As an Iranian-American, in 2009, I was a part of a social and mobile enabled revolution for the people of Iran. The people of our nation were coming together to bring about change with supporters all over the world because of the technologies that allowed us to share. One informative tweet and enraging video at a time we learned, we engaged, and we spoke up.
The role of digital communications in empowering political revolutions has been the center of discussions and debates in countries all around the world, including Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt. These digital communications are enabled and strengthened by the social network communities and mobile technology connecting billions of people around the world.
In South Africa, there is a new type of revolution that social and mobile technology and communications can ignite in the coming months and years.
A revolution against the HIV and AIDS epidemic. The revolution against a disease that has already spread to one in five adults (5.6 million people in the country) and empowered by poverty and lack of education on prevention. A battle against a disease that infects over 1,000 people per day in South Africa alone.
In fact, just weeks ago, activists and researchers from the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) spoke at an event at Stellenbosch University, where Africa’s own social network powerhouse MXit was founded, about this very topic.
How will mobile have a role in combating Aids in a country that already has the largest HIV population in the world?
There are 333 million cell phone users in Africa and 77 million internet users. In South Africa alone, more than 40% of the population own WAP-enabled mobile devices. In contrast with computer usage, mostly limited to the wealthier population, cell phones are used and owned across many social divides in South Africa.
Mobile has been strongly embraced in South Africa for social causes and education. In fact, back in 2006, a program established by Fahamu, an organization based in Cape Town, enabled rural women in KwaZula Natal, to use their mobile phones to report violations on their human rights. SMS based mobile communications are still vastly used in South Africa.
Educating South Africans on HIV and Aids using mobile phones isn’t a new idea. In fact, it dates back more than two years when one of the largest insurance companies in South Africa, Metropolitan Life, introduced the “B the Future Cellbook”, an informational booklet about HIV that could be downloaded onto a cell phone. This program put information in the hands of people that may not have access to the Internet, libraries, or health care. It helped answer the most critical questions including: how to prevent HIV, how to manage health if HIV positive, and where to get help.
Since 2009, mobile phone usage (especially among the youth) has greatly increased making it more possible than ever to reach the largest number of South Africans about HIV. Using their cell phones they can quickly and easily pull up information that may educate them on prevention, can direct them on how to get aid, and can help them understand the importance of protecting others, including their own children from contracting the disease.
Now, with the power and reach of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the ability to connect with South Africans on mobile devices is stronger than ever.
Five million South Africans are online and more than 50 percent say their primary use of the Internet is social networking. According to Digital Statistics South Africa, more than 60% of those accessing the internet are doing so on their mobile phones.
Currently a number of large organizations have a presence on Facebook including: the South African National Cricket Team, the Captain Morgan South Africa page, and the BlackBerry South Africa page. With between 196,000 and 50,000 fans these companies are using their Facebook page to communicate with the people of South Africa.
The most critical proof point on the value of social media as a tool in South Africa is the powerful reach it has to the youth. As one of the most sexually active groups in Africa, pre-teens, teenagers, and those in their early 20s are the prime target in changing future behaviors and saving lives. Utilizing social networking sites like Facebook and the blogosphere powered by sites Afrigator, a popular blog aggregator in Africa, will enable South Africans to learn outside of already overcrowded classrooms, clinics, and hospitals that they currently rely on for information.
For the cynics out there, that believe the social media will fail in South Africa. I disagree. But, there are obstacles in the way. More than eleven languages are spoken in South Africa. The most important way to overcome this is to localize information or have information ready in multiple languages for maximum reach. There are also conservative political and religious movements against educating about sex, a barrier that may stand in the way of educating about the benefits of safer sex practices, including the use of condoms. None of these barriers will be easy to overcome.
As the use of smart phones continue to increase over the coming months and years we will continue to see growth in overall internet, video, and social networking sites among South Africans. With the right support and messages, we should see more hospitals, activist groups, and researchers embracing these tools and communication channels to reach the people of South Africa.
We’ve seen the role of social and mobile technology in a number of political revolutions. But this revolution in South Africa will be about how to help people save themselves, their community, and others around the world from HIV and AIDS. In several years, we are going to see how groups like UNAIDS and Metropolitan Life truly embrace mobile and social technology to communicate with the people of South Africa. With time, I hope we all see the number of South African HIV and AIDS infections fall, and potentially saving millions of lives.
This could be the best revolution yet.