When I open my phone, I am swamped by news,” says Matthew Stanley, a driver in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He scrolls through WhatsApp, a messaging service, bringing up a slick video forwarded into his church group. In a tone befitting a trailer for a horror film, the narrator falsely claims that Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s Muslim president, is plotting to kill Christians. Mr Stanley squints at the tiny screen. “I think it’s fake news,” he says. “I need to check the source.”
If only everyone were so sceptical. WhatsApp, which has 1.5bn users globally, is especially influential in Africa. It is the most popular social platform in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. In the West it is common for people to use multiple platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (see Graphic detail) but in African countries, where money is tighter and internet connections patchy, WhatsApp is an efficient one-stop-shop. The ability to leave audio notes makes it popular among illiterate people. But WhatsApp’s ubiquity also makes it a political tool.
African countries notched a 12%-growth in active social media users to 191 million last year, according to a report by global digital agencies, We Are Social and Hootsuite. Of those, mobile users accounted for 172 million, most of whom used only two Facebook-owned platforms: WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
With the exception of a few countries, WhatsApp was easily the most popular platform across Africa, while Facebook Messenger was mostly used across North Africa, Somalia, and Eritrea.
Indeed, WhatsApp has been key to driving internet uptake in Africa. In Zimbabwe, the app was responsible for about half of all internet data last year. Both Facebook and WhatsApp’s over-the-top services have also been responsible for a decline in mobile revenue growth. And Facebook also recently rolled out WhatsApp Business, a standalone app targeting small business owners across Africa, India, and Brazil. E-commerce retailers have also been utilizing it to engage customers and efficiently execute returns and manage failed deliveries.
This growing use of digital platforms is partly thanks to increased internet access. Since Jan. 2017, internet penetration in Africa has gone up by more than 20%, reaching more than 73 million more people. The continent also experienced the fastest growth rates globally, with users in Mali increasing by almost six times and more than doubling in Benin, Sierra Leone, Niger, and Mozambique. Digital optimism, or the percentage of a population that believed new technologies offered more opportunities than risks was also up, especially in Nigeria (80%), Kenya (72%), and South Africa (66%).
Despite this progress, Africa still lagged behind when it came to internet connectivity. In parts of the continent, monthly broadband packages still remained high. In land-locked countries, especially in Central Africa, which are far from cable landing stations, penetration rates remained low. This deficiency in connection continues to hinder the internet’s ability to deliver productivity gains in sectors like financial services, health, and education.