Apr 23 2014, 4:59pm CDT | by Forbes
Twitter activity in Africa during the last quarter of 2013 peaked on the day of Nelson Mandela’s death, according to How Africa Tweets, a new study analyzing Twitter activity on the continent. In an interview with Allan Kamau, head of the Nairobi office of strategic communications agency Portland, we discussed the context of these findings and what they mean more broadly for social media engagement and usage in Africa.
Allan Kamau: The main focus of the study – the second of our How Africa Tweets series – was the volume of tweets coming out of Africa’s 20 most populated cities. We found that Johannesburg was the most active city we tracked, with the rest of the top five dominated by South African and Egyptian cities. Kenya – the East African tech powerhouse – came in sixth overall, while the most active West African city was Accra, which came in eighth overall.
For this study, we also explored which languages were being used the most for tweeting across the continent. While it may not be surprising that English was the most common by some margin, we were delighted to see the number of local languages also being used on Twitter. The top three might be English, Arabic and French, but the rest of the top ten includes Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans, Xhosa and other major African languages.
Finally, we were very happy to see more brands and companies making use of Twitter in Africa. When we ran our initial study in 2011/2012, we found that the majority of traffic on Twitter in Africa was driven by social conversation. Now we’re seeing brands like Samsung, Adidas and Magnum using the platform to reach consumers. And while this is happening to a lesser degree with politicians and government, it’s something we hope to see more of in the coming years – using social media to engage directly with citizens, consumers and other key audiences.
Kanani: What surprised you the most about what you discovered?
Kamau: The largest surprise for us was the low number of geo-located tweets coming out of Lagos. The Nigerian mega-city is undeniably one of Africa’s major tech-hubs. So we were very surprised to see that, based on geo-located tweets, it was the 12th most active city in Africa. It may be that users in Lagos are less likely to enable location services than those in other cities, or that Facebook’s dominance in West Africa means that Twitter simply doesn’t have the relative numbers that it has in other major cities.
Kanani: More broadly, how would you describe the social media landscape and usage in Africa?
Kamau: It’s safe to say that the Twittersphere in Africa is becoming more sophisticated. Where the conversation back in 2011 was mainly social – people linking up with friends, discussing plans or culture – we’ve seen a step-change over the last two years.
Brands are using Twitter for promotions and competitions. Sports clubs are using it as a broadcast tool for their fans (the Orlando Pirates in Johannesburg were one of the most discussed topics overall during our time period).
Twitter has become a serious tool for news sharing in Africa as well. The largest spike in activity over the course of the last three months of 2013 occurred on 5 December, the day of Nelson Mandela’s passing. As the rumours spread and his death was confirmed, we saw related hashtags (#Mandela, #RIPNelsonMandela, #Madiba) popping up across the continent as the news was shared.
Kanani: In terms of advocacy and galvanizing people to take action on some social or political issue on the continent, how should activists interpret these results?
Kamau: We’re starting to see Twitter used to discuss political issues in Africa. During the period of time we tracked, we saw conversation around #KenyaAt50 (the anniversary of Kenya’s independence) take off. And shortly after, #SickAt50 – a hashtag that was initially linked to a healthcare strike but quickly became more generally critical of the government – rose up to the same level of activity.
The last few years have proven that social media has immense power for mobilising people around an issue. Everyone – in the developed and developing worlds – needs to realize that social media is here to stay and its power cannot be denied. It might not always be Twitter, Facebook and Weibo that are the most popular, but people around the world have gotten a taste for being able to make their voices heard; and with more people coming online every day, this is only going to grow.
Kanani: Where is all of this heading 5 or 10 years from now?
Kamau: We’re on the cusp of a massive explosion of smartphones in Africa. With major phone makers now developing sub-$50 phones specifically for emerging markets, it won’t be long before basic dumb-phones are replaced with Nokia Ashas or Mozilla’s new $25 smartphone. More smartphones will have an immediate and tremendous impact on communications in Africa.
We’ll see social media use sky-rocket over the coming years. This could be with the major world players like Twitter and Facebook. But it could also come in the form of home-grown social media platforms like MXit or 2go. MXit has already seen huge growth within its home country of South Africa and is seeing decent growth in other African markets./>/>
Regardless of the platform, the numbers of social media users is sure to grow and we would expect to see ever greater sophistication of the ecosystem in the coming years. Africa will follow the trend of more developed social media markets, where platforms like Twitter become established channels for serious discussions – a place where governments and business leaders are able to engage naturally with consumers and citizens.
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