Mxit has profited from the slow, expensive and unreliable mobile Internet in South Africa. The fast-expanding social network does not need a speedy Internet and runs on inexpensive mobile phones.
Anyone who tries to surf the Internet on a mobile phone in South Africa will quickly find out that the access is very slow. While people can see high resolution photos posted by friends on Facebook only in slow motion, it is often impossible to watch YouTube videos. Although packages that offer speedy data transfers are available, these expensive data packages are unaffordable for many South Africans.
The South African company Mxit aims for this target group and, eight years ago, developed a social network, which requires only small amounts of data. "The Internet was created for people in the West, where large amounts of data were never an issue. While developing Mxit, we looked at the parts that we could eliminate without affecting the basic functions," said Andrew Davies, head of Mxit in the South African city of Cape Town. According to Davies, it led to the creation of a fast mobile network with low amounts of data, which is also cost-friendly to mobile phone users.
At a first glance, the platform looks like a combination of Facebook and WhatsApp. Mxit users can engage in private chats, group chats, play games or read news and most of the content is free.
Users can also access additional content with the help of what is called in-app purchases. As with Facebook, brands can also buy a kind of web presence on Mxit to get in touch with users and build their own community within the social network.
Problems in the past
Mxit has adapted its software mainly for low-cost mobile phones, so that South Africans can access the network even with basic Internet-enabled phones, the so-called feature phones. Some five million people have already installed the app on their mobile phone in South Africa, according to Mxit.
"Mobile phones are very important in Africa and in other emerging markets because they give people power," says Ben-Carl Havemann, Mxit's marketing manager. "As many people do not have a computer here, phones are people's interface to the world," explained Havemann.
Despite its great popularity among users, Mxit also had to face criticism in the past as the platform was often used to exchange pornographic content. The company responded to this by deleting the content, even if it led to a slight drop in the number of users.
Furthermore, a couple of years ago, there were media reports about a case, where a girl was sexually assaulted by a man who had met her on Mxit-Chat. After the incident, Mxit intensified its security settings. In the group chat rooms, Mxit is trying to strictly separate people of different age groups.
With the chat feature '.rat, users can immediately report if a user is behaving strangely. In addition, an anonymous moderator constantly monitors group chats.
A social network with advisory function
But Mxit wants to be more than an ordinary network for exchanging messages. With its feature Mxit Reach, the company is providing free information about health, education and counseling services, and working with large organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF.
For instance, the company offers support to HIV positive patients in South Africa with its application Mxit Reach. "Patients can chat any time anonymously with a certified counselor about their illness," said Havemann.
A formula for global success?
Meanwhile, Mxit has crossed borders and expanded its presence to other countries. Many users come from Zimbabwe, Ghana and Kenya. A few weeks ago, Mxit was also inaugurated in Nigeria.
"We are focusing on Nigeria as it is currently the largest economy in Africa and one of the countries with the highest mobile phone density," stressed Havemann. Mxit is always trying to adapt the platform to local conditions and find location-specific solutions, he added.
"We believe that mobile phones are playing a major role in Africa's transition. Products and services are sometimes developed from a 'first-world view' though. Therefore, we are trying to make products that originate from the center of society and actually serve them," Havemann told DW.
The company, which currently has 130 employees, has its largest community of non-African users in Indonesia. Mxit, which also has an office in India, is on an expansionary course with plans to make the platform available in 22 languages, including Hausa, Swahili and Arabic.