News / Africa

Facebook Has Uncertain Future in Africa

Protesters hold "f"s in recognition of social network site Facebook's role in the North African revolts, during a protest by thousands over civil rights, in Rabat, Morocco,  March 2011.
Protesters hold "f"s in recognition of social network site Facebook's role in the North African revolts, during a protest by thousands over civil rights, in Rabat, Morocco, March 2011.
Gabe Joselow

U.S. media reports say Facebook is set to make an initial public offering of stock that could peg the company's worth as high as $100 billion. While investors have been enticed by the social media company's rapid expansion, its future in Africa is unpredictable.

On the face of it, the numbers in Africa look promising. According to a recent study from the Internet research site oAfrica, the number of Facebook users across the continent increased 165 percent in the past 18 months.

Data from the Internet World Stats website show nearly 38 million Facebook users in Africa at the end of 2011, out of a population of about one billion.

But looking a little closer at the statistics, oAfrica notes that while new users signing on to the site are increasing across Africa as a whole, the numbers are less impressive in the most developed countries.

In Kenya, which has the third-largest number of Facebook users in sub-Saharan Africa, behind South Africa and Nigeria, only 10 percent of the population uses the Internet, and three percent are on Facebook.

The country boasts one of the strongest economies in East Africa, and mobile phone networks that offer Internet access to those in the most remote places.

Alex Maina, a social media consultant and the CEO of the Africa Center for Internet Marketing in Nairobi, said Kenyans initially went on Facebook because their phone services promoted it, but that times are changing.

“So yes, the growth of Facebook, in Kenya especially, is very fast, its extremely fast, but the question is for how long. Africans are naturally conservative even if you want to do a lot of stuff, but naturally you are conservative," he said. "I can not imagine going to put all my pictures on Facebook so that other people can see them. That now has become like the clarion call on Facebook social networking looks like a nice thing, but how come businessmen are moving from Facebook and they're all going to LinkedIn?”

LinkedIn, Badoo, GooglePlus and especially Twitter all are competing social media sites that are giving Facebook a run for its money in Kenya.

A recent report on Twitter usage in Africa found Kenyans were the second-most prolific tweeters on the continent, just behind South Africa.

Maina says most of his clients are seeking more exposure on Twitter, and that from a marketing perspective, it is clearly the way forward.

“The Twitter model is simple, very, very simple, very, very plain. Everybody can understand it and everybody loves it. So for me, that is probably the reason why I really don't consider a very long future for Facebook at the trend that it's going at. It will just plateau very soon,” said Maina.

Facebook's most explosive growth was reported in the least developed countries with the smallest percentages of Internet users, including the Central African Republic, Chad and Somalia.

Africans increasingly are logging in to social networking sites as more undersea cables and high-speed lines hook up previously underserved parts of the continent.

Facebook also served as an important platform for disseminating information during the Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa. The company acknowledged in a report two years ago that countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria were poised to become important markets.

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