Culture of social networks in Africa on the example of trade

01.12.2009 | Christian Kreutz

There are over one billion Internet users worldwide according to a list from Wikipedia. Every day thousand of people joining social networks such as Facebook. How can these social networks be used to boost business? Are there differences between countries or regions how such social networks work? Mark Davies from Esoko, explains intriguing thoughts from his work in Ghana on market information systems through mobile phones.

The next billion

It is not easy to get figures, but the ones existing might come as a surprise to some. The largest social network in China, QQ has over 300 million active members. According to Appfrica, South Africa has 1.1 million Facebook members, Morocco 369,000, Tunisia 279,000, Nigeria 220,000, Kenya 150,000,and Mauritius 60,000.  Here are more details on social networks worldwide. The key role will be around mobile phones as the main way to access and interact in online social networks. According to research from Frost & Sullivan and Colibria, mobile social networks will grow ten fold to over 500 million users in Latin America and Africa in the next five years.

Culture and impact

But what happens in this social networks is what we know little about. What are the impact of such networks and their potentials beyond pure leisure exchange? This question has made me thought for a while and wonder what is the role of different cultures in such communities. For Anand Giridharadas, Facebook becomes an Indian village. Back at the ICT observatory I had an interesting discussion with Mark Davies around these questions, which I have recorded and transcribed below.

Interview with Mark on video

The key role will be around mobile phones as the main way to access

Christian: Hello Mark. We attended the last day of the ICT Observatory. We've had very interesting discussions the past days, and I would like to ask you, or discuss with you, the topic about social networks in Africa. Especially, you already mentioned that in your project, you really want to go in that direction using mobiles and the web for farmers, and to bring farmers and traders together. What do you think is the role of these networks and their potentials for the future?

Mark Davies: Well, I think it's really interesting that we've been through a period of three or four years, where networks seem to be one of the most compelling and interesting uses of the web, or the web 2.0. We've experience FaceBook, Twitter, and these other, MySpace.

Sitting in Africa, where we're working in Africa, and we're working in commerce and trade, it's all about social networks. You're trading with individuals that you know, this is perhaps a friends, or an associate, or somebody within your village. There is some identity that you can associate with them, and there is an element of trust.

So it's just intriguing to consider, if we took some of those principals of FaceBook, of Twitter, of MySpace, and we used it in a environment where, actually, social networks are even stringer. Does that mean that they are more or less appropriate? I think that's what's fascinating us.

Certainly in the case of European trade, or me as a businessman in America, I didn't need to know the person that I was trading with. I working within legislative framework I was working where standards and grades existed, and we knew who and what we were trading.

In Africa, if you're trading something, how do you insure that you get paid? How do you insure that the item that you're trading is what you've agreed upon? How do you insure that these things are what they say they are? You use networks as a way to reinforce, in this informal sector, that kind of commence and trade.

I think that's where we're looking at using technology to reinforce those networks, and make it easier for you to extend your networks beyond, perhaps, the geography or immediate linkages that you currently experience.

Christian: So that would mean the physical presence, the face-to-face exchange, is very important. To which extent do you think it is possible to do something over the Internet, when it comes to something as serious as trader and business-to-business solutions through mobile phones?

Mark Davies: Well I don't think you do trade over the web, I don't think that's what happens. But I think it's about "how do you exploit some of your social capitol using the web?" I don't think that means everything suddenly happens on the web, I don't think that we're going to see e-commerce anytime soon.

But how do I connect to somebody who might be in a different village, further away? If somebody has said that they have a product that I'm interested in, how can I use some networking tool to get closer to that person, to establish some identity or some reputation?

Perhaps I might find somebody that I already know in their community. And I can ask them "do you know so-and-so? Are they trustworthy? Can I send them the money before they send me the product?" I think that's the way.