M-Pesa, Mxit and Facebook mobile: welcome to the African revolution

24 Jan 2013


If there’s any place in the world where “Internet” and “mobile” are pretty much synonyms, this place is Africa.

Of course it’s impossible to summarize the situation of such a complex continent into just one simple statistic, but there are some important signs that can give us a better idea of what’s going on.

As an example, the country with the highest Facebook Mobile penetration in the world is Swaziland, where 92,5% of Facebook users access it from a phone. According to a Social Bakers research from mid-2012, the country was closely followed by Nigeria. South Africa, Botswana, Malawi and Namibia were just a little back – all of them having over 8 Facebook users out of 10 connecting via mobile.

It’s always hard to predict the future based on mere numbers, but the figures that emerged from the Africa Frontiers Forum are quite interesting:

“By 2016, it is estimated that there will be one billion mobile phones in Africa.”


That’s what Mark Casey – director of the technology & media at Deloitte – said during the event in September 2012 (click here for further reading).

And this is not even so surprising: the importance of mobile internet in Africa began to catch international attention back in 2010, during the constitutional referendum in Kenya, when for the first time people and major media used social media as a source of informations and insights, and as a way to share the results in real time.


Africa Social Media


This increased the population’s trust in the elections, that has been followed by a huge number of Kenyans through the hashtag #Kenyadecides on Twitter.

Mobile is truly changing Africa, from both a sociological and technological point of view. Just think about the fact that Mount Kilimanjaro – almost 6 kilometres/20K feet high – is covered by GSM signal provided by Vodacom, making it the highest place in the world with mobile reception – only after the top of Mt. Everest, recently covered by China Mobile.




Let’s now take a look at two of the most important and popular internet-mobile services at the moment: a mobile social network called Mixit and a mobile-based payment system, M-Pesa.



Mxit is a mobile messaging application, launched in 2007 in South Africa. It allows users to connect their ID with several other digital platforms, such as Facebook, Yahoo, Google Talk, AIM and Windows Live Messenger, and of course the app is now available for all the main mobile systems.

Figures seem to be very interesting: it has now over 50 million registered users – 10 million active users only in South Africa – making it the biggest social network in the country. The platform processes more than 750 million messages every day.

Interesting enough, most of Mxit revenue comes from selling third-party developed contents, such as wallpapers and skins, music and games, through an its own virtual currency system called Moola – which is a slang term for money.

Alan Knott-Craig – former CEO of Mixt – has a very precise opinion on the huge success of the app and on the continuous growth of the African mobile market, according to an interview he gave to CNN:

“People in Africa are looking to have fun, they’re looking for entertainment and there’s only one thing in their life: the cell phone – there’s no iPad, PC, XBox or TV, there’s just the phone and Mxit is that escape. Before mobile Africa really was a dark continent – I mean literally people couldn’t communicate.”



In Swahili language, pesa means money. And M stands for mobile. There’s no need to explain what kind of services M-Pesa offers: it’s a mobile payment and money transfer system and micro-financing service, working with network operators Safaricom (Nairobi, Kenya) and Vodacom (Johannesburg, South Africa) – both controlled by Vodafone.




Launched in Kenya in 2007, it suddenly encountered a big success. In June 2010 the service reached 10 million uses – a third of the Kenyan population – and in march 2012 they were almost 10 millions. M-Pesa has been particularly successful also in Tanzania, where the service has 9 million subscribers (for further info here’s the Timeline of M-Pesa’s history).

The system works as a money transfer: people can go to the stores and deposit cash, then transfer the money on his mobile M-Pesa account – and even to non M-Pesa users – then transfer the money on another person’s account. The money can be then withdrawn at ATM points.

People can also save money on their account with no charges – transaction fees are 30 Kenyan shillings (0,30 USD), and are applied only for transfers or withdrawals.

As you can easily imagine, this technology – together with the skyrocketing diffusion of mobile phones – has had an incredible impact on Kenyan society. People are now able to pay school tuitions and healthcare services through M-Pesa, and those who had to move to urban areas or abroad can safely send money to their relatives still living in their native villages.

Here’s what an M-Pesa store looks like:



You can find more info about how the M-Pesa system works, and how this technology is truly improving the quality of life in Kenya, by checking out this post.

There have been several plans for a further international expansion of the service, generating contrasting results: while it has been a huge success in Afghanistan with Roshan Mobile Operatorbeing mobile money transfer considered as one of the most effective ways to fight corruption in the country – M-Pesa had some hard times in conquering the South African market, due to more severe banking regulations compared to the Kenyan ones.

Before we go, please check out the promo of M-Pesa, a video that explains how the service works through an original – and somehow heartwarming – song: 



For what concerns digital technologies, Africa is definitely not the dark continent anymore.

Guido Ghedin

Guido Ghedin

After his University years between Italy and California, today he deals with Market Research and Digital Scenario Analysis at Young Digitals. You can follow him on Twitter: @guido_ghedin.


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