Under a Facebook help page for Instagram is the title "Set Up Requirements for Shopping on Instagram". Immediately below the page title is the caveat, "This feature is currently available to approved businesses in these markets." There is no room for misconstruing what follows: if your country is not part of "these markets", find a new page to look at. You cannot do business on Instagram. The real question is who constitutes "these markets"? Another help page gives a list of the markets and it is easier to answer the above question in the negative. Who does not make the list? All African countries South of the Sahara except South Africa. There is another warning to put the matter beyond doubt, "If your business account is not in an available market, you may lose the ability to tag products."
Worryingly, Instagram and Shopify (an e-commerce platform integrating with Instagram for the Shopping service), have consistently favored a narrative claiming that shopping on Instagram has gone "global". In March 2018, an excitable Shopify made a press release announcing the expansion of Shopping to the UK, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Despite it being predominantly Western expansion, Shopify said, "This strategic expansion unlocks potential for Shopify’s merchants to sell to Instagram users all over the world." Africa is not a part of their world. Africa is meant to remain a market and not a business partner. Despite this relationship's asymmetry, Africans are still clamoring to Western social media sites and consuming instead of producing.
In countries where Shopping on Instagram is available, business-people can put product tags on their products and potential customers simply tap on the product and are taken to a page showing an image of the product from the post, a description of the product, its cost and a link that takes them directly to the seller's website for purchase. In the United States, customers can now checkout within Instagram. Product tags, product stickers and now product checkouts are, therefore, unavailable in much of Africa.
The problem is probably that providing these services to African countries holds little business promise for Facebook's Instagram. It might also be that an internal business strategy is simply not allowing the company to aggressively court the African market despite its potential. Whatever the case, African countries and businesses should not remain at the mercy of foreign business strategies. The continent's businesses are losing agency in their own enterprises because of this reliance on Western companies. It might be time to start thinking really hard about developing and supporting homegrown platforms that will cater to African social needs and economic needs.
Egypt's Slickr, launched in 2015, attempted to get into the social-fashion business before Instagram "took Shopping global". It was a bold move because as co-founder María S. Muñoz then told Disrupt Africa, the fashion-tech market in Egypt was almost inexistent. Unfortunately, even Slickr's expansion strategy did not have the African continent in mind - Muñoz said, “Our next step is tapping into the United Kingdom (UK) market, which we have already studied in detail." In Nigeria, an Afrocentric social network, Saduwa, attempted to provide a platform for users to showcase their businesses, promote services and locate other businesses locally and internationally. However, the application was last updated in 2017 and not much has been going on since then.
African internet penetration is not even at half the population of the continent yet it has seen an increase of 10,815% since 2000. It is this potential that Instagram is ignoring and African social media platforms should rush in to take advantage of. For their part, consumers need to be aware of how the continent is being shortchanged by their favorite platforms. Africa has to build its own networks that will support homegrown businesses.
Header Image: Shopify