What for many is not obvious in a more advanced economy is that social media in a country like Tanzania is not only social media but it is MEDIA. Big difference! Because the Whatsapp app on the phone is not for talking to Granny or Mom but it is a business networking tool. Instagram is not a platform to post (only) selfies at weddings and parties, but a free advertising platform. Twitter is a great platform to vent and share ideas about politics and current affairs but also to provide essential free information on important issues. Facebook allows marketing of goods and now even has added the “shop” function but for many Tanzanians selling their artisanal goods or services, their personal Facebook pages are still the first and foremost tool for earning a living.
Of course no proper writing misses the opportunity to share anecdotes, living examples etc. But cynicisms aside I have personally so many inspirational examples of young people who reached out to me and said: “Hey Sis, this is what I do! How can I improve, get more clients… etc.”
There is Idris who makes charcoal from recycled waste in Tabora and who has taken to Twitter to share his knowledge and market his business. He is now taking orders from many parts of Tanzania, and has other young people helping him produce this environment friendly charcoal.
Then there is Bright who has a passion for tailoring and dreams to become the Yves Saint Laurent of Africa, now dressing Members of Parliament and celebrities after reaching out to a number of us for advice.
And then you have Agnes who makes beautiful accessories from local beads and fabrics – who now has developed to selling and displaying at major fairs and sales.
I talk of them because there are those who also became successful selling imported goods but I see the value of these young people as they could grow to become major businesses that would add to the value chain and increase local content on the market.
This may seem novel and groundbreaking but it is simply about the extraordinary opportunity that social media has offered the millions of young Tanzanians who are mostly unemployed or recent graduates. So what we see now is powerful personal accounts that have considerable following with decent digital marketing skills selling services, ideas and products. How can these individual efforts and personal creativity and enthusiasm be channeled to something bigger and more transformational? First and foremost by making starting a business easier and reducing the cost of doing business. If any young person is interested in starting up officially a business, they will fast find themselves spending the little capital they have, on paying license fees and – something that many parts of the world has not heard of – provisional tax (in short you are estimated to make for example 3 million shillings profit per annum and you have to pay 30% tax on that provisionally. You have not seen a single cent but hey! Pay up in advance!)
As I attend all these fancy workshops and conferences on business in Tanzania, I wonder if ever the men and women in suits (me included) have ever thought of discussing social media entrepreneurship as a “serious” area worth exploring. Instead of forcing these budding businesses to become NGOs in order to gain access to capital in the form of grants, maybe it is time to think more seriously in Tanzania about what has become the buzzword now in the West “social entrepreneurship”. But not in the usual “we-know-better-and-here-is-what-we-think-you-can-do manner” but more in “we-have-money-tell-us-how-we-can-help-you” approach.
I would love to see Idris in Tabora and his charcoal from recycled waste, or Agnes and her beautiful accessories from local fabrics and beads, or Bright and his exceptional suits, getting proper investment and financial advice. Western style venture capital may not be easy to get but we definitely need to come up with better solutions for that. Because at the end of the day we #ChangeTanzania if we start changing our thinking and approach to matters.