The how and why of TikTok’s steady growth in Kenya

The pandemic period has been good for TikTok, an app that started life in China but has grown so much that Donald Trump has suggested it is a threat big enough to his country that he can ban it.

14 Sep 2020 . 12,224 Views

Javier Aranzales was enrolled in an African languages programme at Harvard University in the United States and instantly fell in love with Kiswahili.

To learn the language, he would listen to music from East Africa by artistes like Sauti Sol and Vanessa Mdee. Their music also enriched his background in the arts as he was passionate about dancing.

“As a dancer, I began creating content on and exporting videos to my Instagram page to promote their music. Ultimately, I decided to move to Kenya in 2017 to grow my career,” he says.

While in Kenya, he continued exporting his music and dance clips on, the platform that would grow into TikTok. Javier was not getting much traction using that method until representatives of TikTok reached out to him and convinced him to grow his following on the app instead of exporting content to other platforms.

By August 2020, he not only picked up a new local name, Kamau, but had 260,000 followers and 3.4 million likes on the app. Now known by his TikTok handle @afrobeatswithkamau, he has picked up lessons along the way.

“It took me months to learn the app and get the hang of it and the growth has been exponential, especially when we went into lockdown,” the TikTok star says.

@afrobeatswithkamau& now I challenge u: Can u ##recreate ur favorite music video?! ##tetema (full vid on my insta) ???

? TETEMA by Rayvanny and Diamond Platnumz – afrobeatskamau

Javier is now in the business of music promotion and talent management for influencer marketing on the platform. He has collaborated with Coke Studio, the United Nations and most recently launched his own online boutique agency, where he works with clients to identify and hire the most suitable content creators on the app for specific campaigns.

“Clients reach out to me mostly for music and I determine whether I will roll out the campaign or whether to hire other influencer(s) across the continent to increase their reach. Sometimes we partner on the campaign to do duets, which are great, or increased engagement as we all have different audiences spread out across the world. I am very grateful when I can pass on jobs to the other creators,” says Javier.

TikTok grew out of two apps.

One was called, launched by Chinese entrepreneurs in 2014. It enabled users to lip-sync to music videos or selected soundtracks and create videos of between 15 seconds and one minute with a host of features such as filters and graphic effects.

By 2017, the app had more than 200 million users globally. That’s when ByteDance, a technology company based in Beijing, came calling.

ByteDance acquired and merged it with China’s TikTok equivalent, which is referred to as Douyin in the Asian country.

To get started on  TikTok,  one needs to download the app from the App Store or Google Play store, or by sending a link to a mobile phone from the website, where you can also watch the videos. Unlike other social media apps and websites, someone does not need to have an active subscription to watch the content.

By the end of August 2020, TikTok had registered over two billion global downloads on Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, just over a year after it had reached its one billion mark.

It is currently the number one downloaded app of 2020, according to Digital Information World, dethroning Facebook, but in terms of usage, it ranks behind Facebook and its affiliate platforms though it has surpassed LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter and Pinterest.

According to Datahom, Kenya had the highest TikTok downloads globally in the first quarter of the year, with an average growth of 68 per cent.

In East Africa, TikTok has recorded the average time spent on the app at over four hours and monthly video views of over 2.1 billion. It is also the sixth-ranked social media app among Kenyans in the Google Play Store.

Nendo’s 2020 Digital Trend Report attributes the app’s success to its ability to entice content creators from other apps with its novel features and a wider new audience.

Its option to share videos on to other platforms and its ability to learn a user’s habits and present the content they like have boosted its popularity especially among users between 16 and 24 years.

@_rexxieI love how this turned out. ##foryou ##hairwithrexxie ##curlyhair ##rubberband

? Beamer (Bad Boys) – Rema

One of the app’s revenue streams is through advertisements and the sale of virtual goods like emojis and stickers from influencers and celebrities to fans, which is done through in-app purchases.

TikTok ranks sixth among apps for consumer spending worldwide behind Tinder, YouTube and Netflix.

In Kenya, the app’s representatives have been organizing meetups for users who show the potential to grow, where they learn the tips and tricks of the app.

The local representative engages creators to drive downloads of the app and help them attain the much-coveted verification on the app.

Using a personal touch, the representatives across the continent are helping creators exchange skills and grow their networks and brands as influencers.

That is how Mark Mwangi (@markmwas), a recent graduate of Kenyatta University, got to learn that videos should always cover the full screen, that one should make use of popular or trending sounds on the app, and that one needs to use the right hashtags to get on the ‘For You’ page, the app’s front page.

