According to a March 2009 article in the Guardian, 5% of Africans use the internet. South Africa’s internet penetration is about double that, with 5.1 million internet users out of a population of 49 million. This is still only a small percentage of the country’s population and when considering the huge socioeconomic disparities that exist as well, this subgroup is not only unrepresentative of the greater whole but excludes the vast majority. When we talk about social media, we mean that EVERYONE HAS A VOICE. While a web-based campaign may be designed to reach a select demographic, it really goes against the whole idea of social media when 9 out of 10 people can’t participate in the conversation.
That doesn’t mean that social media in South Africa is a nonstarter. It means that web-based social media is an inappropriate approach. But there is ample opportunity with the 42.3 million mobile cellular telephone users. Most every South African can participate in a social media conversation using a cell phone. In the West, we equate social media with the web (as in Web 2.0), but they are not necessarily one and the same. To paraphrase what Clay Shirky said at TED in June, social media innovation can happen anywhere where people take for granted the technology and appreciate that we’re all in this together…it’s not about whiz bang technology [or even web technology].
Most African cell phones are built for voice and SMS. The majority have no cameras or 3G+ capability. But companies can none-the-less communicate with the South African market and the market with them via SMS. Shirky provided an example of how Nigerians used a wisdom of the crowds approach by having the public send SMS messages to monitor elections for possible voting irregularities. This successful model was used in the U.S. a short while later (an interesting example of global technology transfer originating where there is less tech capability). A corporate campaign could be based on this approach, i.e., soliciting consumer opinion by SMS to catalyze consumer involvement with a brand. No video. No social networking. Just pure participation 140 characters at a time.
There is one major challenge that comes along with this strategy, however. There are 11 official languages in South Africa:
I would suggest that a social media campaign, if budget limited, start with the top three languages, isiZulu at 23.8%, isiXhosa at 17.6% and Afrikaans at 13.3% for two reasons:
1. Each is used in fairly targeted geographical areas, making it easier to roll out complimentary advertising and generate offline word of mouth.
2. They are used by up approximately 50% all speakers, maximizing ROI if all languages can not be incorporated into the campaign.