Africa, Social Media and E-Commerce transformation
28 March 2018

Small businesses in Africa are increasingly present (and expanding their presence) on the web, or rather, social media platforms. In fact, according to the report “Digital in 2018” (carried out by We Are Social and Hootsuite), African countries have recorded a 12% increase in active social media users, reaching 191 m last year. Among these, mobile users represented 172 m people, most of who use only two platforms: WhatsApp and Messenger (both owned by Facebook). WhatsApp is the most popular platform on the continent; Facebook’s Messenger is mainly used in North Africa, Somalia and Eritrea.

Whatsapp thus seems to be the driving force behind internet use in Africa, and it is also the key for e-commerce businesses. In Zimbabwe, about half of all internet data passed through the app last year. Facebook’s and WhatsApp’s over-the-top (OTT) services have both caused a drop in revenue growth from mobile devices. Furthermore, Facebook has recently launched WhatsApp Business, a stand-alone application for small businesses in Africa, India and Brazil. This is also used by e-commerce resellers to engage with customers, make returns and manage failed deliveries.

The increasing use of digital platforms is due to increased internet access: since January last year, web penetration in Africa has increased by over 20%, reaching over 73 m more people.

The continent has also recorded the fastest global growth rate, with the number of users increasing by nearly six times in Mali, and more than doubling in Benin, Sierra Leone, Niger and Mozambique.

The proportion of the population that believes new technologies offer more opportunities than risks (i.e., digital optimism) has especially increased in Nigeria (80%), Kenya (72%) and South Africa (66%).

Experts believe that constant improvements in high-speed connections are essential to maintain growth and sustain the general economy. Some of the most active foreign investors in this sector are – once again – the Chinese: ZTE is considering opening an office in Harare, Zimbabwe, to introduce fiber optic communications – and 4G and 5G. Huang Dabin, ZTE’s COO has stated: “We see great prospects, we are aware that right now there are difficulties, but we believe these will be short-term, and that it is possible to make investments for over USD 1 bn in fiber optic and mobile technologies”. ZTE is already working with local company Telone to expand the network.

Ethiopia is one of the last African countries to still have a state monopoly over the telecommunications sector and has lagged behind neighboring countries when it comes to 4G, which offers many advantages (e.g., higher connection speeds, which makes use of the internet and applications easier and faster). But Ethiopia is starting to catch up. In fact Ethio Telecom is now the largest mobile operator in the continent – and with over 57 m mobile phone subscribers in November 2017, it overtook MTN Nigeria to become the operator with the largest mobile customer base.

Mobile service coverage by Ethio Telecom has now reached 85%; the company has also improved quality, having upgraded the 2G network to 3G in every region of the country and having brought ZTE’s 4G to Addis Ababa.