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Can Facebook Zero Aid Development Work in Africa?

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, October 28 2013

Usha Venkatachallam, founder of a technology consulting company, divides her time between Washington, D.C. and Coimbatore, India, but the global nature of her development work has recently led her to Uganda where she is working on creating a digital health platform in Apac, a remote rural area of the country. Part of the project will utilize Facebook Zero, which Venkatachallam says will prove useful for engaging users in “resource constrained environments.”

“Data connectivity is poor [in Apac, Uganda]. Because of the Facebook Zero push – without data charge – we are trying to benefit from it and will use it in the second phase of our project,” Venkatachallam told techPresident.

Facebook Zero is a lean, text-only version of the social media site made to work “fast and free" on any mobile phone. It was launched in May 2010 as part of Facebook’s goal to “make the world more open and connected,” and it is now available without data charges through 50 mobile operators in 45 countries and territories.

No doubt, Facebook Zero is a keen business strategy, intended to maintain its spectacular growth rate by tapping emerging markets in Africa, Latin America and Asia. According to the World Bank, Africa's mobile phone market is now 650 million strong, larger than both the EU or the United States. This happened only within five years.

However, even before the launch of Facebook Zero, the social media site was gaining quite a bit of traction in Africa. Wayan Vota, a technology expert who works in ICT for development, explained in a blog post about his surprise at the ubiquity of Facebook adoption across Africa, albeit among the ICT crowd. "During a recent Inveneo training of ICT professionals, I was amazed to hear that most everyone had a Facebook account," he wrote. "Not only that, the computer technicians were seeing a spike in bandwidth usage directly tied to Facebook."

Vota also observed that Facebook was driving ICT adoption across the continent:

The consensus of group, marketing and technical experts at African ICT companies, was that Facebook was creating demand for their services. Current clients wanted faster Internet connectivity to download all the images and video sent their way via Facebook, and more technology (cameras, video & image editing software) to create content for their Facebook pages.

Since the launch of Facebook Zero, Facebook usage has grown in leaps and bounds across Africa at an average rate of 165 percent though its penetration is currently at less than 5 percent.

A significant portion of the youth in these emerging markets are already on Facebook, says Venkatachallam, and it is allowing her to reach them and collect data.

“It’s not just for social media presence,” says Venkatachallam. “We plan to use it as an alternate method to access stuff that we build out.” While she emphasizes that the Facebook aspect of the health platform is definitely a work in progress, she hopes that Facebook itself will be a place where people can log complaints privately through its private messaging system. The complaints can then be posted publicly but anonymously on the Facebook wall.

Still, what irks many critics of Facebook Zero is Mark Zuckerberg's claim, "We think it's something good for the world rather than something that is going to be really amazing for our profits." As Quartz's Christopher Mims argues, Facebook's ubiquity is one way it's going to be able to justify its share prices:

For the same reason that companies like Unilever are so keen to guarantee that the first shampoo a newly minted member of the global middle class ever tries is a brand they make, Facebook wants to completely own its users’ first contact with the web. The lifetime value of these users could, in the long run, be the main way for Facebook to justify its share price. And it gives Facebook, in a way that not even Google has accomplished, the chance to become the world’s homepage.

In an interview with Bill Gates, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Brad Stone asked, "Can bringing Internet access to parts of the world that don’t have it help solve problems?"

Gates expressed doubt, saying, "When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that."

But in remote areas like Apac, malaria is often cause by information gaps: malaria medicine had not been distributed to a local hospital due to an administrative oversight or a health practitioner provided an incorrect diagnosis. It is this information gap that people like Venkatachallam are engaged in closing with the Internet. Whether it's through Facebook or Microsoft or Google, all of which are attempting to roll out free or cheap Internet in developing countries, in some ways, access is still better than none at all.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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