Posts Tagged ‘Social Media’

Connectivity, Communication, and Commerce: The 3 Cs of Africa’s Smartphone Led Future

Recent headlines touted the decline in marketshare being seen by smartphones on the African continent, and the concurrent increase in sales of basic devices. Yet a closer look shows that this shift might only be numerical due to the opening of new markets in heavily populated DR Congo and Ethiopia – first time buyers are likely to start with entry level phones.

In fact, role of smartphones in Africa is not only likely to grow and evolve over the coming 3 to 5 years but its very likely that it will be connectivity apps driving their adoption. We Are Social’s latest report shows Africa’s internet user numbers have been growing by over 20% year-on-year.

The 4th C – the Challenge of Unquestioned Assumptions and Great Expectations

With connectivity and communication, commerce was expected to take off but anyone tracking the headlines would notice the challenges faced by African e-commerce platforms. Some point fingers to connectivity as the issue, expecting to reap benefits from scale of penetration. Others point to high costs of data and devices, or challenges with completing the transaction online.

Looking at the patterns exposed by all the reports and the articles makes one wonder whether it’s the underlying assumptions and expectations that are the real problem. The untapped market is hyped out of proportion by each new entrant who rush in with their disruption to revolutionize the African consumer, only to rush back out again when the traction fails to succeed. This has been muddying the waters of what could have been a considered thoughtful opportunity to transform the social and economic landscape.

Yet its not all negative. If someone was to ask me about how connectivity and communication are driving commerce in the African context, I’d point to the plethora of informal trade in goods and services being conducted daily across social media platforms. Everyday there’s a new product or service launched with a tweet. Groups on Facebook encourage and support the entrepreneurial journey. Cryptocurrency trading is making Kenya famous as a first mover.

The difference in traction seems to be that which is self organized and organic vs that which is institutionalized and/or introduced from elsewhere. The external pressure to succeed in the same terms as that visible in the Silicon Valleys might actually be a greater barrier to the sustainable development of the African online community led commerce, increasing pressure on founders and startups with every negative headline. Maybe the lesson from the informal organic growth online is that might actually be a matter of throw the technology at them and see what emerges without lifting the lid every other second to check progress?

Maybe all that is needed is more locally relevant content, such as already being seen emerging from Nigerian and Kenyan tech blogs, rather than the imposition of metrics and heuristics from developed nation contexts.

Collapsing the sustainable agricultural value chain of commodities with a single tweet


Tony Addison of UNU-Wider, in Helsinki, just tweeted this photograph, expressing his pleasure at seeing Rwandan coffee at his favourite coffee shop, Roastery.

I retweeted it and within minutes, Josh Kariuki proudly tweeted that his neighbourhood Gachatha coffee, from Nyeri county in Kenya, was being sold far away in Helsinki, Finland, by name.

The next thing you know, the entire sustainable agricultural commodity value chain had collapsed between end customer and the shambas where it was grown. All it took was one tweet.

There’s a lot to be unpacked here, for those of you following along since the days I was in The Netherlands working on the sustainable agricultural value chain development project with the Dutch MFA. One of their deeply held desires had been that the end customer and the farmer should know who each other was, separated as they tended to be, by continents and seas.

The source of our familiar morning coffee is a mystery to most of us, and it changes the way we think about products and their pricing, not to mention the value we place on someone’s hard work, when we come face to face with the source. I appreciate this experience that social media offered me today and wanted to share it with you.

My African Twitter: Social Media and Its Role in the Emergence of African Economies

Social Media Day 2015 is as good a day as any to finally get around to completing this post I’ve been meaning to write for almost half a year now. It is based on my personal experience and observations, supported by a few relevant links.

African Twitter is unlike any social media I’ve experienced. In less than 2 years it has become a significant part of my life. Its a community and a conversation, both real time and asynchronous. Its warm and welcoming and very, very human. Its like going to a convivial office and hanging out with your peeps all rolled into one. And you can’t be serious about doing business in Africa without being a part of it.

