From FIFA to Magnum ice cream to Nairobi’s traffic, a glimpse at what Africans talk about on Twitter.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The last quarter of 2013 was a turbulent period in Africa. Nelson Mandela died, plunging South Africa into mourning and robbing the world of a secular saint. Hopes of peace in South Sudan were dashed when a new civil war broke out. Militias fighting sent thousands fleeing the Central African Republic. Uganda’s parliament passed a draconian anti-gay law.

Of all these gripping political events, only one — the death of Mandela — proved of intense interest to Africa’s increasingly active Twitterati. The others were noticeable by their absence in a survey of top tweets from African cities in the last three months of 2013, dwarfed into comparative insignificance by an overriding passion: football.

The survey, "How Africa Tweets," was the second such study by the public relations company Portland, with offices in London, New York, and Nairobi. It tapped into the same demographic on which economists pin their upbeat "Africa rising" narrative: aspirational, urban, youthful. Its findings also echo Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s argument that a wide raft of daily African experience is bypassed by standard news reporting.

Portland, which released what it claims was the first-ever survey of Twitter in Africa in 2012, acknowledges that the study only picks up tweets from users who have enabled smartphones or laptops — the former are by far the biggest source of African tweets — to be "geo-located," a mere one in five of those devices. So this report offers just a glimpse into African tweeting habits, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

Perhaps the most striking statistic is simply the number of tweets: more than 9 million from Africa’s most chatter-prone cities. Sudanese cell phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim once told me the industry assumption in the late 1990s was that Africans did not have the wherewithal for cell phone ownership. Around 253 million Africans now own cell phones, although the models tend to be the cheapest on the market, and Ibrahim is a retired billionaire.

This makes the continent a prime site for Twitter. "Social media may well end up having an outsize impact on Africa, because of the huge penetration of the mobile phone," says Allan Kamau, head of Portland Nairobi. "Africans have got used to doing everything on their mobiles: sending money, chatting, campaigning, complaining."

Hashtags offer a glimpse of recent preoccupations. Mandela’s death on Dec. 5 gripped the continent by the emotional throat. But football was the most-discussed topic, with the fortunes of Johannesburg’s Orlando Pirates getting particular attention. Corporate promotions by FIFA World Cup sponsor Adidas, Magnum ice cream, and Samsung — the latter ran a competition for its new Galaxy S4 phone, encouraging people to tweet about its product — also won ready audiences among tweeters.

That said, Twitter was also an outlet for citizen anger with the establishment and for political activism. The hashtag #Numsa tracked the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s growing disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress, while #KenyaAt50 and #Sickat50 (triggered by a health workers’ strike) challenged the official triumphalism of Kenyan independence celebrations.

The popularity of the hashtag #NairobiSC could be seen as a thermometer of both a country’s growing prosperity and increasing public dissatisfaction: Kenyan motorists stuck in city traffic use it to warn others of roundabouts, junctions, and highways to avoid.

It’s no surprise that Johannesburg, with 344,215 geo-located tweets, is the most Twitter-active city in Africa, followed by the nearby municipality of Ekurhuleni. This may also account for a new survey ingredient: tweets in Zulu. It was to be expected, too, that Nairobi, where residents have been using cell phones to transfer money via the M-Pesa service for years, would rank as the most active city in East Africa.

What does come as a surprise, though, for anyone who has spent time in the ebullient chaos of Nigeria, is the comparative quietness of Lagos, which comes in 12th on the list of cities active on Twitter, trailing Abidjan and Accra on the West African coast. "What we’re gathering is that Facebook is very big in West Africa," says Kamau. "It lends itself better to contained, private conversation, whereas Twitter is public." Francophone Africa, curiously, has yet to fully embrace Twitter.

Another intriguing detail is timing. The peak tweeting time was between 9 and 10 p.m., while Tuesday and Friday were the busiest days of the week. Tweeting fell away during the weekends, when, perhaps, activities like church attendance or golf take over. Ugandan columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo, who lives in gridlocked Nairobi, put his own spin on this phenomenon, guessing that users exasperated by a day at the office and hours stuck in traffic get home, heave a sigh, and vent their frustrations on Twitter. "That is the Grand Africa Misery Index," he concludes.

Or perhaps it’s just that, irrespective of geographical location, the third beer kicks in between 9 and 10 p.m. on Friday nights, loosening both inhibitions and fingers.

 Twitter: @michelawrong

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