What is it like leading the world’s largest social network into its next frontier?
“Like drinking water from a firehose,” Nunu Ntshingila, the head of Facebook for Africa, said.
Much of the growth spurt witnessed by the social network in the first decade of its existence has been driven by users in developed markets with access to affordable, high speed and reliable Internet connections.
It is, however, becoming apparent that markets in the developing world, specifically African markets like South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, will largely determine the next course social networking and consumer technology take.
According to figures from Facebook, 1 billion people use the social network on a daily basis as at December 2015. Out of these, 934 million daily active users access the platform through mobile phones.
With Africa’s technology consumers preferring their increasingly cheaper smartphones for almost all their connectivity needs, Facebook is aware it will have to follow consumers to mobile.
At the same time, more micro- and small enterprises on the continent are taking to digital marketing. They are taking advantage of the ‘freemium’ offered by platforms like Facebook and Twitter to achieve brand visibility levels enjoyed by more established firms.
“Sometimes we laugh at how the small businesses appear to understand our platform better than some of the large corporations, because they have been using the platform quite a lot through their pages and have had a better level of engagement,” said Ms Ntshingila.
The Facebook for Africa boss was in Nairobi to meet with the city’s developer community and Facebook’s corporate clients.
It was one of numerous visits to the expansive market she took charge of in September last year. She was previously the head of marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather South Africa, where she led marketing strategies for brands like MultiChoice, Coca-Cola and IBM.
Her more than two-decade career in corporate boardrooms and state committees has seen Ntshingila serve as the communications director for Nike South Africa, a board member for Old Mutual South Africa, and Ogilvy & Mather’s worldwide board, a high-level executive council comprising 30 top marketing and public relations professionals
Tall, with a radiant smile that comes easily, Ntshingila chuckles about the transition from the world of marketing and public relations to leading Facebook in Africa.
“When I was in advertising, I thought we understood digital, until I got to Facebook. I am becoming aware that there is a lot to know,” she said.
“Now I know so much more and also what more needs to be done, the gaps that need to be filled, not just by us, but by our agency partners and users as well.”
One of the causes she has come to adopt is connectivity, which she said has become a human right and is crucial in Africa and other developing regions.
“We believe that for every 10 people that get connected to the Internet, one person is lifted out of poverty, and that is why we keep stressing the need for connectivity in developing regions,” she said.
Focus on Connectivity
In Africa, about 120 million people are active users of the social network out of a population of just over 1 billion people.
“We are aware that Internet penetration is low in certain markets, so even as we develop a deeper understanding in the markets of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, we are also looking at how to develop connectivity in other markets,” Ntshingila said.
In Kenya, 5.2 million people use Facebook every month, and half of them use the social networking platform every day, and almost all of them through their mobile phones.
Data from Facebook indicates that six out of 10 Kenyans use Facebook before going to bed, and a similar number of people while commuting.
Ntshingila said that cumulatively, the numbers tell the story of an ever-changing consumer technology landscape that has a lot of benefits for users looking to share photos, or SMEs pushing products.
“We’ve seen the change in communication boosted by smartphones. Platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp are growing, and the language has become more visual, judging by the videos and photos shared on these platforms,” she said.
Indeed, innovation keeps changing. About two weeks ago, Facebook announced the launch of Account Kit, a feature that eliminates the need for a password log-ins, improving account management and security.
WhatsApp, Facebook’s messaging subsidiary, further announced an encryption feature for its users.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s demonstration at the World Mobile Congress earlier this year about Virtual Reality becoming the new social platform is still a subject of debate in the tech community.
“We believe that artificial intelligence [AI] will be commonplace in the future,” said Ntshingila.
“This is something that has always existed, but we believe that it will become more important, particularly for us at Facebook in terms of how we can use AI to better understand the communities we serve.”