African businesses, too, could gain from the features and popularity of these platforms, though social media use varies widely between regions of the continent. The estimates for 2021 are that 45% of the population in northern Africa use social media, 8% in central Africa, 10% in eastern Africa, 16% in western Africa and 41% in southern Africa.
Facebook is the most popular platform in Africa, with 58.74% of social media users. It’s followed by YouTube with 23.01% of users and Twitter with 11.75% of users.
The internet economy – which refers to businesses performed through the worldwide web or internet markets – is estimated to contribute close to $115 billion or about 4.5% of the continent’s total gross domestic product. It is projected to reach $180 billion or 5.2% of GDP by 2025 and $712 billion by 2050.
Some of the reasons for using social media in business relate to its low cost, higher level of communication efficiency and a shift towards a consumer driven environment. But the level of interest in Africa, especially among small scale business owners, is less well understood and evidence is relatively scarce.
In a study in southwest Nigeria, I explored the experiences of small scale craft workers using social media platforms for business. These business owners spoke about the benefits, risks and obstacles involved in using social media. They shed light on what gaps need to be filled before the full potential of social media in commerce can be achieved in Nigeria.
Craft workers on social media
I chose 170 craft workers, including dressmakers, goldsmiths, interior decorators, caterers, hair dressers and barbers in the city of Ado Ekiti. Through questionnaires and interviews I sought to gauge their understanding and perception of social media. Over half (55.6%) of the respondents were women; 68% were between the ages of 20 and 29; and 54.1% had tertiary education.
Asked about which social media they were comfortable with, 46% named Facebook, 27.8% WhatsApp, 16.7% Twitter and 9.5% BlackBerry messenger.
Respondents said social media was relevant to business performance. They believed it had improved their business sales and enabled them to communicate with clients. But they felt that it would not improve their business performance on its own. And the number of respondents who actually used it for business purposes was small. They tended to use it for advertising but not for transacting business. While many of the respondents used the platforms when they first started their business, maintaining the tempo became difficult.
Recounting the benefits of using the platforms, most respondents claimed they had met new clients far away from their immediate environment and they had been able to showcase their products online, thus saving the cost of physical showrooms for marketing their wares.
Some of the participants did not see a use for the platforms beyond showing pictures of what they made or did. And there was a lack of consistency in the use of the platforms – respondents stopped using them or used them only once in a while or when clients asked to transact that way.
One participant mentioned the risk of online fraud. Others said social media was expensive, unsafe and restrictive due to connectivity issues. Connectivity issues refer to the ability to get quality and fast internet for business purposes. In the localities of these entrepreneurs, internet speed and quality were bad. Transacting business through social media platforms thus become challenging. Many felt the policy makers and others had not done enough to create a conducive atmosphere for using social media in business transactions.
Small business owners in the study appeared to be getting little from what the digital economy has to offer. Connectivity issues and maintenance costs, limited understanding of the use of social media for business growth and internet security all restricted the use of platforms among the study participants. These issues put together show the gaps that government and others need to fill to provide the infrastructure for small scale entrepreneurs in Nigeria.
Training, security and costs
Training and skill acquisition programmes at all levels are essential to impart the full value of social media in business to users.
The issue of internet security needs proper attention.
Service providers may need to create cost effective and user friendly services for small business owners.
All hands must therefore be on deck to ensure that the right atmosphere is created for small business owners, who make up a great part of Africa’s business base.