Mr. Zuckerberg goes to Africa

Image via Techpoint Nigeria

In late August and early September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited Nigeria’s Silicon Lagoon and Kenya’s Silicon Savannah. Both visits were “surprises” for the locals and were also Zuckerberg’s first official trips to any African country.

As noted in a recent survey, Kenya and Nigeria are two of the five countries that host 50 percent of Africa’s tech hubs. Tech hubs and start-ups are increasingly seen as key to promoting innovation and wider economic growth on the continent, as highlighted also in the World Bank’s most recent World Development Report 2016, “Digital Dividends.”

Casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, Zuckerberg presented himself as a rapidly acclimatizing businessman, fearlessly jogging over the Ikoyi bridge in Lagos and eagerly sampling Nigeria’s jollof rice and Kenya’s ugali and fish. For self-mocking Nigerians, Zuckerberg’s humble disposition stood in stark contrast to that of the country’s local economic and political elites, who insist on their status displays through an impressive and imposing dress sense and numerous prefixes to their names – aptly summed up in this Twitter meme. Or as novelist Okey Ndibe suggested: if Zuckerberg were Nigerian, he would have more likely introduced himself as “Honorable Triple High Chief Sir (Dr.) Alhaji Mark Zuckerberg.”

Zuckerberg’s visit provoked a lot of enthusiasm and was considered proof that Nigeria and Kenya have now firmly established themselves on the global tech map. More generally, it offered a much-needed alternative to dominant global media narratives of Africa as the diseased, poverty-stricken and war-torn continent.

Zuckerberg’s personal story as a self-made business man also serves as an inspiration to many budding African entrepreneurs. It is not unrelated to the continent’s broader fascination with motivational literature, which now dominates many bookshop shelves, or with the neoliberal prosperity gospel of the numerous, flourishing Pentecostal churches. Like self-help books and charismatic pastors, St. Mark of Menlo Park’s visit provided some sense of hope. However, whether Africa will gain from Zuckerberg, or Zuckerberg from Africa, appears the more important question that needs to be addressed.

Zuckerberg is now the world’s sixth richest person, with Forbes estimating his wealth at $51.7 billion. In June 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation – which Zuckerberg and his partner Priscilla Chan established in December 2015 after the birth their first child – announced its first investment of $24 million in Nigeria’s tech start-up Andela, an amount equivalent to less than 0.5%  of Zuckerberg’s estimated fortune. More crucial than the foundation’s investment in Africa’s tech community, however, are Facebook’s explicit strategies in recent years to expand its reach on the continent.

Despite a recent major PR mishap involving the explosion of the when the SpaceX rocket  (which was going to launch the Amos-6 satellite and expand broadband internet on the continent), Facebook’s ‘charitable’ mission is to connect the next five billion. Furthermore, Facebook’s Free Basics app now enables African mobile phone users in 21 African countries to access a text-based version of Facebook free of charge while Facebook Lite allows users to run the application with less consumption of mobile data.

Clearly, Facebook is fast gaining ground on the continent: At the end of 2015, the number of Facebook users in Africa was estimated at 124.6 million and numbers continue to grow, particularly in – surprise, surprise – Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The growth potential offers Facebook plenty more opportunities in future to collect and trade personal data, or to sell ads aimed at Africa’s seemingly growing middle class (Facebook opened its first ad sales office in Johannesburg in June 2015).

The introduction of Free Basics in India provoked a heated debate as it was seen to violate the principle of net neutrality. Eventually, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled that mobile operators cannot charge differential tariffs for data services, which prevented Facebook from introducing its free app. In the African context, Free Basics has solicited some debate but much less controversy and, so far, regulators on the African continent have not acted against the company.

However, during my recent fieldwork with mobile internet users (which is how most Africans access the internet) in Zambia, Free Basics was not frequently cited as a platform that many were enthusiastically embracing. As I reported in another post, what seems to be more crucial to Facebook’s penetration in Zambia is the sponsoring of social media by mobile phone operators through attractively priced prepaid data bundles. For example, Zambia’s largest mobile operator, Airtel, offers a social bundle that allows users to access social media for an unlimited time over a certain period (a day, week or month) for a low fee. Daily packages are popular and enable users to adjust their data spending according to their income that particular week. With a large proportion of Zambians in informal employment, earnings and incomes are often irregular and daily bundles offer a level of flexibility.

As a result of this, the nature of Zambia’s internet is largely determined by social media. SMS and email are increasingly replaced with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Many small to medium-size businesses do not have websites but market their services on easily managed Facebook pages. Given the subsidized nature of Facebook through data bundles, mobile phone users receive a warning that they will incur data charges as soon as they leave Facebook. For this reason, most Zambian online news sites post full content of articles on their Facebook pages rather than hyperlinks to website content which will be more expensive for users to visit.

Ultimately, this creates an internet experience that largely takes place within the walls of Facebook, raising obvious questions about net neutrality. Zambia’s internet is increasingly a social media internet. So far, this has not as yet provoked a major debate in the country but in neighboring Zimbabwe, the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology and Courier Services recently ordered the Postal Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe to request mobile operators to suspend data bundle promotions amidst protests against government as part of the #ThisFlag movement.

Social media bundles, therefore, are a key instrument that both enable and disable mobile internet access. While so far, much critical debate has focused on Free Basics, data bundles may be the bigger key to Facebook’s growing empire on the African continent.

It remains to be seen who will be able to consume more jollof rice or ugali and fish as a result of this expansion: Africans or Zuckerberg? Facebook certainly enables African mobile internet users to cheaply communicate with friends, to resist state power occasionally and to do business. But the growing concentration of power in one platform raises many questions around net neutrality, datafication and privacy that may require a more critical debate – certainly beyond Zuckerberg’s modest dress sense.

*This is a compendium version of a series of three articles on digital technology and social media in Zambia’s recent elections published on the LSE Blog.

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