african-mobileVENTURES AFRICA – “Mobile is the future of Africa,” explained Briant Biggs, Roc Nation’s Head of Digital. This past February, Biggs and many other international digital brands came to Lagos for Social Media Week cementing their entry into Africa. As the marketing and monetisation of the music industry is being revolutionised globally by mobile strategy- from Beyonce’s epic surprise drop (link) of the ‘Beyonce’ album with a single Instagram post that really did nearly break the internet, to Jay Z pre-releasing (link) his album through Samsung’s mobile app, Roc Nation turning their eyes to Africa is right on time.

With mobile internet use growing at double the rate of growth than the rest of the world, Africa is the land of digital opportunity.

Lagos is the first African city to host Social Media Week, a  global new media franchise. As the largest tech, new media business conference in Africa, SMW Lagos is aiming to be the digital epicentre of Africa, perhaps akin to be Africa’s very own SXSW (link). As mobile media creates the room for companies in Africa to leapfrog to the edge of industry innovation, Africa is one of the most exciting places in the world to have a conversation around new digital opportunities.

Social media is driving this growth. People are buying mobile data so that they can connect with friends on Facebook, browse newsfeeds on Twitter, or watch DBanj’s latest video on Youtube, and Whatsapp selfies to their latest squeeze. Nigeria alone is estimated to have over 50 million internet users, and that’s with just 30 percent internet penetration. Without social media, our company, Styled By Africa wouldn’t exist. As a start up with literally no marketing budget, we’ve relied on it to grow a community of readers and customers for our online boutique of African brands. For us and anyone doing business in Africa, a solid social media strategy is increasingly necessary.

African brands going digital

This year’s SMW Lagos showed that more African brands recognise just how central digital is to their business.  By using social media to increase their customer base, manage their reputation within the community and lead the conversation about their industry- social is the new normal. For example, Nigerian oil & gas company Oando are visibly trying to embrace innovative digital media strategies to create their own thought leader market share in spite of international brands such as BP and Chevron. Nigerian airline Arik Air now regularly give away flights and air miles on their Instagram page, as well as posting inspirational travel images around the region to highlight their competitive advantage over international players. Even former CEO of Ecobank, Arnold Ekpe, told the audience of Africa 2.0’s ‘Start Up Africa London’ event in September 2014 that if he was starting out again today he would build a digital only bank.

At the SMW Lagos Beat FM music day Nigerian rapper M.I confessed that it was easier to make money from Youtube, although in terms of branding he still prioritises releasing his music on regional TV platforms such as Sound City and MTV Base Africa. He also predicted that “At some point all our content will probably come from mobile and we’ll just flick it to our TV screens so it’s bigger. The screens will be interchangeable but the source will be mobile.”

Incoming internationals  

Socially savvy international brands are also embracing social media to penetrate new markets. With Africa’s largest population and economy, Nigeria is the prime target market for a growing number of international brands that are looking for new growth markets. Facebook’s Head of Public Policy for Africa, Ebele Okobi, used SMWLagos to encourage people to use Facebook to help build their political career or on the flipside, to help hold politicians accountable. According to General Manager of Uber Lagos, Ebi Atawodi, Uber doesn’t pay for any traditional advertising, instead relying entirely on social media for their marketing efforts to connect with potential users.

Everyone’s a celebrity

It’s not just about the big corporates, individuals are using social media to build personal brands to help them get jobs or to win fans. More African CEOs and executives are becoming visible on social media, particularly Twitter, which makes networking your way into an opportunity easier than ever. In creative industries, musicians and actresses are building huge social media followings that make it easier to monetise their work. Yagazie Emezi has leveraged her 38.9k Instagram followers to become a ‘visual curator’ for brands like UBA Bank and Lagos Fashion and Design Week. Journalist Tolu Ogunlesi has amassed a Twitter following of over 108k readers with whom he shares his writing everyday. In the run up to Nigeria’s presidential elections, even President Goodluck Jonathan has conceded to the power of social media, appointing Obi Asika (Co-Founder of Social Media Week Lagos) as Senior Special Assistant to the President on Social Media, the first appointment at cabinet level in Africa for the sector.

Getting online

The future may be online, but accessing it is still harder than it should be. The irony of the fact that we couldn’t get wifi for longer than a couple of minutes at a time at a social media conference would have been amusing if it wasn’t so frustrating. Turns out the Lagosians didn’t seem to mind as most of them roll with the small mobile routers, which they use at home or on the go.

While data is expensive and tricky to access, power players in the industry are searching for solutions so that they are ready to reap the long term benefits in years to come.  It will be harder and harder for these brands to differentiate themselves once Africa’s one billion people are all online. More people are purchasing smart phones and companies are competing to be first to open up 4G broadband access to the continent. Even our taxi driver had a better smartphone than I, showing off family photos on the latest Samsung smartphone while I trailed shamefully behind with an iPhone 4.

The energy we felt at the conference was the same all over Lagos- an overwhelming sense that we’re riding an historical wave of opportunity.  Obi Asika recalled a time to us when previous governments in Nigeria controlled everything, including freedom of speech. If you’ve ever been out to dinner with a group of Nigerians, you know how loud things can get when they have something to say. With millions more turning to social media to raise those voices, we can’t imagine they could turn back now.