Social Media in a Developing World

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A few weeks ago I checked my phone to find a picture of a pretty girl- whose face was starting to look more and more familiar. She was one of the contestants in the upcoming Miss Sierra Leone beauty pageant, and obviously had a very good PR team. I don’t take much interest in beauty pageants, and, left on my own, would never have known she existed let alone what she was up to. Yet thanks to Whatsapp, I knew her name and what she would be doing on a particular date at a particular time.

A few days later I saw a poster for the same beauty pageant, with a picture of each contestant. I could pick her face out instantly, and quite honestly, if I ever needed to vote, she would have been the one I voted for.

Why? Because her resourceful team had the sense to utilize a powerful tool: social media.

Another example comes from being an entrepreneur in Sierra Leone, social media has helped me make money while spending none. I have found that posting pictures of items I was selling on Whatsapp and having them widely circulated on my behalf while I waited with folded arms yielded remarkable results. As a worker in the public health sector I have put together short blurbs of information on health and hygiene and blasted them to my friend groups. As a member of the public I have been subject to countless messages of political propaganda seeking to swing my opinion, event organizers anxious to inform me of my entertainment options, evangelists desperate to help me receive the blessings of God; and all of their messages reached me.

Now you probably are aware of the immense potential social media holds, but probably not in the context of developing countries. As a student in the U.S, my Whatsapp could go days unchecked. When I moved back home to Sierra Leone, I was in awe of the young generation’s addiction to Whatsapp. There were a million groups to join, friends to be made, drama to unfold. I found that everyone I know is ALWAYS on Whatsapp.

This knowledge is important to have because a lot of people in developed countries have the notion that most of the developing world is languishing in ignorance and have probably never seen a computer or smartphone in their life. Someone once asked me if we have Facebook in Africa. We do. We have Whatsapp (by far the most popular platform for idleness), Twitter, You Tube, and whatever else you think we don’t have. So, if you are looking to set up a business, an NGO, or even an evangelical mission in this part of the world, you would want to jump on the social media bandwagon.

Of course there are downsides to this occasional-maniacal-obsession with social media, which I would assume you are familiar with. In the context of a poverty-stricken country however, those consequences can be much more far-reaching. A study by Save the Children recently showed that adolescent girls in Sierra Leone were trading sex for smart phones. Oh the allure of Whatsapp and Facebook. I don’t even get paper invites anymore; I get an invite on Facebook, or a message loaded with smileys lands in my Whatsapp and next thing you know, I’m at a party overflowing with people my age walking around with their eyes glued to their phones. So what if you’re not on Facebook and Whatsapp? You don’t get the invite. Simple. This is not a good thing, but it can be used for good.

So, if you were considering working and connecting with locals in a developing country, I would recommend having a team of social media experts to do your PR for you. Chances are, you’ll save a lot of money, reach a lot of people, and save a lot of energy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the public or private sector, developed or developing world; social media works for everyone. As long as you don’t plan to set up base in a remote village in the middle of the forest a hundred miles from the nearest gas station, or have an ageing customer base, chances are it will work for you too.  Use it.

Everyone else is.

Agnes Bangali graduated from Connecticut College with a BA in Biology and Gender and Women’s Studies. She recently moved back to her native Sierra Leone to work as the Gender and Reproductive Health Programme Associate with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).  Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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