Well connected

Well_connectedAll at Kenya Airways and Msafiri are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of our regular and much valued columnist Komla Dumor. Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones.

Komla was a shining light in African reporting; a positive, enthusiastic but pragmatic voice whose passion and belief in Africa was clear and eloquent. He shall be missed.

In his January column for Msafiri, Komla expressed his belief that Africa is set to become the next big online marketplace

“Do you know anyone who is flying from Accra to London this weekend? I need someone to bring me a…” How many times have you seen a request like that posted on a friend’s social media page? I will be the first to admit I have used social media to send a general request to any friends who might be travelling between Africa and Europe. Social media has really changed the way we interact. Usually it works and I find someone who is coming my way and my item is delivered in 48 hours.

In 2009 I did a report on the impact of undersea cables along the east and west African coasts. Delivering high-speed Internet, these conduits of connectivity promised to change business, communication, education and technology in Africa. The claim was that high- speed Internet would connect hundreds of millions of people across the continent, providing stronger communication platforms and social media. There is still some distance to go before the continent is fully connected, but the progress to date has been impressive.

In October last year I attended a conference in Rabat where business cards were no longer the only way of exchanging details. Most participants used a smartphone app that scanned personal details that had been pre-loaded onto a plastic ID card. Similarly at the launch of the new BBC studios at the beginning of the year we used an app that gives users a tour of the new building at Portland Place in London. But what does this all mean for Africa?

The evidence is clear that when it comes to business, Africa is the next big thing. The Internet is vital in this regard. I have to admit I am a bit of an online aficionado. After checking into a hotel the first question out of my mouth is, “How do I get on the Internet?”. In some places it is included in the hotel services, other times I have to pay for it. But even though there are still challenges with terrestrial infrastructure, Internet access can be taken for granted in most of Africa’s megacities.

The rise of mobile telephony in Africa has been simply phenomenal. Globally, Africa is the second biggest user of mobile phones. The expansion of mobile services across Africa has created platforms for speedy communications, electronic banking, social media and so on. However, many analysts think the next big trend will be online sales and marketing tailored to African consumers.

Already we use social media for wedding announcements, parties, business conferences, domestic and social services. Young people in Africa spend an inordinate amount of time online. I would hazard a guess and say there are tens of millions of Africa’s educated youth engaged online everyday. They are the centrepiece of an energetic and vibrant market that is growing in size and sophistication. A young middle class.

The challenge to African businesses is simple: how do you turn this group into your client base? I was pleasantly surprised to learn that an upscale Dutch suit maker that has offices in London, New York and Washington is opening branches in Lagos and Johannesburg, complete with online sales. The market research has told them where the money is and who has it. Africa is set to become the next big online marketplace. Is your business ready?