Why Mali has its own homegrown version of Facebook

Bustling streets of Bamako, Mali.

Story highlights

  • Lenali is a social media app created for non-literate, oral-based communities
  • It's designed for local languages
  • Founder claims app has 27,000 users

(CNN)In 2017, it was reported that Facebook had 170 million users in Africa -- seven out of every 10 Africans on the internet log into Facebook.

Platforms like WhatsApp, Viber and Instagram have become vitals tools of communication: for news, elections and, of course, selfies. Social media companies are eyeing Africa as a big growth market, with Facebook set to launch its first community hub in Nigeria this year.
However, platforms like Facebook largely center on written posts and conversation, as well as video. For those in the continent from oral-based, spoken language (non-literate) communities with little formal education, these platforms can be inaccessible.
    This is the case in Mali, which has one of the lowest literacy rates in Africa at below 50%.
    Malian entrepreneur, Mamadou Gouro, 44, is attempting to fill the social media void there by creating Lenali app, an oral-based platform.
    "Lenali is the first social network in the world that uses local languages and vocal abilities. The reason for the app is that in Mali, for instance, only 20% are accessing these social networks," Gouro claims.

    The power of the spoken word

    Gouro launched Lenali last year, and claims that it now has 27,000 users.
    Already established apps, like Viber, allow users to communicate by recording voice. But Lenali's approach is different, whereby users build a profile using audio.
    While most of Lenali's users are either in Mali or part of the diaspora, Gouro believes the app can gain traction across the continent.
    "Because the problems in Mali are the same in the majority of countries in Africa, the app could work anywhere, and in the future we can add many languages," Gouro told CNN.
    It could also be a timely addition, as Mark Kaigwa, founder of African digital strategy consultancy Nendo tells CNN: "Francophone Africa's underrepresented in terms of contributions and headlines on the tech front, despite the work of countries like Ivory Coast, Senegal and Cameroon."
    The biggest challenge to Lenali has been funding strains, says Gouro, who has bootstrapped the project himself and with the help of family. However, he believes a lot of people are excluded from social media who cannot read or write.
    "Orality is a culture," Gouro says.