The Future of TikTok is African - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Choking under pressure in Asia and under threat in the U.S, TikTok is spreading its wings to fly freely in Africa.

  • Under pressure from multiple dissatisfied governments, the social media app has quietly planted seeds that are shaping Africa as its latest bride.
  • The world’s youngest continent, with countries dependent on China for investment, could be the safe space TikTok needs.

The crisis is real for TikTok. Governments in multiple countries are clipping the wings of the world’s fastest growing social media app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. India, its largest market, banned the app late June amid heightened border tensions with China. President Donald Trump has threatened to kick TikTok out of America. Even Pakistan, an all-weather friend of China has given warnings over what it describes as “immoral, obscene and vulgar content.” Yet if it feels cornered, TikTok has an escape route ready — to Africa.

Away from the controversies dogging it in Asia and North America, TikTok has quietly planted seeds over the past year that are germinating and shaping Africa into the social network’s latest bride. It has dedicated social media accounts for Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, and is aggressively drawing established influencers into its fold while organizing classes to train new influencers.

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It has created and promoted campaigns like the #MadibaJiveChallenge to get users in South Africa to mimic the dance steps of the late Nelson Mandela, as well as the Africa Day challenge centred around pan-African African Day celebrations on May 25.

They support us so much.

Javier “Kamau” Felipe Aranzales, Kenya-based influencer

In April 2019, it held a Lagos meetup for social media influencers popular on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, including the popular Nigerian actress Maraji who now has 66,000 followers on TikTok. It has also organized two meetups with influencers in Kenya, where it has hitched its tent at a popular co-working space called Nairobi Garage. It’s global head of partnerships with content creators, Kudzi Chikumbu, is South African. And in 2019, it was the second most downloaded app in South Africa, after Facebook Lite.

“They have a specialized team reaching out to creators and managers, helping us with challenges,” says Colombian-born influencer Javier “Kamau” Felipe Aranzales who moved to Kenya in 2017. “They created a cohort of influencers who are going to be the face of the application … they support us so much.” From dedicated people assigned to keeping creators updated on what’s trending, to helping them with brand campaigns, TikTok does it all, says the 25-year-old Harvard alumnus.

TikTok’s emphasis on Africa makes sense. It’s the world’s youngest continent — its median age is 20 years, compared to 27 in India and 38 in America. Internet penetration and smartphone density are also on the rise across Africa. For years, affordable made-in-China smartphones especially Tecno, Itel and Infinix have flooded the market. According to the hardware firm Transsion which makes all three and controls more than half of Africa’s feature phone market, Tecno phones are particularly optimized for better photographing African complexions.

Boniswa Sidwaba, TikTok content operations manager for Africa declined to disclose the app’s country-wide number of users or its staff numbers on the continent, but emphasised that its audience in Africa is “creatively diverse” and reflects “the immense potential we see in this market.”

Like in other parts of the world, authorities in some African nations too have raised safety and privacy concerns. In June, the South African Police Service said it was up to parents to “talk to kids about appropriate content” on TikTok, warning in a Facebook post that kids might be vulnerable to predators on the platform.

But the geopolitics is very different from India or America. In 2018, China invested $72 million in Africa — more than twice the second-biggest investor, France ($34 million). Most African governments are desperate to woo even more Chinese investment, making the continent a relatively safe space for TikTok.

It’s still early days in Africa for the app — which became available outside China after merging with Musical.ly in August 2018. But its growth is undeniable. Felipe makes videos in Swahili and English, dancing to catchy Afrobeat tunes as @AfrobeatsWithKamau. Earlier, as a Musical.ly user, he would use that app to make videos and export them to Instagram “because the audience I was trying to reach wasn’t on TikTok then.” Since joining TikTok in June 2019, he has already gained 238,000 followers on the app.

He is a pillar of the TikTok revolution in East Africa alongside frequent collaborator Azziad Nasenya, a 20-year old actress and undergraduate student in mass communications. Often called the region’s “TikTok Queen,” Nasenya has half a million followers on the platform — by far the most in East Africa.

TikTok’s hoping to multiply those numbers significantly in the coming weeks and months. Succeeding big time in Africa might be its best bet for the future.

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