their offline reality. Can they be ignored? Should businesses ignore them? I don’t think so. Malcolm Gladwell seems to think their influence is overrated. Though there is something in what he has to say, I still posit that they have influence none the less.

Africa is not so dark anymore. Technology is allowing Africans to shine a light to let the world see our life through African eyes. There were 10,000 active blogs in Africa by mid 2010 according to Afrigator, a social media search engine in Africa. Facebook’s statistics show, at the time we write this, that there are over 25 million Africans actively creating and sharing all sorts of content. Just recently in Kenya, a fire broke out in Nairobi’s Industrial Area razing a factory and large parts of an adjacent slum. Before news of the fire broke on mainstream media, it was already on Twitter complete with pictures. A few months earlier a few thousand miles away in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouzazi had come to the end of his rope. After a confrontation with a local policewoman and failure to get audience with the governor to present his complaint, he left the building only to set himself on fire outside a local government building a few minutes later. News of the incident spread quickly via text message and social. A revolution was starting across the Arab world. Mobile phone users in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya used their mobile phones to capture, upload and share images, stories and videos of what was happening around them. Millions of people worldwide were kept up-to-date on the government’s interactions with its citizens.

Customers in Africa are sharing their experiences with brands online too. Will businesses in Africa begin to take these ‘social’ Africans seriously enough to give their brands a voice on the social media platforms where they gather? I think they’re beginning to take note as can be seen by Kenya Airways in Kenya, GTBank in Nigeria and Gareth Cliff in South Africa. But most efforts we see in East Africa seem experimental and underfunded, lacking any serious budgetary backing to move into mainstream business practice. Where some read caution into how business has approached social media, others read disdain for newfangled technologies whose benefit to the business is difficult or impossible to measure. The same may not be true for mobile. Its catalytic impact on communities is unprecedented.

The role of mobile in the African context is impossible to ignore. Approximately 55% to 60% of all Facebook traffic in Kenya originates from mobile phones. Just over half of the Kenyans active on the Internet use nothing but their mobile phones to go online. Where western digital strategists tend to concentrate on social media, cloud computing and apps for smartphones, their counterparts like Mark Kaigwa in Africa have to consider basic mobile services like SMS as a channel in the greater digital space.

But it’s not just SMS on mobile that is critical. Although it’s still very early, mobile apps are rapidly gaining traction as well. Statistics on mobile advertising shows Africa has outstripped the West in the number of mobile ad impressions served by the large ad networks with South Africa and Kenya taking top 5 positions alongside India, Indonesia and the US. There were no European countries in the BuzzCity Mobile Ad growth top 10 list but four African countries were present the other two being Libya and Nigeria. Many of the ads served through these networks appear on mobile apps such as Snaptu, a social media application that is available for many phones from popular device manufacturers. This means that for digital strategists in Africa, ignoring mobile is obviously a bad idea. With Facebook rolling out a sim-based app, radio talk show hosts asking listeners to text in and Twitter starting SMS services in Africa, it is clear the point needs no belaboring.

Just as social media presented business with some unique opportunities to engage customers and grow their brands online, the mobile offers its own unique ways for building relationships. Opportunities to leap ahead by creating custom branded apps consumers can use on their mobiles to interact with a business, like Equity Bank’s new java app for feature phones. Opportunities to crowd source ideas through SMS services or run SMS-driven lotteries (which are growing in popularity across the continent). There are also opportunities to deliver interesting content to a brand’s community via websites optimized for mobile web, since the statistics point to a future where increasingly mobile will be the only device for online access and interaction

The lesson from the growth of mobile and the Internet in Africa is simple. Africa is full of promise and hope; bursting at the seams with attractive opportunities and great rewards for those who will know how to venture in. Many assumptions influenced by doing business in developed markets will have to be re-evaluated. For instance, Africa is not a single homogenous community where a single idea will work in every country. A mobile money transfer service that has phenomenal success in East Africa may not have the same success in West Africa. The jobs people are trying to get done are as varied as the cultures. Those who will make the effort to understand how Africa works will see the opportunities and leverage the headroom for growth found here. Those willing to relinquish their long held misconceptions of Africa will be handsomely rewarded by the 1 billion customers on the continent.

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