By Rick de Kock

In the space of barely a year, our continent has injected a unique African meaning into the phrase “social media revolution”. Only in Africa has tangible meaning been attached to each of those words in such dramatic ways.

In addition to social and political revolutions, Africa’s tremendous economic progress in recent years has lead that influencer of global capital, The Economist, to change its label for Africa from the “Hopeless Continent” a few years ago to “Africa Rising” in its edition of December 3.

Clearly, stereotypes will always be dangerous and times are continually changing, perhaps more so right in Africa than elsewhere.

The first factor in this change has been the quantum leap in technology usage on the continent. Cell phones and the internet have flourished in Africa in a way that no one could have predicted.

Over the last decade internet usage has increased by a mind-boggling 2 357% on our continent. In Nigeria alone it has rocketed by 21 891% from a small base of only 200 000 users in 2000. Presently one-third of Africans own cellphones — that translates into more than 316 million subscribers. And there’s been a 21 000% increase in social networking.

The digital age has brought about the democratisation of communication. Now, everybody can be in contact. In the past Africa had nothing, now we’ve got it all and we’re putting it to good use. Digital is uniting the “hopeless” continent and tapping into our entrepreneurial and optimistic spirit. It has allowed Africans to become more effective in doing business and using smartphones as a personal computer.

Meanwhile, in the “civilised” West, market saturation is making it harder for marketers to make money there. So, they’ve diverted their attention to Africa. With one billion people, Africa is currently the fastest growing population in the world and is proving to be an attractive and lucrative emerging market. The significant growth in disposable income among African families and the fact that the risk of investing in Africa has changed, make the continent all the more attractive for foreign investors. Governments in Africa have eased business restrictions and business is coming in from Brazil, India, China as well as Europe and the US. The West can’t ignore us anymore because Africa is suddenly not so scary any longer.

But foreign marketers will need to understand that African shoppers are discerning consumers, who want authentic genuine products and brands — you can’t sell them cheap rubbish.

And in comparison to old Europe, Africa’s population is becoming younger, which means a vibrant new workforce. It’s predicted that in future the European market pool will get smaller. This could potentially become Africa’s biggest export, as younger African experts will be filling the hole of the ageing European workforce. These younger, notably connected, savvy and better educated Africans are driven by technology. They are what I call “the late early adopters”. Technology took a while to get to them, but when they got it, they ran with it.

Having such a large technologically connected populace has affected Africa’s political landscape in a big way. For example, Nigeria’s last presidential election early this year was aptly dubbed the “Facebook election”. The eventual winner, Goodluck Jonathan, was savvy enough to follow the Obama example by using social-network sites such as Facebook and Twitter to campaign for the elections. Aware of the overwhelming popularity of these social network sites, Jonathan knew that these modern media tools would boost his campaign. Social networking also proved particularly useful in cutting through the political jargon when targeting the apathetic Nigerian youth and connecting with them on an emotional level.

His Goodluck Nigeria 2011 campaign introduced apps for all cellphones. People could send direct messages to him, get the latest election news on their cellphones and become part of the transformation movement. This paid off in a big way. Not only did Jonathan win the simple majority of the total votes cast around the country, he exceeded the constitutional requirements by 25% of the vote. This illustrates a widespread support across ethnic, religious and social lines.

Technology was also generally used to ensure that the Nigerian election ran smoothly. A mobile application called ReVoDa was designed to turn the 87 297 789 Nigerians with cellphones, the 43 982 200 with internet access and the 2 985 680 Facebook users into informal election observers. This app stressed the importance of a free and fair election and it appealed to the voter to not only vote but ensure that the election was even-handed. It encouraged them to become part of the election process by keeping an eye on procedures on the ground and “reporting” on their observations via their cellphones.

Social networking is helping Africans change their world in more ways than one. They’re using it to coordinate and mobilise people and drive home the message that they will no longer tolerate oppression in any shape of form.

A good example is the sudden outbreak of civil uprisings in Africa — all seemingly driven by young revolutionaries who used social-network sites to stage cutting-edge revolts against dictators in their respective countries. History was made when young Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square in Egypt to protest against the status quo. The revolt was broadcast widely on the internet and it later emerged that Facebook and Twitter played a major role in mobilising people. Could we then call this the world’s biggest flash mob?

Civil uprisings by young Africans rapidly spread across Africa. These revolts could suggest a destabilised continent, but they can also be seen in a positive light. In all three cases social-networking sites, Twitter and Facebook, were used by millions to revolt against oppressive regimes and to agitate for democracy. These youths have cottoned on that once it’s out there in an MMS or video clip on YouTube for the world to see, dictators can’t ban it!

We’ve seen insecure regimes like Uganda and Zimbabwe regularly blocking access to technology. I don’t think these governments understand how to deal with social mediums, so they switch it off. But is that effective? And for how long can they keep this up?

Mobile phones and social media make it almost impossible for African dictators to continue to divide and conquer. I think autocrats in Africa got a huge wakeup call with what happened in North Africa.

With social networks clearly driving democracy in Africa, one thing is for sure — no country can afford to simply ignore this phenomenon any more.

Even South African President Jacob Zuma has taken to Twitter in recent times.

Furthermore, events in Nigeria and other African countries proved that the media, whether it likes it or not, is no longer the primary source of information for the man on the street. On the contrary, the media was beaten to the story time after time by ordinary people using social networking. So, the media can’t conduct a one-way conversation anymore because the youth is demanding to be heard and be engaged.

The future of the African consumer is changing fast. The way we buy and consume media will become more varied and sophisticated. We are living on a progressive, forward-thinking, techno-savvy continent and the way we do business needs to reflect this. Therefore, advertisers and their agencies will have to keep pace with the change.

In short, the technological revolution means that our “dark” continent is beginning to look very bright indeed.

Rick de Kock is director of Africa operations at TBWA\Africa.


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On our Reader Blog, we invite Thought Leader readers to submit one-off contributions to share their opinions on politics, news, sport, business, technology, the arts or any other field of interest. If...

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