The paragraph above may come across as idealistic hyperbole, so I’ll try to break it down into chunks and explain. First is the purely subjective personal experience, followed by the bigger picture of African social media in the business world. Diving deeper into a proper ethnographic study of the African Twitter experience really should be done at some point. At this time, I’m hazarding guesses based on secondary sources and my own experiences. Also, given that my African Twitter timeline is business oriented, my network will reflect this rather than a purely social network.

What distinguishes the African timeline is that the vast majority of people are connected far more closely to each other. Chances are, if you follow someone, then many others that you follow also follow them and vice versa. This seems to be the case regardless of geography and interest area. This could be due to history and demographics – Twitter isn’t as popular across the board as Facebook, for example, and early adopters are more tech savvy than the norm.

This leads to a more or less coherent timeline and conversation stream, closer in experience to a conversation thread in a bulletin board or community weblog.

In my older Twitter handle, with the exception of few social clusters which tend to reflect real world networks and/or LinkedIn connections or pre-existing connections through other, older communities eg. MetaFilter, most people, for the most part, are not connected to each other. Thus, its more fragmented, and for the most part, people are simply pushing out information or links or tweets. That is, its ‘talking at’ the world rather than ‘talking with’ the world. Its rarely an ongoing and coherent stream of conversation the way the African experience is more often than not.

In sum, its far more of a social experience.

From the less personal perspective, there’s already been recognition that Twitter is leading the way to greater integration across the continent – a pan African conversation if you will, as the Nigerians and Kenyans exchange daily tidbits with each other while all keep up with what’s happening on the ground in Burundi or South Africa.

Its an immediate and real time conversation and replies and acknowledgement are part of the etiquette. This applies to corporates of all kinds as well as institutions, utilities and government departments. People talk directly to the airlines or holler for customer service from their mobile service providers.

The African timeline is the everyday manifestation of that old concept of “Markets are conversations”, in a manner that I’ve yet to see in other spaces or geographies. In fact, just yesterday, founder Mark Essien tweeted that his best source for new hires was Twitter, an observation quickly validated by others.

Other startups have seen the value of the social, and social media is big enough business to garner cover stories. Global platforms may not see the potential for monetization – Facebook being a case in point – but the participants most certainly do. Increasingly, social networks provide the opportunity to scale your reach, and thus, your business.

This post is only an appetizer, I’ll come and look more closely at this space. There’s a link between social media use and economic growth I want to explore.

Your thoughts?




Upward Mobility is Changing Base of the Pyramid Consumer Aspirations

I’d observed earlier that upward mobility wasn’t simply about increasing incomes, but also a change in mindset, world view and values. Aspirational consumer behaviour trickles downward faster, as strivers seek to emulate the status signals sent by those they perceive as “arrived”.

The emerging middle class numbers may indeed be uncertain, as statisticians debate over the inclusion of the ‘floating class’ but regardless of their actual income (which in any case may be volatile, particularly if they’re part of the informal sector of the economy) people’s habits are certainly shifting towards more ‘middle class’ choices.

Kenyan news reveals some interesting trends. More people are using clean energy such as LPG for cooking, in the ‘slums’, than before.

In Mathare slum a few kilometers away, that residents are warming up to cooking gas is evident in the number of shops selling the commodity on the periphery of the informal settlement.

Prices for cooking gas are the lowest they’ve been since 2012, putting the smallest available size – 6kg- within reach of far more than before. LPG is an aspiration for both urban and rural cooks. A farmer’s wife in rural Makueni in eastern Kenya told me about her ambitions to cook with gas even though she was making do with firewood from the farm.

Even more interesting is this report on what the author calls the “reject economy” – the sale of seconds and damaged products. Its not so much that there’s an after market for these seconds, but the reasons for their brisk sale. Here are some selected insights from that fascinating article.

Well, the economy in Kenya’s informal sector has its own rules and the about 22 million people straddling the poverty line are masters at navigating it.

For instance, Ogola buys eggs with cracks or other tiny imperfections — known colloquially as vunjika — at Sh5 each; whole eggs retail at between Sh12 and Sh15 in middle-income neighbourhoods.

Korogocho, like many other slums in Nairobi, is also awash with charred or misshapen loaves of bread, which retail at Sh30 instead of the market price of Sh50.

