BAdre Ibrahim is a Sudanese comedian and founder of the Abbas Comics Empire. His tapes are twisted and disrespectful, mocking the Sudanese military and encouraging civic activism. One recurring character is a miserable but wise cat named Gadenfar, a type of Garfield who meets the hero of Snoopy, who finds himself on the wrong end of a misunderstanding with living felines and humans. It is all rendered in the vernacular and is dry, funny, and often poignant. The comic has become so popular that Ibrahim is regularly tasked with doing special work, making Ghazanfar in various forms — as a shy groom on a wedding invitation card, for example.
Most of this work comes via Facebook, where his comics have around 19,000 followers. “I ran the page for about a year,” Ibrahim says. By then, I became her own Society, and now does not need to spend a lot of time maintaining it. During the launch period, Ibrahim spent a lot of time “posting regularly and interacting with comments” and also “sending the page to everyone I know”. Independent work came through those comments. “People and companies would message me across the page looking for an artist. Sometimes they would ask to use one of my comic characters for a product.” He can’t imagine how he would have started his career without Facebook.
The social network has two benefits for companies – not only in Africa, but for all emerging markets. The first is ease of access. “Everyone has Facebook,” Ibrahim told me from his studio in Khartoum, where he still works late at night. “Everyone knows how to use it. Most of my audience is in Sudan and they can easily share my content.” The second benefit is its analytical function. Ibrahim can see who shares his content and how it spreads, and make decisions on how to grow his business. But for many people, Facebook is not only indispensable but inevitable.
Across Africa, Facebook He is Internet. Businesses and consumers rely heavily on it because access to the app and website is free on many African telecom networks, which means you don’t need any phone credit to use it. In 2015, Facebook launched Free Basics, an internet service that gives users credit-free access to the platform. Designed to work on low-cost mobile phones, which make up the vast majority of devices on the continent, it offers a limited format, with no audio, photo and video content. Over the past five years, Free Basics has been published in 32 African countries. Facebook’s ambition does not end there. Where there are no telecom providers to partner with, or where the infrastructure is poor, the company is developing satellites that can send Internet access to remote areas. However, that plan was shelved in 2016, when a SpaceX powered rocket by Elon Musk exploded, destroying the AMOS-6 satellite on board that Facebook had intended to launch, and through it, it leased an internet connection in partnership with Eutelsat, the French satellite company. .
Internet access in Africa is largely via mobile phones. Only about 8% of African households own a computer, while phone ownership hovers around 50%. Half of cell phones are connected to the Internet, but not through postpaid plans. The majority of data users are pay as you go, and sometimes even have multiple sims to switch between cost-effective plans. When the data they bought runs out, Facebook is still there.
Western users delete their accounts for a variety of reasons, among them the platform’s record of privacy, its contribution to political volatility by designing algorithms that prioritize discord and friction, and the difficulty of this as a user experience. Younger users prefer shorter, fleeting content, such as in TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. According to whistleblower Francis Hogan’s testimony before the US Senate, the company is aware of its stagnant growth in some places and demographics. “Facebook understands that if they want the company to grow, they have to find new users,” she told senators. One of Facebook’s internal documents reports a decline in the number of younger users in “more advanced economies”. In the same way that tobacco companies migrated their efforts to emerging markets once potential waned elsewhere due to lawsuits, regulation and increased awareness, so too is Facebook focusing on new pastures.
meIn 2020, when the pandemic began, I found my movements on the African continent limited for several months at a time – for example, in Egypt during airport closures and a strict curfew at sunset. My Facebook account — a relic of youthful days and old habits online — has become a must-have if you want to call businesses, find phone numbers, order food, and even look up tips for securing vaccinations. The links I followed inevitably ended up in variations of the “Join Facebook to Comment/Message/Contact” page. In the end, I reluctantly reactivated my account.
The timeline I was back on was a virtual Mary Celeste, a collection of posts from friends and relatives who had long left the site, but hadn’t bothered to delete their accounts, which had become prey to viruses and phishing. However, Facebook soon became the most widely used social media application.
Mona Amin had the same experience. When I moved from the US to Kenya in 2017, Facebook was inevitable. Settling into a new country that didn’t have the infrastructure it was used to meant that everything from finding places to rent to sourcing furniture happened via Facebook. For someone whose last interactions on Facebook were liking people’s photos from a night out, the new interface was overwhelming and impractical. “I don’t even know how to use it anymore,” she says. “But it is useful, and there are still a lot of people out there. Or they have joined again.”
