When Mekdes Mulugeta opened her first social media account, back in high school, she never thought she would become a social media star a few years down the line.
“Everybody in my school had a Facebook account, and I used the platform to chat with friends and family,” said Mekdes, a final year architecture student.
Though she was not much active, she also had other social media accounts she opened later on.
At first, the platforms had no other purpose for Mekdes other than socializing with friends and entertainment. But three years ago, things began to change, and her ascends as a social media star started when she started being featured in Abyssinia vine videos.
Three friends who called themselves Abyssinia vine were making short-form funny videos, often making fun of each other.
Named after the video-sharing platform, Vine, and picking up from the global culture at the time, the trio produced and shared their content on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and the now-closed Vine.
“I was close with the group and used the chance to involve in some of their videos as I have always been interested in acting and content creation,” Mekedes told Addis Insight.
After two years of working with the group, she decided to branch out on her own producing and posting her own content on her social media accounts.
While she posted photos of her own from time to time, Mekdes majored in making comical short strip videos in collaboration with friends.
People liked the content she produced, and her posts soon started trending. In one year alone, her followers on Instagram grew from 8000 in 2019 to over 60,000 this year.
Now Mekdes’s videos posts garner an average of 50,000 views while her pictures quickly get 4000 likes on Instagram.
While globally, the trend had been growing in such a direction; it is more recently that the Ethiopian social media landscape saw people like Mekdes rise to prominence on social media platforms.
In addition to celebrities, politicians, and public figures who were already famous, some Ethiopians are also gaining fame solely through social media, earning thousands of followers, and making a name for themselves.
The growing rate of access to the internet in Ethiopia, coupled with a younger tech-savvy generation, has brought the phenomena to Ethiopia.
The nation’s access to the internet that stood at 360,000 people (a penetration rate of 0.4 pc) in 2008 currently has reached 23.8 million data users (20 pc). On the other hand, social media penetration in Ethiopia sits presently at 5.5 pc.
According to Datareportal, a global digital data collector, at the beginning of 2020, there were around 6.20 million social media users in Ethiopia. The figure is twice what the number used to be just from three years ago.
As social media’s growing usage changed public discourse and communication worldwide, the platforms also brought changes in Ethiopia. Ethiopian politicians and public figures were the first to capitalize on the platforms changing their medium of communication and growing their followers.
Now the Ethiopian Social media landscape is seeing new role players, and a growing number of businesses are ripping the benefits of these platforms.
Apart from marketing their products through their social media accounts, Ethiopian companies are hiring social media influencers, people who have large engaged and dedicated followers on social media.
The companies are using these influencers’ reputation and reach to endorse and promote their products as the marketing scheme helps them reach niche audiences.
Ethiopian tech-based companies, fashion, and beauty retailers who have the younger generation as their customer target are increasingly teaming up with influencers.
Especially the photo and video sharing social networking site, Instagram, it’s the platform where most of these partnerships spur up.
Mekdes, who garnered a significant number of followers on Instagram through her funny videos, was also approached by various companies who wanted to use her influence to promote their products.
“I have promoted six companies on social media so far,” Mekdes told Addis Insight.
In addition to posting these companies’ advertisement, Mekdes have also incorporated their products in her video productions.
“The type of promotion I use depends on the business and is done with the advertising company,” added Mekdes.
Feres, the taxi-hailing service provider, is one of the companies that hired Mekdes to promote their business through her social media accounts.
The company with a marketing budget of 20 million has so far mainly relied on social media marketing, avoiding mainstream media.
“Our market study showed that network marketing, a business model that depends on person-to-person sales, was a more effective marketing strategy than utilizing mainstream Media,” said Shiferwu Tilahun, operational manager at Feres.
The company believed using social media influencers would help it reach its marketing goal. So far, it has hired three influencers who are regularly posting about the company and its service. The company has also hired actress Addisalem Getaneh as its brand ambassador.
“Such marketing type enables us to be more than a business and help us engage with our customers,” added Shiferwu.
