Can WeChat Beat WhatsApp In Africa By Doing The Opposite?

Written by Dana Sanchez

WeChat, China’s biggest Internet-based mobile messaging platform, wants a piece of the African market and to get there, it appears to be doing the opposite of WhatsApp, its biggest competitor on the continent.

In Africa, WeChat is at a disadvantage. Its rival, WhatsApp, is used far more widely. The U.S.-based platform enjoyed “lightening-fast” adoption because data is expensive in Africa and WhatsApp offers free texting. Users are reluctant to choose a rival service, Reuters reported.

In addition to free texting, Facebook-owned WhatsApp promises to keep the platform ad free, and has no immediate plans to make money out of the service on the continent, said Facebook Africa head Nunu Ntshingila.

“We are not at the stage where we are looking at monetizing WhatsApp,” Ntshingila told Reuters. “Right now the focus is on two big apps — Facebook and Messenger.”

WeChat, on the other hand, is betting on selling services in Africa as a way to loosen the Silicon Valley grip, Reuters reported.

WeChat offers an array of services that include money transfers, prepaid electricity and airtime purchases and it has a lot of experience selling these to lower income users in China.

“That’s at the heart of the story for us because we knew that we were late to the market compared to other instant messaging apps and so we realized that focusing on chat services was not the most practical way to get to market,” WeChat Africa head Brett Loubser told Reuters.

So how is WeChat doing in Africa?

A unit of China-based Tencent, WeChat is 34-percent owned by South African Internet and media group Naspers.

Earlier in July, WeChat Africa shrugged off reports it closed its offices in Nigeria, after failing to gain traction in that country, Business Day Live reported.

 

WeChat is the latest Naspers company to close its doors in the past few years, and the company is finding it difficult operating in Africa’s most populous country, according to media reports from Nigeria.

WeChat said the service is still “fully operational” in Nigeria and the business is being operated from the South African office.

“We are running all operations (in Africa) from South Africa. This allows us to efficiently manage operations and focus on driving value for customers,” the company said, according to Business Day Live.

Naspers has operations in more than 130 countries, offering payTV, media and Internet-based services including classifieds and online retail. However Naspers has also closed and sold companies in many other countries where it operates that were deemed non performing.

WeChat entered the South African market about three years ago. WhatsApp has 10-million users compared to an estimated 5 million WeChat customers.

Tencent Holdings is the world’s fifth largest Internet company, Huffington Post reported, and WeChat is fast gaining traction in Africa. Mobile banking is one area where its influence is spreading.

Outside China, WeChat is largely misunderstood. Referred to as “Twitter on steroids” as often as WhatsApp’s “rival messaging service,” the mobile app has arguably outgrown even its Chinese name, Weixin, which translates as “tiny message.” Five-year-old WeChat is far more than a social network or messaging service. The mobile app can perhaps be more accurately described as a gamified WhatsApp-Facebook hybrid, with all the social applications of both, along with a Tinder-like dating feature, voice and video calls and a multi-functional digital wallet, all rolled into one.

The African market is a logical next step in WeChat’s growth trajectory.

“They’ve missed the entire desktop, PC, laptop, whatever thing, and because of that, I think we’re seeing innovation come out of Africa from a mobile perspective that is just leagues ahead of anywhere else on earth really,” Loubser said.

 

Sign up for the Moguldom newsletter — business news you need to know about economic empowerment for the digital age, delivered to your inbox.


About Dana Sanchez

Dana Sanchez was born in South Africa and is a U.S. citizen. After working in advertising, she went back to school and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. As a business writer, she won regional and national writing awards. As editor of a daily newspaper, she coordinated staff writers, freelancers and photographers in the fast-paced environment of daily news. Dana was an editor at Moguldom Media Group for four years, helping to build and manage a team of staff and freelance writers. She works now on Moguldom.com for Nubail Ventures. A long-distance hiker and cyclist, she writes about the business of technology.