WhatsApp is finally catching up to African entrepreneurs with a standalone business app

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Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Over the last two years, WhatsApp, has stood out as one of the fastest growing media platforms in Africa. For many people, WhatsApp is their primary social media platform, not Facebook, which owns the messaging app.

WhatsApp rise has caused tensions with some of the mobile network operators as its success has eaten into the traditional voice and SMS revenue structure since the app enables users to make voice calls and text messaging for relatively low data costs.

But the upside of WhatsApp’s popularity is that it is likely partly responsible for the continued rise in internet use particularly with smartphone take-up. For example in Zimbabwe, one of the few countries to provide data, WhatsApp alone was responsible for nearly half of all internet traffic in the country last year.

In Nigeria, both e-commerce startups and traditional retailers in local markets have been experimenting with reaching their customers on WhatsApp, usually targeting popular WhatsApp groups or building broadcast lists.

WhatsApp has remained uncommunicative about its market opportunity in Africa—there are no publicly available data points on its market share or usage for Africa as a whole, much less individual countries. But it does seem to have been listening and has launched a standalone app targeting small businesses, currently just for Android users who dominate market share in emerging markets. The app’s makers say over 80% of small businesses in Brazil and India already use WhatsApp Messenger to reach their customers.

The new app’s features include business profile, messaging tools such as quick replies, greeting messages and away messages, metrics and a verified business account listing.  “Our new app will make it easier for companies to connect with customers, and more convenient for our 1.3 billion users to chat with businesses that matter to them,” WhatsApp says.

Customers won’t need to install new apps as messages sent from WhatsApp Business will be received on WhatsApp Messenger as usual. Already, over 500,000 users have installed the app within two weeks of being rolled out. A quick check showed the app which was rolled out initially in the UK and US on Jan. 18, is now available in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.

“It is a nice move that WhatsApp is going all-in for small businesses even though Africa’s big companies would also jump on the WhatsApp Business train as part of their digital business outreach,” said Chris Alagboso, an Owerri-based Nigerian media entrepreneur.

While several early users of the new app in Nigeria said they were impressed, they observed that several important features that small businesses need are still missing such as receiving payments and the possibility of finding potential customers with a service similar to Facebook’s Sponsored Posts.