Merkato Online, an online commerce platform, is another company that’s working with influencers. The company that was established a year and a half ago has so far worked with more than ten media influencers, including Danait Mekbib, Fenan Hidru, and Lidaya Solomon, who have a staggering number 786,000, 300,000 and 153,000 follower on Instagram respectively.
“As we are a digital company, social media marketing is the best way to reach our customer target,” said Hiwot Tesfaye, marketing manager at Merkato Online.
“In selecting the influencer we want to work with, we examine the number of followers they have, the type of content they share, and the audience that engages with their post,” added Hiwot.
While Merkato Online used to approach the influencers when it commenced operation, now it’s being contacted by the influencers who want to work with the company.
Upcoming social media influencers in Ethiopia have started taking the initiative and approaching these companies to grow their followers by associating themselves with a known brand.
“Deals with upcoming influencers are often done for free or at a cost not exceeding 2000 birr,” said Hiwot.
However, the figure is different for those who have a large number of followers.
According to Hiwot, three types of deals are done in the emerging Ethiopia social media influencer market. The first one is a onetime deal where influencers agree to promote a product in a onetime post. Companies usually pay around 5000 birr for such type of onetime promotions.
In the second type, the companies enter into an agreement with the influencers that lasts a specific period. In such kind of contracts, the influencers agree to promote the product on various social media platforms for 3 or 6 months, depending on the deal.
Ethiopian influencers who have 400,000 and 500,000 followers on Instagram are bagging close to half a million birr in such type of deals.
Being a Brand Ambassador is the third type of way Ethiopian social media influencers are working with companies. These are long-term agreements involving promoting ads and making advertisements for the company in various platforms, including mainstream media and other advertising means.
“There are brand ambassador agreements that were settled for 3 million birr” said Hiwot without disclosing the influencers and the companies behind it.
Hiwot points out that neither the influences nor the companies paying such amount of money will publicly admit to the deals.
As the industry has few role players and price is set through negotiation, the parties avoid giving figures in fear of competition and being misestimated in the industry.
Also, some of the companies are signing non-discourse agreements with the influencers in a bid to keep their information secret.
Apart from such clauses, some of these agreements also include a ban on social media influencer from working with other companies that are engaged in similar businesses and a duty to keep their public image.
Lidya Moges, an actress who has her fair share of social media followers, points out the negative impact of this new trend.
“Most influencers are getting into the business without any prior knowledge about marketing or the industry,” said Lidya.
She suggests that the influencers rise to the profession and back their experience with education in the field. She also argues that the beauty and life standard pushed by these companies creates a negative impact on the followers.
“The living standard propagated by the influencers is often unattainable by majority of their fans” she added
However, Hiwot disagrees with Lidya and states that these companies are using an already built reputation and culture rather than creating it.
“Whether it’s a celebrity or a social media influencer, they get large followers because they all speak to us in a certain way,” added Hiwot.
“I think such people bring us together instead of pushing us apart,” Hiowt added.
Despite its high growth rate, social media penetration and marketing in Ethiopia is still low compared to other countries. Half of the world’s population is on social media, while companies worldwide spend over 10 billion dollars every year to market their products through influencers.
However, several undergoing changes are expected to boost the digital status of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government is taking a radical telecom reform program that aims at liberalizing the telecom market. The Ethiopian Communications Authority is in the process of granting two licenses for international telecom operators.
The Ministry of Finance, which is spearheading the telecom reform program, is also looking for a strategic partner that would acquire a 40 percent stake of the state monopoly Ethio Telecom who amassed 47.7 billion birr in the last fiscal year.
In addition, in June 2020, the council of ministers approved has a digital strategy with a major aim of ensuring the county’s readiness for the development of a digital technology-based economy.
Mekdes is also very hopeful about the future of social media in Ethiopia and the doors it opens.
“People with talent can easily make themselves known in a digital world, access that was not easily available a few years ago,” said Mekdes.
She also says she is different from her peers and claims that it was her creative side that brought her to the market
“I would not call myself a social media influencer but rather an actor and content creator,” Mekdes told Addis Insight.