The Middle Kingdom currently has almost 700 million internet users, more than double the entire population of the United States. Interestingly, more than two-thirds of these internet users prefer to use their mobile phones to get online. The country’s internet boom has resulted in a myriad of phone apps that have essentially altered China’s society. One such app is WeChat (also referred to by its Chinese name, WeiXin). WeChat is China’s top messaging app that originally resembled the American Whatsapp. Now, however, it has transformed into a super-app, combining the functions of Facebook, Paypal, and Skype. It is used to pay electricity bills, to hail cabs, and serves as a social network where users share details about their lives. This app is owned by Tencent, which is Asia’s most valuable tech company and worth 232 billion USD. By the end of 2015, WeChat had amassed 697 monthly active users.
Massively popular at home, WeChat is venturing to Africa where mobile phones have been gaining great traction in recent years. In 2013, WeChat Africa was jointly launched by China’s Tencent and South African e-commerce and media group, Naspers. The South African company owns 34 percent of the joint venture and the latest available figures show that the app boasts just over 5 million users. This is less than Whatsapp’s user base in South Africa, which is about 10 million.
Like it has in China, WeChat is trying to expand its offerings to more than chatting. In 2015, WeChat launched one of its financial services in South Africa and allowed users to to store bank cards and withdraw money from ATMs belonging to the South African Standard Bank. What is convenient about the WeChat service is that users can take money out of any Standard Bank ATM even if their account is with another bank and interestingly, even if they do not have a bank account at all. It is worth mentioning that Standard Bank is backed by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).
Surprisingly, it is Kenya and not South Africa that is leading the charge in the mobile money sector in Africa. M-Pesa, launched in 2007, allows Kenyans to spend, transfer and borrow money using an account stored on their mobile phones. Africa’s hunger for mobile financing is therefore at the heart of WeChat Africa’s strategy. Brett Loubser, CEO of WeChat Africa insists, “If you look at the landscape in Africa from a mobile money perspective, Africa is leading the charge globally.”
So far, WeChat’s success in Africa is actually not centered around the financial services. In Nigeria and South Africa, for instance, WeChat is offering voting services for viewers of TV shows such as “Idol” and “The Voice.” The CEO of WeChat Africa, Brett Loubser, explained that this “second screen” concept, where viewers are watching TV and interacting with the show using their mobile phones, is proving to be a successful niche for WeChat. In addition, the company is also partnering with a radio station to stream its shows and take daily polls. WeChat is also collaborating with local start-ups by providing seed funds and partnering with off-line businesses like delivery services.
Despite some successful ventures, WeChat Africa still has a very long way to go. Elizabeth Gould, co-founder & CEO of codex, an organization that trains African software developers, has found that by the end of 2015, barely anyone uses WeChat in Cape Town’s start-up scene. Here, WhatsApp and Facebook are the preferred modes of communication. Users have complained that WeChat is too complicated to use, especially compared to the interface that WhatsApp employs.
WeChat Africa is aware of this comparison and the shortcomings of their application. Loubser has found that one reason for this is that WeChat is designed for advanced smart phones that are not as widely available in most places in Africa. He elaborates, “WeChat is very much a product that is designed to work on higher-end smartphones, and adoption [of these] is generally a little bit further behind in Africa than most other territories in the world. The reason this is relevant is because WeChat is a complex application. It is big and has a ton of functionality which means it doesn’t work well on very low-end, in-between smartphones—not as well as a lighter application might.”
Africa clearly has a long way to go before attaining the level of technology development found in China. But as Africa’s digital infrastructure improves, it will be interesting to see if mobile applications such as WeChat, which have virtually transformed the Chinese society, can find success in the continent. It will also be interesting to see how applications that have originated in the West, particularly in Silicon Valley, fare in Africa compared to China-made digital advances.