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Ethiopia plots own social network to replace global offerings

Ethiopia is in the process of developing its own social media platform to take on global offerings WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, Reuters reports. However, an ICT and telecommunications analyst at Africa Analysis says while a local social network could be well received, its sustainability is very much a matter of scale.

Reuters news agency reported that the Ethiopian government does not intend to block international services, but rather replace these with a local platform, and quoted Shumete Gizaw, director general of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA).

Gizaw said Ethiopia will rely on its own expertise to develop the network.

Statista suggests that the country is home to six million Facebook users, and the projected number of social media users in the country is pegged at 48.59 million by 2025.

Dobek Pater, Director, Business Development at Africa Analysis, believes that a locally developed social network will be successful once they gain scale.

“They are possible in China (WeChat) due to the large population and the government’s strong push in that direction. It could be possible in India and perhaps one or two other large markets, e.g., Indonesia or Brazil. A key question is regarding the funding model. If people have to pay for an app like this, they are more inclined to use free versions. Will the government fund it? Probably not a long-term sustainable model. Will it be based on advert revenue? This typically requires economies of scale (a large audience).”

Pater added that global apps (like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram) have the attraction of being used globally, no geographic limitation. With the (probably large) Ethiopian diaspora globally, it is probably easier to communicate using one of these large apps than ask diaspora members to use the home-gown Ethiopian app.

“Currently, the number of smartphone uses (3G/4G) in Ethiopia remains small and data use limited. This is not conducive to developing economies of scale quickly. Which leads to the question: who will fund the initial development and subsequent maintenance / upgrades? There are a number of smaller apps of this nature globally but these typically have a user pays funding model (and the user base remains small).”

In March ITWeb Africa reported that according to Surfshark, in 2020 there were nine political cases of social media restriction across the continent, including in Ethiopia.

Another report Digital Rights in Closing Civic Space: Lesson from 10 African Countries found over 100 examples of technology tactics and techniques used to control or censor the internet.

According to the report, the most common methods used by governments included digital surveillance, internet shutdown, disinformation, introduction of laws reducing digital rights and arrests for online speech.

“In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe for example, when the government arrested journalists and banned public demonstrations, young people responded creatively using the internet and mobile phones to open civic space. Using SMS, social media, encrypted messaging and even satellite television to connect, organise and develop policy alternatives and successfully challenged government narratives,” the report said.

It added that the number of international shutdowns by African governments rose to 25 in 2020 from 21 in 2019, with Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan being the worst affected countries.

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