This article is part of the tech and public policy team’s series on understanding the future of social media, including trends in regulation, innovation, safety, and harm. Here we set out how social media is providing a tremendous opportunity for African content creators and their rapidly growing audiences to tell a different story about the African continent. This powerful celebration and re-imagining is fragile and should be supported by internet-literate government policies that support the open internet.
For centuries, Africa’s narrative in the media has been that of a single story and, often, one with a pessimistic view of the continent. In one recent example, in early 2020, Reuters published an article titled “At least 300,000 Africans expected to die in pandemic: U.N. agency”, citing projections that, in a best-case scenario, Africa would fare far worse than its global counterparts. Such stories, along with other existing media narratives around the “dark continent”, have continued to negatively define Africa to outsiders while being internalised by many Africans. Now, armed with tools to create their own stories and with an audience through social media, African people and governments have begun to create their own narratives, often focusing on stories that celebrate the normalcy of African lives and contributions, working towards an Africa-optimistic future.
As internet penetration continues to grow across Africa, so has the use of social media. Facebook is the most visited website in Africa and as of December 2020, there were more than 233 million Facebook subscribers in Africa. Through Facebook and other social media platforms, travel bloggers and photographers, in particular, are playing a major role in documenting multiple perspectives and narratives about the African continent. These inspiring creatives are resetting the African narrative and giving voice to a new way for Africans and the world to think about Africa.
This picture by photographer Brian Otieno depicts a passionate 16-year-old dancer, Elise, in the Kibera neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Everyday Africa
Among pioneers in the space of intentionally using social media to broaden perspective about Africa is Everyday Africa. The group of photographers living and working across the continent chronicle the everyday lives of Africans and have amassed 428,000 followers on Instagram and 73,000 followers on Facebook in their mission to “broaden perception of Africa beyond the headlines”.
Similarly, YouTuber Wode Maya, has amassed 752,000 subscribers and more than 100 million views under his mission statement of “Africa to the World: Changing the Narratives”. Maya travels across Africa interviewing inspiring Africans who are contributing their quota to the continent’s development.
Photographer, Prince Gyasi, uses an iPhone to capture the everyday lives of Africans and edits them in vibrant colour schemes. Source: Prince Gyasi
Ghanaian photographer Prince Gyasi also came to fame through his use of social media, specifically Instagram. With an iPhone, Gyasi takes and edits vibrant photos of Africans in their daily element to share with his 150,000 Instagram followers. Gyasi has catapulted documenting the beauty of Africa on social media into commissioned opportunities with Apple and GQ, and in exhibitions around the world.
Finally, the visibility and endurance of the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou on social media tell a compelling story about the interest and demand from many Africans in sharing a different narrative about the continent than that which is typically seen in the media.
While it is clear that social media has brought fame and economic opportunity to many content creators intent on telling their African story, it is near impossible to quantify the total economic and social impact of these new narratives across all social media platforms. Still, there are clear indications that diverse and often optimistic stories of Africa told through new media platforms have tangible benefits on African lives. Ghana’s recent success with its "Year of Return" initiative is indicative of this.
In 2019, Ghana’s president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, launched the country's "Year of Return" initiative to commemorate the 400th anniversary of enslaved people landing in the U.S. with an invitation for those from the diaspora to return home. The initiative attracted an additional 200,000 visitors and the tourism sector injected about $1.9bn into the economy that year. The CEO of the Ghana Tourism Authority, Akwasi Agyeman, told reporters that Ghana accomplished this public relations and advertising feat primarily through digital marketing – specifically influencer-based marketing via social media.
The success of the initiative has propelled the country's "Beyond the Return" initiative with some African countries looking to launch similar tourism campaigns. These significant cultural, social, and economic benefits of social media for Africa should not be ignored.
In Africa, governments intent on broadening their tax base have considered social media tax as a promising avenue. But social media taxes hurt internet use, thereby suppressing the use and creation of content about African lives.
Between March and September 2018, Uganda lost nearly 30 per cent of its internet users after its government introduced a daily duty tax of 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.05) on social media sites. In Tanzania, the government introduced a law requiring all online content creators to pay roughly two million Tanzanian shillings ($860) in registration and licensing fees, which was reported to drive individual and content creators offline. Kenya’s Digital Services Tax, introduced in the Finance Act 2020, is similarly proving burdensome for content creators, influencers, and small tech businesses, rather than effectively capturing larger players.
Are social media taxes, then, creating more harm than good? The potential impact of social media in Africa is enormous but fragile and could be under assault from social media taxes and restrictions on freedom of expression. African governments must nurture their digital creative sector through effective social media and digital policy to reap its full benefits.