For users in volatile economies with disrupted supply chains, Facebook is not only useful, it is vital. Bilqis Awad lives in a remote part of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, a city that has experienced political instability and food and fuel shortages for the past three years. One closed Facebook group in particular was a lifeline – helping her secure bread and petrol. “When a bakery receives a delivery of bread, or when a gas station supplies it with fuel, someone always posts in the group. They even tell us when there is a heavy police presence in certain areas. Security patrols sometimes arrest people for no reason and blackmail or detain them.” Members are screened before they are allowed into the group to ensure they are trustworthy sources of information, and not to gather intelligence to inform nervous security forces and police.
Awad buys its data, buying almost everything, including food, electricity, and gas, in small prepaid amounts. She doesn’t pay a single bill at the end of the month except for rent. “Microeconomics” is what we call it, says Nangala Nyabula, a Kenyan writer and advocate. This describes Kenya’s “Kadugo economy,” where goods are sold in the smallest possible unit—one banana, one piece of bread, one ounce of flour, and one megabyte at a time. Small is the way it should be in a lot of sub-Saharan Africa – not only for ease of budgeting, but because a large section of the population is unbanked, so direct debit required for contracted phone services is not an option.
But even when the markets are more developed, Facebook still maintains a strong grip on business owners and users. Amina Rashad runs Glow, a Cairo-based company that offers healthy meals, nutritional programs, and juices. The company started from her home in 2017 and simultaneously created a Facebook and Instagram page. “That’s what made my job,” she says. “It’s been my default store for a long time.” I took orders via Facebook messenger and the WhatsApp tool built into the Facebook and Instagram page. Once the business was launched, I was able to diversify the way you receive orders, creating a website and app, both receiving orders and payments. A wealthy client base means that their clients are more inclined to use a bank. Egypt’s e-commerce infrastructure has developed rapidly over the past decade, particularly in the food and grocery delivery sector, helping the capital’s growing middle class save time and hassle in a sprawling, densely populated and traffic-clogged city.
But there are still restrictions that Rashad sends back to social media, where orders are received manually and paid for on delivery. The company’s website and app payments system is hosted on a common platform, rather than a private one, which is a cost-effective shared arrangement for a growing business. But, despite the volume of requests now coming from the website, and the relatively low cost of automating payments, cross-platforms come with less control when things go wrong — like provider servers down, or when site maintenance is urgently needed. “There is a very personal element to the product,” Rashad says, so she’s happy to stay in a less secretive ordering ecosystem, “so we can go back and check the details, answer questions, and check for allergies.”
Facebook presents its free internet initiatives in Africa as philanthropy, but it is also likely to be a way for the company to reposition itself, Where users log out in the West and log in elsewhere. There is a growing awareness in the global south that Facebook’s initiatives may have sinister effects. Free Basics was effectively banned in India in 2016, after a protest that the initiative violated the rules of net neutrality, the principle that all content and applications should be enabled by Internet service providers. According to research by Global Voices, Facebook’s actions constitute “digital colonization,” as it “builds this small network that turns the user into a predominantly passive consumer of Western corporate content.”
These consumers are not always passive. The focus of users on Facebook in some African countries has had some positive results in terms of facilitating freedom of expression and civic activism in countries where repressive regimes dominate the public space. “There is no doubt in my mind, social networks have been useful for political discourse and for organizing in countries where there is no freedom of expression,” says Nyabula. After a military coup in Sudan last October, the army cut off internet services, but some users still managed to find ways to broadcast the protests on Facebook. While reporting on the coup and its aftermath, I found myself, once again, learning about Facebook posts.
The platform’s neglect of moderation means that armed militias and authoritarian regimes are also misusing the platform for their own propaganda purposes, not to mention phishing and personal attacks that occur, just like anywhere else. CNN reported, in October last year, that Facebook learned it was being used to incite violence in Ethiopia and did not act. There has also been a “failure to invest in language and understanding of the local context,” says Nyabula. “Facebook Africa office opened in 2015. The first Amharic speaking content moderators were appointed in 2019. It is no small matter that less than 100 people are working on content moderators in Ethiopia.” Amharic is one of more than 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia.
While Facebook in Africa remains largely uncensored, the platform’s usefulness to the voiceless will be drowned out by those who are louder and more powerful. Meanwhile, for small businesses and users alike, Facebook is inevitable. The company may be in a struggle to survive in the West, as calls for regulation grow and its prospects cloud. But in Africa and other regions of the global south, Facebook’s economic, political and social influence almost guarantees him a second life.
Some names have been changed.