How WhatsApp became dominant in South Africa

High SMS prices, the dominance of the Android operating system, and a major local competitor’s failure to adapt to changing user needs handed WhatsApp its leading position in the South African app messaging market.

That is according to World Wide Worx CEO and renowned South African tech expert Arthur Goldstuck.

The Meta Platforms-owned app is the world’s largest online instant messaging platform, with an estimated 2.7 billion users by 2023.

While South Africa does not have the sheer volume of WhatsApp users that countries like India and Brazil have, the app’s local penetration rate is impressive.

According to the Global Web Index’s Social Media User Trends Report, roughly 96% of Internet users in South Africa used WhatsApp by 2020.

That made South Africa the country with the second-highest WhatsApp adoption rate, with only Kenya’s 97% being better.

However, WhatsApp was only launched in 2009, and South Africa’s experience with online messaging apps started much earlier.

The first two apps that popularised mobile instant messaging locally were home-grown Mxit and Blackberry Messenger (BBM), both of which launched in 2005.

Mxit Samsung header
Mxit running on an old Samsung feature phone

Goldstuck said that Mxit and BBM created a massive appetite in South Africa for low-cost alternatives to SMS, which was absurdly expensive on a per-character basis.

SMSes are still far more expensive to send when looking at the effective prices of their data packets.

Launched in 2005 by Clockspeed Mobile, Mxit rapidly grew to 50 million users in 120 countries by 2012. 10 million of these reported users were in South Africa.

However, by that time, it began to feel pressure from BBM, which benefitted from the popularity of the full physical keyboards and the cheap Blackberry Internet Service, which effectively gave users uncapped data for basic Internet usage at R59 per month.

One of the big early limits of Mxit was that users had to open the app to receive their messages.

BBM and WhatsApp could run in the background and notify users if they had any unread texts.

Blackberry Bold

Goldstuck said that Mxit failed to feel the shifting sands of users’ expectations and ignored BBM as it was gathering momentum.

“I was literally told by the founder that BBM was irrelevant. A year later, BBM had all but killed Mxit,” Goldstuck said.

By 2014, Mxit’s user base had halved to around 4.9 million. The following year, it had nearly halved again to 2.7 million users.

In 2015, WhatsApp had reached the 10-million user peak in South Africa that Mxit achieved in 2012.

This came shortly after the company was acquired by Facebook (now called Meta Platforms) for $19 billion.

The additional funding allowed the platform to rapidly grow into the go-to messaging app on Android.

Goldstuck said that Nokia — a trusted brand in South Africa and a major player in the mobile space at that stage — also saw WhatsApp as a means of taking on Blackberry’s brief market domination.

BBM was limited to Blackberry devices, whereas WhatsApp was compatible with the flood of Android devices that followed the launch of the iOS-based iPhone in 2007.

“When BlackBerry imploded, the market was ready for a new option,” Goldstuck said.

WhatsApp was primarily marketed as a more user-friendly alternative to BBM and pushed heavily in Nokia’s marketing.

“Ironically, that gave WeChat a big boost in SA, as it was launching here at the time,” Goldstuck said. “People often confused the two at first.”

Initially, WeChat and WhatsApp were in tight competition.

However, WhatsApp’s wide-ranging compatibility and a poor competing strategy from WeChat parent Tencent gave the former an edge.

“WhatsApp quickly became the default for messaging here,” Goldstuck said.

WhatsApp is also very popular in other countries where Android is the most popular operating system, but its sister app, Facebook Messenger, is preferred in nations like Australia and the US.

In the US, many people still rely on SMS services, primarily due to the dominance of the iPhone, which still uses the SMS protocol for its iMessage service.

The map below shows the most popular chat apps among Android users in several countries worldwide, according to data collected by Similarweb.

Goldstuck said there were several reasons why Messenger has not proven to be as popular as WhatsApp in South Africa.

“Messenger needs a Facebook account, which creates a natural ceiling for its use,” he explained.

“Further, compared to WhatsApp, it is clunky, and its use of emojis is messy and not intuitive.”

“Emojis are the warm heart of messaging, and Meta has always had a difficult relationship with these characters, symbolised by the limited number of reaction emoji in one’s Facebook feed.”

Another factor might be a general distrust of Meta Platforms’ handling of personal information, which became a hot topic after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The company relies on user information to help its online advertising clients target their products and services to the right audiences and in the right places online.

WhatsApp endured some strong but brief backlash in 2021 due to a controversial policy change that allowed Meta Platforms to share user information from WhatsApp Business accounts across its platforms — including Facebook and Instagram.

However, WhatsApp messaging remains fully end-to-end encrypted in personal and group chats.

It successfully fended off a surge in uptake of Signal and Telegram and remains dominant in South Africa.

However, Goldstuck said there was always a “next big thing” in the messaging space, so a shake-up would not be unprecedented.

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How WhatsApp became dominant in South Africa