“The people in the village buy these products because they are cheaper and they cannot afford mainstream prices. They buy them because, just like other people, they would like to watch the news and have the family gather around the TV,” says Ngala.

The article goes on to quote some salaried professionals offering expert advice to the poor to be cautious about these rejected or secondhand products but I suspect that those with less income have no false impressions about their challenges in life.

“We also deserve the good life just like other people, or what do you think” Ogola asks with a smile.

As the article ends, just because someone may not have 50 shillings for a loaf of fancy bread doesn’t mean he doesn’t wish to have bread with his tea in the morning.

Without something to aspire towards, we would stagnate in our current circumstances, fatalistically accepting our status in life.

A tale of two Africas

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

By the middle of the year 2013, the continent of Africa finally put her foot down and said to the world that enough is enough, “We’re taking over the reins of our future and giving voice to our own story.”

Ghana and Kenya took control of their elections, so much so that Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) monitored international media online, going as far as to use their collective voice to force reporters to validate the veracity of their stories (#someonetellCNN).

Ugandan born Ashish J Thakkar, the entrepreneurial businessman behind The Mara Group and The Mara Foundation recently made headlines for telling Donald Trump off  on his ignorant comments publicly on Twitter.

In the meantime, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo dukes it out with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, exchanging ad hominems online while Bono gets asked why he thinks he should speak for the “poor African” among the world’s most powerful people. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg of pushback getting louder as globalization and connectivity finally begin to level out that flat playing field so beloved of Bangaloreans and Thomas Friedman.

This is the tale of two Africas.

One, belongs to the NGOs and the philanthropic foundations of charity and goodwill, seeking to uplift the downtrodden even while giving voice on their behalf, relegating them to pitiful images of hunger and misery.

The other, the other belongs to the African herself, grabbing the mic and speaking out loud and strong on what is really needed to be changed on the global platform, be it the lost revenues from taxes as pointed out by Kofi Annan or simply tweeting en masse in order to be heard.

The democratization of technology and the rise of social networks have done far more to empower the everyday African than they themselves currently realize. From a passive acceptance or even, ignorance, of the media’s narratives around Africa’s poverty, hopelessness, disease and backwardness, the instant access granted by the handheld computer in every pocket has also opened their eyes to their image and reputation on the global stage.

Just yesterday, I was requested not to use the term “sub Sahara” by some folks on Twitter, offering up citations and links to articles that pointed out the subtly racist nature of the phrase, whereas I’d been completely ignorant of the baggage and only considered its geography and common usage. But today I find myself conscious in my choice of words and I doubt that I would ever use these words again. All because of a few 140 character tweets exchanged with virtual strangers.

These are only the first drops in the bucket, poised to become a deafening flood of voices, as Africa – all 53 countries, hundreds of languages and myriads of peoples – roars loudly against the misrepresentation and yanks back the reins of her own narrative and agency.

How social media can steal your soul.

In January 2011, I began researching articles on the African economic rise and concurrent opportunities, for a series I was writing for Dirk Knemeyer’s GoInvo blog. Having just been introduced to Tumblr, I liked the real time capture ability of the application and the flexibility in tagging, for keeping track of quotes and snippets. I have been missing Delicious ever since the latest design change broke it.

Now, 2 years later, I’ve got a monster I cannot kill and I must keep feeding it with new articles on Africa. There are more than 25,000 followers and its spotlighted in Tumblr’s directory. Even if 90% are spambots thats still a lot of people.

I only ever needed it for 4 months of work!!

Mobile phones, social media and the Maasai: Time to refresh the image

At first, I did not know what these two young men were upto during an enforced halt on our way to Kisii at the end of February this year. The road had been blocked by the local community demonstrating about land rights just a few kilometres outside of Narok, in the heart of Maasailand and the driver pulled the car back and to the side to park out of reach of any rocks if they were going to be thrown. Soon enough the traffic was backed up and a little community sprung up during the few hours we were there, waiting for the road to open up. While waiting I noticed these two in action.

