Facebook’s scramble for online Africa
The social media giant is promoting its potential as a platform for app developers and tech start-ups
Kenyan app developer Karanja Kiniaru once took a gamble by launching a start-up that relied on Facebook’s technology. It failed.
Kiniaru had to abandon his plans when the social network changed its privacy rules.
Around the world, people have welcomed laws and regulations that force tech giants like Facebook and Google to protect their users’ privacy.
But when Facebook executives are made to testify in front of Congress in the US or before regulators in the EU, those hearings and the policies they prompt have a ripple effect on the ecosystem of developers in Africa and other parts of the world.
It’s a demonstration of how Facebook has evolved to become more than just a social media platform. It is now a tech company with tools, services and software solutions that people use for social as well as business purposes.
This success has made Facebook popular with digital businesses seeking to integrate social connections or embed messaging services into their offerings.
Kiniaru, the founder of Nairobi-based tech firm ObiBee, developed a taxi hailing service similar to Uber that leveraged a user’s profile and connections on Facebook to make recommendations about which drivers to use.
The rationale for the service, Kiniaru says, was that as with so many other things, people are more likely to trust drivers who their friends recommend.
The idea worked up to a point, he says. "But there have been changes on the platform that affect how you access some of this data and to what extent you can use it."
Because of the changes, Kiniaru had to abandon his start-up.
"It gets you to a point where you say: ‘I built my whole house on this and then they take it away.’" The experience taught him never to depend on a platform again because the risks are too great, he says.
The software developer was speaking to the FM on the sidelines of Facebook Africa’s developers conference iD8 in Nairobi, which brought together developers from across the continent to share experiences and find ways to grow their businesses.
Facebook is investing heavily in Africa because it expects a substantial increase in internet users on the continent, where its developer community already numbers more than 70,000 people.
Asked how the new privacy policies are affecting these developers, Emeka Afigbo, Facebook’s global head of developer programmes, told the FM: "I think the key thing here is that there are processes that we’re going to implement to make sure that we handle data properly and that the partners we work with do the same and handle it in ways that make our users feel safe."
The privacy changes are still a work in progress, Afigbo says, "but we’re taking it very seriously".
He says Facebook’s aim is to remain relevant to its users and business. "That’s why we continue to invest in the tech ecosystem."
Huawei courts SA
Smartphone maker Huawei is one of the global firms that want to work with local developers. It hosted a "developer day" in Cape Town last week, marking the local launch of its Shining Star developer programme.
Huawei says the programme will make $1bn available globally for skills training as well as infrastructure and marketing support.
The programme was launched in the hope that more developers will develop services and solutions on Huawei Mobile Services, the company’s alternative to Google Play.
One African developer that has used Facebook’s platform to build an international business is Kenyan start-up Ongair, which has developed a world-first instant messaging aggregator.
It lets businesses engage customers on platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Telegram by enabling them to link customer service tools to their instant messaging accounts.
"Facebook, as a company, is not in the business of customer service," says Afigbo.
"But if a company like Ongair is able to build a solution that allows people to connect to businesses … Suddenly Messenger is now more relevant in the lives of those users.
"Equipping Ongair with the… resources to build those kinds of solutions is good for Ongair obviously, great for the users who find solutions to their pain points and it’s good for Facebook as well, because it means the product is now more relevant for the user."
Facebook’s iD8 brought together more than 400 developers, start-ups and other businesses from the continent. In a keynote address, Afigbo said Facebook would train and equip thousands of developers across 10 countries in Africa.
The event included hands-on demonstrations with Facebook experts and gave developers an opportunity to talk about the challenges they face.
Proud Dzambukira, product partnerships lead at Facebook for Middle East & Africa, says Facebook wants to invest in technologies today that will allow people to connect and build communities in the future.
Facebook and Instagram have a very large ecosystem around them, he says, and businesses build products that "live on top of the Facebook platform". Instagram — owned by Facebook — has creators that depend on it to reach their customers, users and followers.
"Our mission is to give people the power to build community and to get connected."
• Gavaza visited Nairobi as a guest of Facebook
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