New research on Twitter in Africa: what does it mean for development?

Laura Kyrke-Smith, LCID’s CLP & PPC Outreach Officer and Director at Portland

It has become a cliché to say that new communications technologies and platforms are bringing huge change to countries across Africa.

And whether it is DFID working with mobile phone companies to inform young people about nutrition, or the Gates Foundation working with smallholder farmers to improve access to digital financial services, international development organisations have adapted their priorities and programmes to capitalise on the opportunities provided by evolving communications technologies and platforms.

Even so, it is striking how quickly the communications landscape is evolving – and how the implications for the development community are changing fast in turn.

Today at Portland we launched our latest research into Twitter in Africa. Building on its 2012 study, Portland looked in more depth at which cities are the most active, which languages are being used, and which issues are being discussed.

Johannesburg is by far the most active city in Africa, with almost 350,000 geo-located tweets during the last quarter of 2014. In East Africa Nairobi takes the top spot, and in West Africa it is Accra.

3 out of 4 tweets in Africa are in English, French or Arabic, but there is plenty of Twitter activity too in Zulu, Swahili, Afrikaans and Xhosa – something that it is easy to overlook from outside.

And while some conversations revolve around politics – including #KenyaAt50, which was trending during the period studied – it is striking how dominant the conversations around brands, sports and entertainment are. More people tweeted about football than they did the death of Nelson Mandela.

All of which raises some interesting questions for people working in development.

At the launch event this morning, lots of people noted how Twitter in Africa doesn’t seem to be as disruptive to established elites as it has been elsewhere. While in the Ukraine there has been a surge in Twitter use around the protests, in Africa it is #SamsungLove that is trending. How do people who care about transparency and accountability help Twitter become a tool for asking questions, digging deeper and helping governments and businesses to become more accountable?

How do people working in development get their issues talked about in the same way that football or music is talked about? In January this year ONE launched their DO AGRIC campaign with a live Twitter chat with Nigerian musician D’banj. It put agriculture on the radar of hundreds of thousands of D’banj’s fans and Twitter followers, who otherwise would not have been engaged on the issue, and sets a lead that other development organisations will surely have to follow.

Who is driving the conversations that the development community here would like to see happening? No doubt there is more that donors and NGOs can do to steer and participate in conversations, but perhaps it is D’banj or gospel singer Juliani in Kenya, also prominent in Twitter debates on agriculture, who will be leading future conversations about development in Africa.
And is it enough to only track and engage on social media in English and French? English in particular is still very dominant, but it is important for development organisations to know that English language content might not reach one in four Twitter users on the continent.

Twitter is of course just one of many platforms taking off. More people use Facebook than Twitter in many parts of Africa; other social media platforms like Mxit are huge too.

But the challenges across the evolving media landscape are the same. Where are conversations happening now, what are they about, who is leading them? Understanding the answers – and the implications for development – will be essential in making the changes we want to see.

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