First, one took the stage, expounding at length on what was going on and emphatically giving his opinion on what needed to be done by the government and the leaders of the community, while the other captured this on video (a smartphone obviously). Then they would review the video snippet,

carefully, while laughing and making jokes – I did hear the word Facebook being mentioned a few times – before the other took his place and shared his views loudly.

But the most amusing part was when they convinced a little girl to give her opinion, which she did, to the laughter of the crowd that had gathered,

“This road belongs to all of us, it is not their grandfather’s road, so why are they blocking us from using it to continue our journey”.

These few minutes, gratefully captured on camera, exemplify to me what is the current day situation in rural Kenya when it comes to everything we write and talk about the way smartphones and social media are enabling an information revolution in Sub Saharan Africa. Their response to being confronted with an unexpected political demonstration was no different from anywhere in the world today – whip out your smartphone and capture it on video.

Their intent however was one step ahead of simply uploading the action on YouTube – by adding their own commentary on the situation and capturing the ‘common man’s’ opinion, they quickly turned this opportunity into an exemplar of citizen journalism, to be shared freely on social networks like Facebook.

Perhaps its time we refresh these images to capture the impact of the mobile phone on the young moran from Maasailand than continue using the tired and stale imagery that we all recognize.

In conclusion: Lessons from The Village Telco project in Kenya

We’ve finally reached the point in our work for Village Telco where there’s been enough time for some reflection after the intense weeks of travel and observations across Kenya.  I can cluster our learning into three broad areas: our approach, methodology and team work; Kenya’s people and the informal economy; and finally, the role of the mobile phone and the internet across the country.

Top of mind, what I would really like to do is take a deeper look at all the factors Why a social networking site like Facebook has become so popular – is it like Mxit, a far more affordable and convenient way to stay in touch with extended social networks or are there reasons beyond the obvious?  Given the variance in socio economic backgrounds and education among all those who were active on this platform, I wonder whether there are learnings of value for the larger goals of what ICT can do to enable social and economic development. Instinctively I feel its not Facebook per se that is the critical factor, like a Mxit in South Africa or an Orkut in Brazil, it simply happened to be there. However, given my approach to increasing understanding of a particular demographic or validating a hypothesis, my first principle is to question my own instinct and subsequent assumptions.

Mobile Phones and the Internet
Our assumptions and inferences from the surplus of information and data available on mobile phone use in Kenya, for both online use as well as regular use, were seriously jolted. You could say we had the veil torn from our eyes.  A future post that has been percolating is one that turns my entire thinking about the Mobile and the BoP upside down, from the point of view of “the mobile as a platform for social and economic development” for the individual.

A big realization was that it was technically impossible for people to go online  – if it wasn’t just  the initial peek at Google or Yahoo or what have you – from their mobile device without visiting a cyber cafe (or using a computer) first. If you are a first time internet user and plan to use the mobile as your primary device to check your email and update your status in Facebook, you are unable – at this moment in time – to create your email account, and subsequently your Facebook page, without the use of the personal computer.

The second was that very few of these new internet users were cognizant of the way mobile operators structure the cost of browsing and data bundles. Safaricom, the country’s largest operator, had at least 3 different prices that I’d seen on their billboards and posters – Ksh 4 per minute if you simply went online, Ksh 2 per minute if you sent an sms for data conversion and finally, purchasing a data bundle or browsing package (unlimited by the day or bundle) which brought the cost down further. Thus many reverted back to browsing at cyber cafes where at least one knew what one’s cost would be or could estimate it in advance. Consumer education will be more critical for the uptake of the mobile internet since it is currently not to the benefit of either the operators or the cyber cafes to inform users about their cheaper options.

Kenya is different
We sensed this, we discussed it with Steve Song and we also heard it from others with years of experience of doing business in Sub Sahara. Kenya, as a representative sample of Sub Sahara or even East Africa, is a very different kettle of fish, all in a good way. It wasn’t just luck that most of the cyber cafe owners we met around the country were enterprising, articulate and opportunistic. Neither was it chance that very rarely was I unable to communicate – at least the basics – in English, no matter where we went.

