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Tencent’s WeChat has already conquered China. Can it do the same in South Africa?. Brett Loubser, CEO of Tencent Africa Services talked to MEF’s Tim Green about rising to the challenge for MEF’s free Africa eBulletin.

Fans of South African radio DJ Gareth Cliff have an interesting way of engaging with their favourite shock jock. Basically, they can ‘add’ him. In 2014, Cliff decided to do something different with his popular show CliffCentral. He was frustrated with broadcasting rules that limited what he could say. And he was exasperated that he couldn’t engage more directly with his listeners. So he migrated the show over to WeChat.

Today, WeChat users in South Africa can go to ‘add contacts’, find ‘official accounts’, type in CliffCentral and add the show. Thereafter, they just tap ‘listen’ to take part in the fun.

Of course, it is also possible for fans to listen to the show online and debate it on Twitter et al. The difference with WeChat is that the whole experience happens inside one app. In 12 months, CliffCentral amassed more than 131,000 followers this way.

A fraction of the cost

For Brett Loubser, CEO of WeChat Africa, CliffCentral illustrates the most compelling benefit of WeChat. It’s not an app. It’s a platform.

He says: “Cliff has effectively built a fully digital radio station: the perfect showcase for him. But he’s done it for a fraction of the cost and time he would have spent developing an app. In fact, it was five weeks from first meeting to going live.”

CliffCentral is helping popularise an app that has, of course, come to dominate China. There, the app is so popular it effectively substitutes for the Internet itself. Over 700 million people use it to look at maps, order taxis, pay bills, find dates, get loans, play games and more. It has more than 10 million third-party apps.

Strong tradition

Needless to say, WeChat South Africa has fewer. But Loubser is working hard to change that. He has faith he can. WeChat Africa has powerful backers. It is a joint venture between Chinese owner Tencent and South Africa’s media giant, Naspers. And there’s a strong tradition of social messaging in South Africa, which had its own homegrown chat app, MXit, long before most other countries (MXit closed in 2016).

Though WeChat faces strong competition from WhatsApp, Loubser believes its platform qualities can help it succeed. He says: “App development is expensive and developers are hard to find.

Our job is to show startups that they can get a service live extremely fast and they don’t have to worry about payments or location and so on. It’s all baked in. Adding any new feature is just adding an API. It’s many times cheaper and many times faster than building an app.”

“Cliff has effectively built a fully digital radio station: the perfect showcase for him. But he’s done it for a fraction of the cost and time he would have spent developing an app.”

Reducing the payload

And there are similar benefits for end users. “There’s a certain amount of payload if you want to download an app,” adds Loubser. “There’s the data cost and finding space on the phone. It’s all much simpler inside WeChat.”

To encourage startups to try the platform, WeChat announced a 50 million rand ($3.5 million) seed fund, which backed micro-jobbing service M4Jam (Money for Jam) and delivery service Picup among others. It also teamed up with Standard Bank to create WeChat Wallet. Users can connect their debit and credit cards to it, and withdraw cash at ATMs by entering a code.

Bank to the future

Standard Bank also uses WeChat to offer ‘always on banking’. Users can message an agent at any time and receive a response inside the app.

Loubser says this asynchronous experience works for both sides. “It’s so much better than IVR and being on hold with elevator music,” he says. “Psychologically people don’t mind waiting for a response, even if it takes an hour, as long as they feel in control. And the system lets agents manage multiple queries at once, so it’s more efficient.”

Download the free MEF Africa eBulletin now

MEF’s quarterly Africa eBulletin contains the insights, market stats, news and opinion that frame the ever-evolving pan-African mobile ecosystem.

In this edition, MEF member and Managing Director for Basebone in Africa, James McNab, discusses how the right mix of content and transactional platforms are unlocking revenues in the region. The eBulletin also includes analysis from Deloitte’s Africa Telecom Leader Arun Babu from his company’s recent consumer study ‘Game of Phones’ which surveyed consumer mobile behaviour and an exclusive interview with the CEO of Tencent Africa, Greg Loubser, on how WeChat is becoming a proxy for the internet itself in the region.

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