The highlight – for me at least – of today’s Social Business Africa conference in Bryanston was the opportunity to hear Kenyan analyst, commentator, consultant and man with his feet firmly on the ground Mark Kaigwa speak. Mark was one of the first to understand the speed at which Kenya was going to change after the Seacom cables went in, and is a cheerleader for the power of tech at his Afroinnovator blog – while at the same time an often lonely voice of dissent warning people not to get too carried away by this whole internet thing.

According to the Social Media Business Report launched at the conference, 80% of the most influential online personas in Africa are Kenyan (and male, but we’ll get to that another time). Kaigwa says that his countryfolk have been quick to adopt social media, but warns about reading too much into it “80% of Kenyans have never had an online experience.”

The main reason for the high level of social media use among those who do use social media, though, is M-PESA. Kaigwa says that as people flocked to the micro-transaction mobile currency – almost a third of Kenya’s GDP passes through mobile phones – they also become very used to using their phones for communicating in ways other than calls. And the Kenyan internet is all about phones – Kaigwa showed off stats that claim 99% of all internet subscriptions in the country are mobile.

“That means all homes, businesses, cybercafes together account for just one percent of subscriptions,” he said. That means that completely different ways of doing business and interacting with customers had to be adopted, and fast.

Kaigwa also singled out Safaricom’s CEO Bob Collymore as a reason for the rapid adoption of social media. His vision for the way the mobile network should interact with its customers led to a culture change at the company which – again, thanks to M-PESA attracting new customers to the network – filtered through to phone owners too. Collymore tweets and opened an internal blog where any employee could ask him anything – putting social engagement at the heart of his business. When his predecessor introduced online feedback forms, the company was scared by the amount of negative comments it received. Collymore’s genius was to recognise that as being just the nature of the internet, and to react to it quickly and professionally.

A team was tasked with reducing the amount of time it took to respond to a tweet from 48hours to near instantly. Such was the success of the medium that Safaricom’s customer network led the way in responding to the 2011 famine in the country, raising nearly $8m almost entirely through small M-PESA payments.

Kaigwa also shared an anecdote in which a Safaricom customer representative walked one customer through the best bundles to buy in order to stay in touch with his new girlfriend – all through the customer forum. Engaging on that sort of human level, he says, pays dividends to brands.

The arrival of cheap broadband has also cultivated an entrepreneurial spirit amongst Kenyans, Kaigwa continued, and not just the hip techie types iHub. Kaigwa singled out Chief Kariuki for high praise, thanks to his adoption of Twitter as a way to communicate with his rural community. By using a Tweet-to-SMS service, Chief Kariuki can get a message out to around 50 000 people via both channels, and has helped to find blood donors, catch criminals and locate missing children with his feed.

My particular favourite, however, was the example of the Nairobi taxi drivers who’ve installed free WiFi in their minibuses. Congestion is a massive problem in Nairobi, but now commuters have an option to work as they cross the city rather than sit behind a steering wheel. As a result, the WiFi matatus have attracted a new customer base of young, creative types who previously wouldn’t have been seen dead in a taxi – effectively helping to cut congestion as well as create more jobs for drivers.

Some great examples, and a great presentation.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.