Facebook Zero; Killing Zambian digital business

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Nom, nom, nom, Facebook devours all before it. Those before it include our own future digital entrepreneurs and e-commerce business. Facebook was a social networking site and now it is almost everything. To help its case further through internet.org is free.  To be a digital business you have to be on Facebook they say, but can you actually monetise your presence?

When Facebook Zero launched it was a way to get the economically vulnerable connected. It is the way to get online without having to pay. Free internet. A digital holy grail. Looking at the business case it is easy to sell free to operators looking to tie in users and governments lacking tech savvy advisors. In Zambia, you access Facebook Zero on Airtel. Facebook have done one better than Blackberry with their BIS service. The lesson Blackberry taught Facebook is give users a product for a fixed sum and uniform experience and you will own them, fixed amount being free for Facebook.

In Zambia traditional companies have a helping hand from Government when starting up, this includes tax breaks and increased import tariffs for competing products.  Tax breaks and tariffs ensure business is competitive against established, external companies. For digital business, there is no government strategy. With Facebook Zero the government allowed a tax-free, duty-free and cost free giant to come into the market. No local startup can compete.

The generation using the tiered internet will use the free sites and not the sites that need data bundles to use. This type of access has led to a youth who are not internet savvy. They are Facebook savvy. With Facebook-savvy audiences businesses follow the market. Zambian organisations tend to have a ghost digital presence but a very active social media presence. Some do not even have a digital presence just a social media presence. Facebook to its credit has developed a wide feature set. That set includes the ability to place digital adverts, for sale posts, run surveys, view audience demographics, etc. This operates on a ‘free’ network for the consumer.

How is it killing digital business?

Looking at digital business we look at the entire ecosystem. This includes the creators of content, the owners of the content and finally the consumers.

Creators of Content

The modern-day artisans and builders. These include graphic designers, web designers, database administrators, etc the list is long! For these careers to exist there has to be a market. With Facebook, all the underlying work is done. Digital careers in Zambia have become very limited with the bulk of potential ‘techies’ turning to IT Managers and installers. To be a web designer or database administrator in Zambia you have to be brave, you also have to understand that your career may bew limited.

Owners of Content

When companies take the easy route of registering their primary presence on Facebook, their brand identity is usurped. The company now lives within the walled garden that is Facebook. It means your brand colour is blue. Your logo is superseded by the white F. A small business on Facebook competes with the other 50 million small business on the platform. How do you stand out? If you purvey goods, you cannot integrate payment mechanisms local to the market like Airtel or MTN Money. The business cannot move forward and leverage the power of being online because they are not using the internet. They are on Facebook.


The decision has been made for you because free is easier. With free access to Facebook, why spend your valuable Kwacha to access a local website? It is cheaper to go online and inbox the business about a product. That product could have been displayed on a website, in an online catalogue, integrated to an online payment system with a delivery mechanism built-in; 4 industry segments and 4 job opportunities that do not exist because of Facebook Zero.

What must be done

The Operators

Firstly, the Mobile Network Operators (MNO)need to stop buying into the hype that a free, walled garden retains users. A good network keeps users on your network. Instead of the MNO subsidising the access for the users by paying for the capacity and giving it away for free they should re-invest in their networks. The money saved could be funnelled into providing subsidised handsets. It could also be used to aid start-ups with seed capital.

Secondly, the traffic going to be zero-rated Facebook denies the MNO the opportunity to diversify their revenue streams. With diversification here I mean build on their mobile money platforms. Currently, Facebook does not integrate into the local mobile money platforms. A local e-commerce website will integrate into the platform because they are interested in growing their business and making their customers lives better.


Stop the tiered internet. It kills local business. I will not make the argument for net neutrality because much has been said about it with regards to India. I simply make the case that we need to move our economy into the digital age. To do that we have to protect and encourage and give our local digital start-ups any advantage possible.




2 thoughts on “Facebook Zero; Killing Zambian digital business

  • The Free Basics Argument is a false dichotomy. And just because India ruled in favour of net neutrality with free basics as a plausible contender is frankly absurd, it’s not the first time India has done something sensationally wrong. It’s like trying to say Windows and Linux are at contention. It has taken the world over 2 decades to realize that was the most idiotic assumption to make. The very foundation of Microsoft and Linux stood at opposing ends with the only commonality being the fact that both offered an operating system. Likewise, the very foundation of the Internet as we know it and the Free Basics project stand at opposing ends with the only commonality being access to information. a Wikipedia article with 15,000 words in free basics is about 89KB large, whereas my Facebook landing page is 9.9MB what rural EDGE link will keep up with that kind of data transfer? Furthermore, what parent in rural Zambia have you heard requiring that kind data access? I know my aunts in Western Province prefer battery life over functionality, keeping up with the world for them is reading text threads meaning, a 50MB bundle can last indefinately were there no time restrictions.

    In Zambia specifically, Airtel has access to Free basics, how has that give Airtel a competitive edge over MTN? Are there more people flocking to Airtel from MTN? Because the last time I checked, MTN was still a better network. Next, let’s look at your argument around digital content creation: I still see TechTrends posting about Local Start-ups, Bongo Hive establishing relationships with other businesses, the Google Playstore is full of new Apps developed in Zambia and Africa each week. So I don’t know what digital future you’re referring to.

  • Thank you for the thought out comment Xola. The main underlying basis for my argument is local start-ups are unable to tap into the digital market. The reason is the consumers are on Facebook. That means start-ups are unable commercialise because people go to Facebook. To highlight this the ‘local’ e-commerce site Kaymu fell over due to lack of support. Other similar shops like shopzed do not seem to be doing stellar either. The second view is the dearth of local online advertising – people consider buying likes on Facebook to be advertising. The problem with Facebook zero is it becomes a learned behaviour also prejudicing future developmental work.
    I agree net neutrality is a different beast altogether.

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