5 Reasons Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Visit To Africa Was Important

Written by Tom Jackson

Lots happened on the African tech startup scene last week. Some top quality startups raised funding, others rolled out exciting new products, and new investment funds were launched.

You would be forgiven, however, for missing all that, as there was only one story in town. And that story was Mark Zuckerberg paying “surprise” visits to Lagos and Nairobi.

The trip was Zuckerberg’s first to Sub-Saharan Africa, though not having his holiday snaps at hand from the last few years I cannot confirm whether he has, say, sat on a beach in Zanzibar or been to the top of Table Mountain in the past.

Startup-land went doolally as the Facebook boss – the seventh richest man in the world – hung out with entrepreneurs and developers at the Lagos Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB) and the iHub in Nairobi, dropped in to see his recent investees Andela, and lunched with Kenyan politicians.

Beyond whether Zuckerberg enjoyed jollof rice or ugali with fish more (he sensibly hasn’t gone on record with his thoughts, there were a number of reasons why his visit to Africa was important.

Facebook is drilling down on Africa

One of Zuckerberg’s key reasons for visiting the continent was, according to the man himself,  to see how Facebook is used in Africa and understand how to improve it. Facebook has an estimated 124 million users in Africa, out of an estimated 333 million internet users. That means it has plenty of room for growth, compared to Western markets that are approaching saturation. Moreover, this online population is expected to grow.

Zuckerberg’s visits to entrepreneurial hubs got all the attention, but he did get about on some official Facebook business. His attendance at a developer workshop held by the company in Lagos, and the fact his visit coincided with news Facebook is launching Express Wi-Fi hotspots in Lagos, suggested Zuckerberg was very much there with a Facebook hat on.

Scaling up, and protecting, Free Basics

Through Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, one of Zuckerberg’s key goals is to get more people online (and therefore using Facebook). Free Basics is central to this, as it provides users with free access to certain services, offering a kind of first entry point to online services.

Free Basics has run into some trouble in Egypt and India, however, where the service was discontinued in February after the country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority outlawed zero-rated initiatives. Part of Zuckerberg’s reasoning for visiting Africa, especially in meeting Kenyan communications minister Joe Mucheru, would have been to ensure the same does not happen here.

Meeting Andela

When the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative ploughed US$24 million in funding into African coding accelerator Andela earlier this year, many would have been forgiven the man himself would have little to do with the company. That perception was blown away by Zuckerberg making a point of visiting the company within a matter of weeks.

“Mark was certainly most impressed by the fellows at Andela. We set up an intimate discussion for a couple of our fellows and Mark, so that he could learn more about their experiences,” said Seni Sulyman, director of Andela Lagos.

“Watching how engaged he was and how intently he listened, there was no doubt that their stories captivated him in a way that made him feel even more convinced he had invested in the right business.”

Inspiring entrepreneurs

The looks of joy on the faces of young entrepreneurs at CcHUB and iHub told us all we need to know about what it meant for the Facebook CEO to be in their office and hearing their stories. There could be no better way of inspiring young innovators, especially as Zuckerberg has already suggested through the Andela investment he is willing to back African companies.

Erik Hersman, co-founder of the iHub and BRCK, said his visit was a strong message that Zuckerberg was interested in the internet, connectivity and entrepreneurship in Africa.

“He spent some good time with the entrepreneurs who integrate Facebook into their apps and services. He also met with, and seemed genuinely interested in the entrepreneurs working on hardware out of Gearbox,” he said.

Continuing the trend

Zuckerberg’s visit may have been the most high profile yet, but he is just the latest in a long line of celebrated US tech innovators and investors that have identified Africa as a land of opportunity. The likes of Bill Gates, Steve Case and Tim Draper have all dropped in recently, making investments along the way.

What the arrival of Zuckerberg does is confirm the importance of Africa and its innovators on a global stage, not only for the likes of Gates and Case, who no longer run their companies, but people like Zuckerberg who are still actively involved at Fortune 500 firms. Africa is growing, and people are taking notice.