AFRICANGLOBE – Mark Zuckerberg is a smooth salesman, as you would expect from someone who heads a corporation that has managed to attract a billion people to its network within a few short years.
What was he doing in Africa last week? He was on a grand education tour, he claimed. “Just landed in Nairobi! I’m here to meet with entrepreneurs and developers, and to learn about mobile money – where Kenya is the world leader.”
A few days earlier he offered the same explanation for his presence in Lagos. “The energy here is amazing and I’m excited to learn as much as I can.” In truth, Facebook has come to Africa because it has attained maturity in North America and Europe and needs a new market.
The numbers are obviously attractive. There are a billion people in Africa and only about 120 million of them are on Facebook.
In America, by contrast, slightly over half the population operate a Facebook account and growth has slowed. Winning over a larger proportion of Africans to the social network would obviously boost the number of Facebook users significantly.
Nicola Mendelsohn, the company’s vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was blunt about Facebook’s intentions when the network opened an office in South Africa in June 2015: “This is one of the places where our next billion users are coming from. It would be a massive missed opportunity (not to invest here). Africa matters,” he told Bloomberg.
So while Zuckerberg has struck the pitch-perfect PR notes on his visit, crashing the shooting of a hip hop video, jogging in the streets of Lagos, enjoying fish at Mama Oliech’s restaurant in Nairobi, and going on a mini-safari in Naivasha, there should be no doubt that the real reason for his visit to Africa is to expand Facebook’s bottomline.
Which ordinarily should not be a problem. It appears a win-win situation when a tech company helps to extend access to the Internet in rural areas.
Facebook’s strategy for growth on the continent revolves around its Internet.org programme which is a partnership between the firm and a number of telecom companies.
The idea is to offer free access to the Internet to people living in rural areas who might have basic mobile phones but without access to the net.
An app which has already been rolled out in several African countries allows people to access a number of sites for free including AccuWeather, BBC News, Facebook, Messenger, Google Search, Wikipedia, Facts for Life and Unicef.
It will be interesting to see how Facebook goes about its attempts at expansion in Africa after its fairly spectacular failure with a similar project in India.
Beginning in October 2014, Zuckerberg and Co expended huge levels of resources and energy trying to convince regulators to allow them to set up a free Internet scheme for villagers in rural India. Zuckerberg declared Facebook intended to connect “every village” which would spur transformation.
Facebook’s proposal was rejected, in a development the UK’s Guardian newspaper described as “the biggest stumbling block the company had hit in its 12-year-history”.
“Where Zuckerberg saw the endless promise of a digital future, Indians came to see something more sinister. Seventeen months later, Facebook’s grand plans to bring India online had been halted by overwhelming local opposition … In the end, it seemed, Facebook had acted as if it was giving India a gift. But it was not a gift Indians wanted.
Some of the questions which arose in India were why in America Facebook supports the concept of “net neutrality,” the idea that Internet providers should provide equal access to web content without favouring some providers and yet in India and now in Africa, it is taking the opposite approach by listing some sites to be offered for free and not others.
There was also a wider cultural question about Facebook’s assumption, in the words of the New York Times, that it would “be received with open arms” virtually as a saviour. In India it found regulators who asked many tough questions including on the methods that major giant tech multinationals use to pay as little tax as possible.
The smoothness of Zuckerberg’s entry into Africa shows some lessons have been learned and the approach is much humbler and spun as an effort to “learn”.
The goals are, of course, the same. Nothing wrong with the pursuit of profits but let’s hope regulators in Africa will not be overwhelmed by the charm offensive and will pose the same hard questions those in India did.
By: Murithi Mutiga