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Facebook seeks next billion users in Africa


Facebook’s growing investment and interest in Africa has received some heavyweight publicity of late. The social media site has also opened an office in South Africa from where it aims to increase its audience across the continent.

We have been tracking Facebook’s involvement in Africa for the past few years. Their project is helping them connect to and engage with mobile phone subscribers; more recently in Zambia they partnered up with Airtel to offer phone users a simple Facebook experience.

“Africa matters,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for EMEA in a recent interview on Bloomberg.

Why the interest in the continent? Growth in their home stomping ground has flat lined – North America has a population of about 500 million, and two-fifths of them are on Facebook. In Africa, with more than 1 billion people, just 120 million use the social network. That’s an opportunity Facebook Inc. just can’t ignore. There is business to be done.

“This is one of the places where our next billion users are coming from.”

According to the BBC, Facebook says it will also be looking to boost growth in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique and Ethiopia as part of its increased presence in Africa.

Along with Facebook opening a new office in Johannesburg, the sales team will be headed by Nunu Ntshingila, 51, chairman of WPP Plc’s Ogilvy & Mather agency in South Africa. The move clearly shows Facebook’s short-term objectives are to work with the brands and the big names to get them advertising on the social media site. As well as convincing advertisers, the company are going to have to face localization challenges in many forms.

Although English is widely used throughout Africa, the company is making efforts to localize Facebook into as many African languages as it can. However, language is just one of the many cultural challenges to be faced.

For one, not everyone can afford expensive data packages for their phones. To combat this Facebook is working with local phone companies to provide simple data plans and access to lower bandwidth versions of the website. A new “Facebook Lite” app is already in the making.

The cost of phones, especially smartphones, is also beyond the reach of many. Manufacturers are working to develop $50 or less phones that can allow users the same online experience as a more expensive smartphone.

Advertisers too have realised they also need to adapt to local conditions – when people are low on credit, why are they going to call that number they see in an ad? They won’t. So advertisers are offering a call-back service which reverses the charges.

“There’s going to be an incredible opportunity to develop a consumer base in Africa.”

It’s clear that the big boys in the online/digital world such as Google and Facebook have eyes on Africa; and why wouldn’t they? The opportunities are clear. What is less clear is how easy it is going to be for them to truly crack the market. As they have already experienced, things work differently in Africa; people think different. However, this is now way should deter them or anyone else from succeeding either.

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