Social media apps in a phone. Social media is beginning to play an active role in African economies. Photo by: Jason Howie / CC BY

Social media is emerging as a powerful tool for African entrepreneurs, and development professionals looking to support home-grown African business should think now — and not later — about how to harness it.

“For the first time in a very long time, it’s quite cool to be Nigerian,” Jason Njoku, founder and CEO of iROKO Partners, said during a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution during the first day of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

Njoku explained that in Nigeria there is a mass of young people that are mobile and actively engaged in social media. He emphasized that social media not only makes governments more accountable, but also opens up the country to entrepreneurs, investors and NGOs looking to connect on a wide scale.

“You have the opportunity to realign how business is done,” he said.

Four years ago, Njoku flew to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, to digitized Nollywood movies for the first time. After partnering with YouTube, he was soon streaming full length Nollywood films online, a system which instantly became hugely popular among the country’s youth. When iROKO Partners finally launched its own movie streaming platform in 2012, it reached 500,000 registered users in less than six months. Today they have expanded to the music scene and are continuing to grow.

Social media is beginning to play an active role in other African economies as well.

Chedi Ngulu, a 33 year-old entrepreneur who started a PR and communications company in Tanzania, described how social media is essential to his work: “Our Internet penetration is 12 percent but it’s skyrocketing … Don’t think today, think what is going to happen next year and the following year, and be prepared for it.”

Ngulu said the best way for the international business and development community to support entrepreneurs in a social media-driven world is to give them a space to be creative, and try things. He also stressed the importance of helping out disseminate local content that Africans can relate to.

But very few foreign investors are supporting African entrepreneurs in any sector.

Carolyn Campbell, managing director and general counsel at Emerging Capital Partners, said that private equity firms like hers only account for about 0.1 percent of total investment in Africa.

In an earlier panel discussion, U.S. Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ) emphasized that governments can only do so much to spark growth and prosperity in Africa. The private sector, he said, has to do the rest.

Smith underscored that there are budding entrepreneurs and prosperous business owners on the African continent who are ready to partner with the American private sector, and U.S. companies would benefit if only African business opportunities were better marketed.

“People need to look beyond disease,” he said. “Africa isn’t just dealing with crises.”

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About the author

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    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.