Internet costs, mobile data and voice costs are significantly lower than in most countries and this factor, taken together with the maturity of the urban cyber cafe market and penetration of computing devices – laptops and desktops – meant that this was a very sophisticated market regionally. One cannot generalize our findings for other countries, in fact one would hesitate to do so. Rather, as we discussed with Steve, we’ll take Kenya as a leading indicator of shifts to come in the near future for the rest of the region. For example, VoIP as a service has atrophied into two or three neighbourhoods ever since international calling rates have stabilized at around Ksh 3 a minute (USD 3 cents or thereabouts) on the other hand, wifi is slowly demonstrating its future ubiquity.

However, some other factors would also play a part in this – literacy is at 85% here; what kind of difference does that make when it comes to uptake and popularity of text based communication mechanisms such Facebook, email and of course, the SMS.  Education makes a difference, since most of the time, even when passing by some of the technically most impoverished parts of the country, I kept feeling that it was in far better shape relative to similar locales in India. This is all good and bodes well for the future of the nation and the region – if I had to launch a wholly new product for the Sub Saharan market, I’d select Kenya for an environment with the lowest barriers to the adoption of innovation. The BoP market is sophisticated and mature while still demonstrating the core values and buyer behaviour seen everywhere else I’ve been.

In conclusion
We now have an innate sense of the Kenyan landscape when it comes to ICT: the technology, the internet and the phone. A gut feel for the where and how and why the diffusion is taking place, outward from the urban metro that is Nairobi and an instinct for the pulse of the country’s progress. The critical role of the cyber cafe was made apparent by the focus of this project and our philosophy and methodology in approaching this problem to be solved – answering Steve’s questions – has been validated and refined. For example, we found that the figure for our estimate for proportional penetration of internet between two regions differed from the Kenya ICT Board’s Access Gap Analysis data only by 0.2

We learnt that no two projects will ever be alike and the only certainty is uncertainty. There are no prepackaged ready made solutions or processes for the challenges we’ll face in our chosen line of work, however we’re on the right path for discovering the ways and means to use the tools available at our disposal in order to best address them.

Today, we’re confident enough to put it in writing that if you’re seeking answers to the unknown, in untapped or overlooked markets and when none of the regular methods and frameworks for addressing your marketing, strategy or design needs seem to work – give us a call or drop us a line. I believe we can help you.

Socially networked mystery shopfront

Just before Mtwapa, Kenya Oct 11 2011

We spotted this closed shopfront just before entering Mtwapa – a midsize town about 10km from Mombasa, when returning from a day trip north to Kilifi today. There was no signage to tell us whether it was a cyber cafe or internet center of some sort. But we’re sure they are extremely networked socially.

The mobile, the media and the money: empowering Kenyans for Kenya

If I were to go by the majority of the mainstream global media articles on the subject of the drought in East Africa, I would think that only citizens in the USA and across Europe were contributing assistance for food aid.  Yet my twitter feed is full of stories of how much Kenyans have raised in donations by text messaging alone while the BBC (again found via twitter) has this to say:

Kenyans have donated nearly $200,000 (£122,000) via mobile phone banking for aid to victims of the worst drought in the region in 60 years.
The BBC’s Noel Mwakugu in the capital, Nairobi, says the money has been raised in the first 12 hours of an appeal launched by leading businesses.
The appeal – involving mobile phone company Safaricom, Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper and Kenya Commercial Bank – is intended to raise $5.4m.

And The Standard (I know, but…) has this snippet which I’d like to add:

Over 6,000 Kenyans at home and abroad engaged in discussions in social media, Twitter and Facebook on how to deal with the crisis. They encouraged other Kenyans to contribute to the Kenyans for Kenya Initiative.

This is significant.

There are layers that need to be unpacked but the obvious ones stand out – mobile phones, mPesa, social media, communications technology. But its far more than just that, and it may just be a signal indicator of a tipping point. Of what kind I hesitate to write down in words at the moment, I want to ponder it further and discuss with Muchiri who has far more experience in social media, social crm and of course Kenya than I do. But my first impulse I will leave you with, this little device has indeed become a post industrial platform for social and economic development, which is just another way of saying empowerment.