Social media and sub-Saharan Africa. Really?

To continue the #ViewFromThePlane series this post is written by my good friend Pippa. She’s currently on a three-month trip with the United Nations Association International Service to Burkina Faso. Here she gives her #ViewFromThePlane.

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The scene out of the window is typical of a sub-Saharan high street; women sell fruit on the side of the road, rogue donkeys wander the streets and there’s dust, everywhere. Here I am in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a place that couldn’t be further from London both in terms of culture and resources. Burkina has some of the world’s lowest human development indicators in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and income. But it’s not all malnutrition and dirty drinking water. Ouagadougou presents a ‘modern’ West Africa, where businesses function, taxis roam the streets and you can even get wifi (if you’re lucky).

But in a country where many continue to struggle obtaining basic human rights, is there really a place for social media?

Last week I had dinner with a Burkinabe friend. When I asked him what he had had planned for the rest of the evening he responded “I’ll go home and chat to my friends on Facebook”. For him, Facebook is an ideal way to stay in touch with his friends from university who are based all over the country. Like many people in the UK, he uses social media to ‘socialise’ in a virtual realm.

But in reality; computers, smart phones and tablets don’t play a part in the lives of the majority of the people here. Serge, another
Burkinabe friend, estimates that as little as one in twenty own a device capable of using the internet. Serge is an educated 32 year old with a career in finance. After many chats on the subject, he acknowledged the power of social media but commented “it’s for the developed world, here we have other priorities”.

In his experience, a very small demographic use social media: the young, wealthy and educated. Gender inequality is still an issue here and it’s apparent that more men than women have access to the internet, let alone social media. According to the Guardian, in Sub-Saharan Africa, ‘45% fewer women than men have access to the internet’.

So, with so few people using social media in Burkina, how functional can it really be?

A couple of weeks ago around 300,000 people took to the streets, in peaceful demonstrations against potential changes to the constitution that could allow long-time President Compaoré to run for another term. The protests were supposedly the country’s largest in decades, and this time, were accompanied by vivid online activity. Twitter saw tweets from those expressing their opposition to the president and mobile devices were used to tweet pictures of the protests in action.

Meanwhile, groups were created on Facebook in which Burkinabes documented their frustrations and those pro-Campaoré expressed their support for him and anguish at the civil uprising. By Burkinabe standards, social media was buzzing with political conversation.

On the face of it Burkina Faso is a country that is not yet capable of fully functioning social media. When you search Burkina Faso on Google Images you are still faced with images resembling an Oxfam advert, and indeed this is an accurate reflection of life in many parts of the country. That said, economic disparities between different regions of the country are huge and social media seems to be excitedly waiting in the wings, ready to be used by those who have the socio-economic means to do so.

Words of SazJ
So no surprises there about access being restricted to the wealthy and the educated. But, when i asked Pippa if she would write her #ViewFromThePlane, I actually had to question whether there would be anything to write about – was it stupid to assume that every country in the world uses social media?

But alas, it’s there, and it’s in its rawest sense. In the western world we get consumed with thinking how we, as brands, can become part of people’s lives and how we can use social media to do that. But we forget why social networks were first created, and what makes them so powerful. It’s socialising in its most exciting form. And the people of Burkina Faso are embracing social media for just that. Let’s hope we can keep the brands away.

Find more from Pippa on her blog here.

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