, JOHANNESBURG, Oct 21 – While South Africa\’s teachers were on strike in September, volunteers used South Africa\’s largest social network to help students prepare for exams.
Which means they did not turn to Facebook or Twitter, but to MXit — the brainchild of Namibian-born software developer Herman Heunus.
Rather than using computers, MXit connects members through cell phones, allowing them to exchange instant messages practically for free. They can also message in groups, called chat zones, that function seamlessly across other platforms like MSN messenger and Google Talk.
"I think users just immediately saw a cost benefit to using MXit," said MXit spokesman Juan du Toit.
"People saw that this is an easy application to get on a low-end phone… it made sense for them to use MXit compared to something more complex like Facebook or Twitter."
For South Africans like 19-year-old Michillay Brown, the service almost renders ordinary text messaging obsolete.
"That\’s why there are so many people on MXit, I think it\’s like one cent a message or something," Brown said. "They obviously want to chat with their friends for free, quickly."
Since its inception in 2003, MXit Lifestyles Ltd says it has expanded to include almost 27 million subscribers, most of them South African, and is adding 40,000 more every day.
In comparison, less than three million South Africans use Facebook, which is why during the teachers\’ strike, tutors chose MXit as a platform to answer questions from students and to provide study materials for download.
The system sidesteps a major obstacle hampering the spread of social media in developing countries: Internet access.
In much of Africa, weak infrastructure limits access to electricity, phone lines and the Internet, making surfing the Web often an expensive luxury.
But cell phone technology has already entrenched itself across the continent, with 376 million subscribers across the region.
Wallace Chigona, a technology professor at the University of Cape Town, believes cellular is an ideal platform for social media in Africa.
"For the majority of middle-income families, a cell phone is the only computer they have, and the low cost allows families to acquire them for their children," Chigona said.
"Even cell phones that would technically struggle to support Internet connectivity would support MXit."
The company hopes the same logic will apply in other developing countries, and hoping to grow in places like Indonesia, where it claims almost 2.5 million users.
Not everyone with a cell phone can use MXit. The application is powered by data services like 3G or GPRS, which require mobile Internet access to work.
MXit has its detractors, many of whom are concerned parents. They worry that teens are vulnerable online, recalling concerns that erupted over early versions of Facebook and Myspace elsewhere in the world.
"There is fear of the unknown, and as parents we lack understanding of what is going on on MXit and our natural reaction is to stop it," Chigona said. "The media is partly to blame… most of the reports published about MXit were all these horror stories."
One such horror story occurred in July when a South African man drugged and raped a 15-year-old girl he met in a chat zone. In response, the company installed additional safety features enabling parents to better monitor their child\’s activity on MXit.
But Chigona believes demand for innovations like MXit could hasten the spread of mobile broadband in emerging markets.
"The product became part of the youth identity," he said. "There was huge peer pressure for the youth to get on board, and in fact, a good number of them acquired cell phones so that they can have MXit."