Social media in Africa: when activism drives the trends

25 Sep 2013



If they’ll ever make a movie about the rise of Internet in Africa, they should call it “A history of activism”.

As we all known, around 2010 the revolutions in North African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia saw Facebook, Twitter and local cell phones networks playing a vital role in connecting the masses of young protesters – a phenomenon extensively reported by mainstream news worldwide.

As noted in this post from Paris Tech Review:

“Not only were these networks useful for information, but they helped give people a sense of a collective identity.”


But the trend doesn’t only regard international news-making mass revolutions – much has happened at the local level. As noted by BBC reporter Miriam Quansah during a BBC India event, social media gave Africans the chance to discuss a series of topics that were unspoken before. Especially for what concerns sensitive matters:

“A lot of people like to share contents of adult nature on the Internet, including stills of gang-rapes. The point is: rape has never been really discussed in African society, social media gave a chance to discuss these issues too.”


Over the years, with social platforms like Facebook and Twitter becoming more and more diffused, the Internet discussion started embracing a wider spectrum of subjects, relevant to always greater segments of the population. As Quansah stated:

“Social media then enabled people to talk about different things, like art and entertainment. And now we see the rise of inspirational content: many churches are spreading their message on social media. Now election results are announced on Social Media before they are available to mainstream media.”


From cultural movements to tech startups

Africa is homeland to many social networks and digital platforms, especially in the Sub-Saharan area. Among the most popular South Africa’s SNS Mxit and Kenyan mobile payment system M-Pesa, with Nairobi being a very active hub for tech startups.

The first Africa-born digital platforms and communities were primarily revolving around activism, and helped defining the way Internet evolved and developed in the African Continent. Here’s the story of three of them:

  • Ushahidi
  • Light Up Nigeria
  • Ghana Decides



Ushahidi is a swahili word meaning testimony, or witness. In 2007 it was chosen as the name for an open-source software for real-time information exchange, mapping and assistance organization during humanitarian crisis, riots and natural catastrophes.

The project was started by Kenya-based Internet personalities and entrepreneurs Erik Hersman (@whiteafrican) and Juliana Rotich (@afromusing), after the violent episodes during the 2007 elections in Kenya, which led to a national crisis causing over 1,300 fatalities.

The idea was to offer a map system and a bullet board where to share real-time info about riots and deaths, and where to coordinate assistance and relief – still available here:


Ushahidi Kenya


The strength of the project resides in the fact that it was born as an open-source platform: people can take the application and implement it into different systems, in order to suit the needs of specific projects – also on mobile: here’s the app on the iOS store.

Ushahidi enables people to share info and material via different media: SMS (via regular phones), pics and videos via smartphones, written reports submitted on the website.

After the outbreak in Kenya, Ushahidi has been used during the 2009 Indian elections, and also had a role during global major events, such as the swine flu epidemic outburst (2009) and the aftermath of Haiti earthquake (2010).

The platform has been used by several organizations around the world to monitor different kinds of emergencies – from floodings in Missouri to wildfires in Russia – and partnered with Al Jazeera to collect info about the 2012 snowstorm in the Balkan area.

Among the latest international projects, we can mention, a platform to monitor and prevent corruption in Armenia.


Ushahidi Armenia


Light Up Nigeria

Nigeria is the largest African country, with over 170 million people. About 33% of them (roughly 55 million) have access to the Internet, representing by far the biggest Africa’s Web population.

Light Up Nigeria is a collective project started in 2009 by Internet activist Amara Nwankpa, aiming at raising awareness toward power supply problems in the country, especially in rural areas.


Light Up Nigeria


Despite being an oil-rich territory, more than half the population have no access to power grids, and million of people live with a few hours of electricity a day – the only solution being expensive fuel-powered generators. The project involves citizens and regional governors, and its based on a website and on the main social media outlets.

The website also hosts the yearly Light-up Awards, to reward the projects and the people that have and actual impact in improving the situation at the national and regional level.


Social Media Nigeria


The impact of the project has been huge: Light-up Nigeria has been covered by international mainstream media (more on this CNN report: Why Nigerians are left in the dark) and in 2013 it became a video documentary (available on Youtube).


Ghana Decides

Political elections are among the main drivers in bringing groups of people to discuss together online. The Kenyan elections in March 2013 led to a number of initiatives to spread information, including a dedicated Youtube Channel and a social-media based reality show (we covered the issue on a previous report: Africa, how Internet is changing the “Heart of Darkness”).

In 2012 Ghana’s electoral appointment gave local activists the chance to set up a project called Ghana Decides, a non-partisan project enabling the political discussion online. The mission behind the project is quite clear:

“Fostering a better informed electorate for free, fair and safe 2012 Election”


The initiative was based on both on and offline events, with contents spread around main social media like TwitterFacebook and Flickr, fostering conversations around the #ghanadecides hashtag.


Ghana Decides


Ghana Decides has been a national success, and also able to get international exposure, with reports on Mashable and Al Jazeera – quite remarkable result, as we’re speaking of a country that counts roughly 3,5 million Internet users out of its over 25M total population.

Here’s a video report of the initiative:



Guido Ghedin

(The cover image has been taken from Ghana Decides’ Facebook page). 

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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