Facebook Arrives in Tanzania

“You know Facebook?” a 21-year-old Tanzanian accounting student named Noel asked me.

We were sitting on a couple of plastic chairs last night outside a tiny, concrete local store selling individually packaged shampoo packets, detergent and Cokes for about 10 to 30 cents a piece in a northern part of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was getting late. The geckos and mosquitoes were starting to appear and a group of children chased the neighborhood goats down a nearby dirt road. Noel wanted to stay in touch after our lengthy conversation about the upcoming national elections.

“Yes, of course.”

Thirty minutes after I left, a friend request popped into my inbox.

Slowly, it’s coming here. You might be in a local shop, and in the midst of a Bongo Flavor song, your ears might pick out the word Facebook from a string of Swahili on the radio. Tanzania has 163,340 Facebook users, up by 12,740 from a month ago, according to our Global Monitor report. 0.facebook.com, the low-bandwidth version of the site designed for feature phones in developing countries, has yet to make its debut here. But I hear it’s coming shortly.

Even so, there are plenty of obstacles that Facebook has to overcome to become as pervasive as it is in other parts of the world. While there is an explosion of mobile devices and services across the continent and promising pockets of innovation in the region like the Nairobi’s iHub, a Google-supported hacker space, many people lack basic familiarity with computers and the web even in the richest and most privileged parts of the capital.

The cost of Internet access here is prohibitive at roughly 60 cents per hour at a local cafe. So regular access is beyond the reach of many Tanzanians who have a $500 GDP per capita according to the World Bank.

Getting Online

If you have freely surfed the Internet for the past 15 years and grew up with a computer in your house, it’s easy to take for granted how much we intuitively know about sign-up flows and web services.

You know how to type, or at least you know the basic layout of a keyboard. You might even know shortcuts. You’re comfortable with multiple tabs. You have read news online. You can name a couple great websites off the top of your head. You’ve used a computer that’s newer than five years old. You’ve always had electricity.

If you haven’t had these things, signing up for Facebook is a lot harder than you think.

After learning that I’m American, about a half-dozen people here asked me to help them make profiles or pages after repeatedly trying and giving up. (Like e-mail, the social network is an aspirational product here. People want to be recognized and acknowledged just as much as they do anywhere else in the world.)

It’s not quantitative, but going through the sign-up flow with several Tanzanians has been an interesting way of looking at Facebook’s unique challenges in these markets.

For one, public education here is neglected by the Tanzanian government. There isn’t government support for computer or IT training, so even in the nation’s capital, there are plenty of teenagers who have maybe surfed the web once or twice in their lives. Many people don’t understand the concept of hyperlinks, let alone the news feed. Plus Facebook as a product has grown increasingly complex over the last 5 years

An 18-year-old secondary student I helped create a Facebook profile for, who lives a five-minute drive from the mansions of two former Tanzanian presidents, only got his first e-mail address on Yahoo three weeks ago. He had tried to sign up for Facebook last month but he didn’t get past the initial sign-up page and there was no way for him to upload photos since he didn’t have a camera or phone. None of his classmates or friends were online.