@markmwas??UTATOKA KWA GATE PEKEE YAKO ##kenyanteachers

? Original Sound – Unknown

“TikTok contacted me on the app and said they saw potential for growth and wanted to help me understand how to use the algorithm to my benefit and also get verified,” says Mark.

Some of the platform’s latest stars in Kenya, such as Shiksha Arora, have gained popularity during the pandemic.

Cooped up at home with her family, Shiksha (@shiksha.arora) started shooting videos of herself dancing to popular afro-beat songs, and has made lip-synching videos that cut across stereotypes, such as the M-PESA lady. She has grown her following to 41,100.

@shiksha.aroraThanks to Rona hatuna uwezo wa kuwithdraw zaidi ya 150 ##onefifty ##mpesachallenge ##kenyan ##tiktokkenya ##trending ##150 ##eastafrican ##viral ##comedy ##fyp

? original sound – sosuun

Azziad Nasenya (Azziad) has seen her career grow after her video to “Utawezana”, a collaboration between Mejja and Femi One, went viral.

Makumi Wanjohi, a Growth Strategist, believes TikTok will become a marketing staple in Kenya.

“We have an abundance of short-form content video creators. Brands will begin to explore partnerships with them and TikTok will be a staple in media strategies in a way that previously wasn’t,” he says.

He is not off the mark as some brands are already cashing in on this opportunity. Earlier this year, Xiaomi Kenya, a Chinese multinational electronics company that makes smartphones, collaborated with Kenyan content creator Azziad and @afrobeatswithkamau who managed to garner 3.9 million views for the campaign in just two days.

International organisations like the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Environmental Program are using the platform to share content and advocacy on global issues.

Vivienne Ethangatta, Corporate Communications and Social Media Manager at Safaricom PLC, attributes the success of the app in Kenya to the growth of internet subscribers in the country.

“Year on year, the number increases because of internet penetration across the country through access gained to smartphones. Initially, this was a barrier but it is now being bridged through solutions such as Lipa Mdogo Mdogo to ensure access to rural areas as well. We want people to access and use data when they need it and want it,” she says.

Content creators, independent creatives who thrive on the internet, have established their niches in various categories to appeal to and grow their audience, and to make some money.

“It’s effortless to consume the content on TikTok as you don’t even need to sign into the app. The content is very shareable; that’s how some people are learning about the app. Other apps make it almost exclusive to engage with their content and lock out a potential audience but not TikTok,” says Vivienne.


##supportyournation i love the unity that we always have ?????? ##madarakaday ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage ##tiktokkenya ##kenyaoriginal ##lipsync

? Original Sound – Unknown

She adds: “The in-built video editing features are also giving people the confidence to create as they can learn to do transitions and special effects to videos similar to what they’ve seen on the app. It’s a great platform for creators to monetise their talent and has the potential to enrich people’s lives beyond just being entertaining.”

For brands seeking to dabble in TikTok, she advises that they first gain an elaborate understanding of the platform and not just aim to jump on the bandwagon.

“When you decide to delve into any social media platform as a brand, you need to keep top of mind what your objective is. Every platform has a unique audience and a unique way content is created. You must look at the audience first then tailor your content to their wants and needs,” she says.

“Figure out how you want to tell your story in a way that matches the brand persona, then create relatable and engaging content or partner with content creators who can achieve that for the brand.”

Alan Mwangi, Director, Creative and Digital Strategy at Pulse Live Kenya believes TikTok will change the influencer marketing landscape permanently.

“Brands will be more critical about who they select as influencers based on the fact that the number of followers you have and the success of a previous video does not guarantee future success on the app. You could become viral over your first video and have very little engagement on your next piece of content. Influencers will really have to work hard to prove that they’re worth their salt,” says Alan.

For creators keen to try out the platform, learning from people like Javier and Shiksha is an option. For brands, TikTok For Good offers tips, best practices, and strategy from international organizations, global NGOs, influencers, creators, and more.

Despite, or because, of its runaway success, TikTok has started getting attention from competitors and regulators.

Last month, Instagram launched Reels, which works just like TikTok, to stop its users migrating and spending more time on the app from the Far East.

The subject of who will eventually own TikTok has been constantly evolving and on September 14, it was reported that ByteDance had chosen a consortium led by United States firm Oracle to become its technology partner, with The New York Times reporting that the American company would take a majority stake of the social media app.

TikTok continues to create influence, influencers, and enables creatives to make money. Forbes reports, for instance, that 19-year-old Addison Rae  is the richest TikTok creator globally, having earned $5 million in just one year through exclusive brand deals despite not having the most followers or likes on the app.

American artiste Jason Derulo is quoted as saying he earns “way more than $75,000 per TikTok.”That’s more than $5,000 for each second on a 15-second video on the app.

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