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Eyeing its next billion users, Facebook opens first office in Africa

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Africa has a population of more than a billion people, and of those, 120 million are on Facebook. Of course, stats like that won’t have escaped the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, with the words “growth potential” likely ringing loudly in his ears every time he sees them. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that he has been looking at ways to bolster Facebook’s user base in the region.

The strategy includes the impending July opening of the social networking giant’s first office on the continent, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The operation will be led by Nunu Ntshingila, who also runs ad agency Ogilvy & Mather in the country.

Highlighting the importance of the region to Facebook, Nicola Mendelsohn, the company’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, told Bloomberg, “This is one of the places where our next billion users are coming from. It would be a massive missed opportunity. Africa matters.”

There are serious challenges, however. Many African countries don’t have widely available Internet access, while in poorer nations many of those that can afford mobile devices are using feature phones. As you’d expect, Zuckerberg has already thought of that. To bring free or affordable Internet connectivity to the masses, the Facebook boss launched the initiative in 2013.

Partnering with some big-name tech firms, as well as local telecom companies, is already helping users in four African countries – Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana – jump online, with many more nations expected to join the club soon.

The service, offered via an app, doesn’t offer full Web access but instead a limited range of content such as news sites, Wikipedia, and, of course, Facebook. Also, for users in a number of developing countries, the company recently launched a stripped-down version of its social networking app, called Facebook Lite, that works on low-end Android devices.

Facebook and its partners are also working on developing drones that should one day offer those in remote areas access to the entire Internet instead of just the select services currently available with the app.

While Facebook’s boss has talked extensively and passionately of his belief in the importance of connecting everyone in the world so they can “stay close to their loved ones and get access to services like health and education,” such action will of also help his company bolster its user base, serve up more ads, and increase revenue.

It’s all going to take time, but Zuckerberg is clearly keen to get moving with work that could bring millions of new users not only to Facebook, but also to the bundle of other apps the company has developed and acquired.

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