Social Media in South Africa? It’s a Chance!

(^MK) Today’s Question of the Week is how social media impacts South Africa? And the question I immediately asked myself after researching some facts about South Africa is, whether South Africa is a social media market at all?

  • South Africa has an economy which is more advanced than other African countries, but still far less advanced than modern Western economies. According to the CIA Wordfact Book the industrial sector accounts for 31.3% of the economy, the service’s sector accounts for 65.3% and agriculture is a minimal 3.4%. Other African economies are far more heavily dominated by the agriculture sector. The dominance of industry and services in the economy makes it more akin to Northern American and European economies.
  • The Gross Domestic Product per capita is $10.000 (2008) and ranks the country #104 in the world. By comparison, the gross domestic product per capita in the U.S. is $47.000 (2008), which is the 10th highest in the world.
  • 50% of South Africa’s population lives below poverty line, due in no small part, to the high unemployment rate estimated at 21.7% in 2008.
  • HIV/AIDS is a major problem that impacts life expectancy. It is estimated that 18.1% of the population carries the virus – the prevalence of the disease is the 4th highest in the world.
  • Also, South Africa’s life expectancy is 48.97 years and places the country #209 in the world. By way of illustration, the U.S. is ranked #50 (78.11 years), Sweden #10 (80.86), Germany #32 (79.26), India #145 (69.89).

It is not possible to say definitively in this blog whether social media will be viable in South Africa. As I looked into South Africa’s social media market I found two incidents, one pointing to the fact that social media can work and one that suggests the exact opposite.  

The social media blogosphere frequently cites MXit as an example of a very successful instant mobile messaging platform.  MXit is an application that runs not only on PCs but also on GPRS/3G mobile phones. There are 11 million subscribers based throughout 123 countries, of these  MXit counts nearly 9 million subscribers in South Africa. There are 250 million messages distributed over the network a day. The price of sending one message to multiple subscribers costs a fraction of a cent. MXit founder and CEO Hermann Heunis sees tremendous growth opportunities in the African and Asian markets. MXit would like to tie up with organizations that are willing to provide free educational services using instant messaging service to Africans. Heunis also revealed that a new version will be launched soon for Apple’s iPhone.

I think Mr. Heunis’ growth plans for MXit into a relatively poor population sound ambitious, but achievable. The CIA Wordfact Book reveals that there are 42.3 million cellular phones in use in South Africa. This ranks it #21 in the world for cellular phone use. It is even more interesting to note South Africa’s cellular phone penetration, which is 86,23% of its 49 million population. By way of illustration (and be surprised by these numbers!), the United States has got a cellular phone penetration of 83%. To get a sense of South Africa’s cellular phone market, India has a rate of 31.1%, China: 40,9%, France: 88,5% and Germany: 110,5%. These percentages are calculated usind the CIA Worldfact Boog statistics.

Given the fact that the literacy rate in South Africa is 86.4% (2003, estimated), Mr. Heunis’ intention to cooperate with organizations willing to provide free educational services promises success!

An article published in April 2009 in Computerworld Kenya quoted that: “South Africa made history as the first country in Africa to hold political debate on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, as well as on interactive Web sites that allowed improved interaction with voters.” This tells a different story. The article stated further that South Africa is following in the steps of U.S. President Barack Obama’s technology-driven campaign.

I think this article is misleading, given the fact that only 5.1 million people out of a population of 49 million use the Internet/have access to the Internet. With that in mind, the online political debate was not accessible by the majority of voters. Mario Olckers states in his blog Why Social Media in South Africa Will Fail that only a few – predominantly rich and white people – use the Internet. The vast majority does not have the education or the access to use social media. Another blog supports his point of view, saying that many of the active participants in the South African blogosphere or Web2.0 scene share only one thing: being white and their parents having benefited from the previous apartheid regime.

With these two examples I question whether South Africa is an interesting country for marketers to use social media to reach a mass audience. However, instant mobile messaging is potentially a big mass market here.

It is however not all negative. Ushahidi is an example of an effective and worthwhile use of social media. Ushahidi is an online platform which maps SMS reports of violence by location, so that members can get information about social unrest and violence in all South African regions. Ushahidi relies heavily upon GoogleMaps as the basis for its messages. It is a great example of how social media (the collective voice of the people) could benefit the lives of so many (if only the majority in South Africa had access to the Internet).


3 Responses to Social Media in South Africa? It’s a Chance!

  1. Heather Lovett says:

    After reading Olckers blog, I also questioned if a social media strategy could be successful in South Africa. With 90% of the population using instant mobile messaging, I think it can be – with creativity.

  2. Once again, you share a great array of research and do an excellent job of digging into many different sources to bring the information into your post. The post this week does seem to include a bit of indecision as you take the reader through multiple opposing viewpoints. At the end, we are unsure about whether you believe social media does or does not offer a good opportunity for marketers. It’s great to present opposing viewpoints, but make sure we don’t lose your point of view in all that. (3) + (1) PS – congrats on being first!

  3. Beatriz Perez says:

    After reading this and other posts, my thinking is not so much that social media isn’t a viable option, but that marketers should remember that they may not get results as quickly as they want, or that they may need to find unique, creative solutions to reach their intended audiences in South Africa.

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