The world’s largest social network entered uncharted waters this week, opening its first sales office in Africa. Facebook’s new bureau is located in an affluent suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, a country where a large number of the continent’s Internet users already reside. But the company now faces its biggest challenge yet — reaching the majority of Africans who live in rural areas that are often impoverished and beyond the reach of government programs and urban infrastructure, let alone the Internet.
With more than 1 billion people in Africa and just 120 million monthly active users, Facebook has room to grow. But unlike other global markets, more than half of Africa’s population is currently offline. And while cellphone ownership is booming, Internet usage on the continent is limited by the high cost of data and a lack of smartphones. Facebook, which has more than 1.19 billion users worldwide, will have to partner with local businesses and expand their services into rural areas across sub-Saharan Africa in order to tap the masses, according to technology and social media experts.
“I don’t know if Facebook is willing to do all these things. But the market is there and the market is growing,” said Ernest Nti Acheampong, a researcher at African Technology Policy Studies Network in Nairobi, Kenya, which aims to build the region’s science, technology and innovation capacity.
Today, cell phones are pervasive in Africa, with ownership surging in countries like South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda over the last few years, according to a Pew Research Center study. About 88 percent of the region’s overall population is covered by a mobile-cellular signal, according to a report by the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva.
“Mobile is not a trend; it’s the fastest development in communications we’ve ever seen. This couldn’t be more true for Africa – where so many people are mobile-only,” Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said in a statement this week. “Africa is important to Facebook.”
Smartphones are less common in Africa because the devices are more expensive and they consume a lot of data, which the average African cannot afford. That’s problematic for Facebook. More than 80 percent of the social network’s monthly active users in Africa visit Facebook through their phones. The company can help make these devices more affordable for the masses by partnering with African mobile operators such as Vodacom Group Limited And MTN Group Limited, which are already working to lower the price by selling own-brand smartphones for under $50.
“We are beginning to see a shift from the use of mobile phones to smartphones [in Africa],” Acheampong said during a telephone interview Thursday. “It’s going to take a while but eventually the gap will close. [Facebook] should find a niche, carve that nice, build it and make it prosperous.”
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