Emoticons have become a staple for African mobile phone users, just as they have in the rest of the world. But anybody who has tried to say “please, don’t make me laugh” with an emoji will know a bright yellow smiley is not always up to the job. A new range of emoticons aimed squarely at Africans aims to solve that problem.
“We tried to create an African app that actually has really strong images — this is Disney quality animation here,” Nigerian-American developer Ayoola Daramola told the BBC.
His newly launched line of emojis — which are in his app, Afroemojis — features men and women dressed in colorful African clothes, and local expressions in pidgin English, such as “Chai!” (“Wow!”), “Correct!” (“Great job!”) and “No dulling!” (“Don’t be slow!”).
According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, text messaging remains the most common activity for mobile phone users in Africa, and Daramola says his Afrocentric emojis will fill a gap in the market by allowing users to express themselves using characters they can identify with, and everyday local phrases that mean more to them.
Impressed by the high adoption rate that mobile phones have enjoyed across the African continent, he wanted to create an app that responded to the rapidly changing way Africans are communicating with each other, both at home and abroad.
“This is basically ‘send me an African-looking image’, right? But I think the evolution of apps and cellphones is going to get a lot more localized.
“You’re going to have African apps that are really localized, African-based, really really local to you — chatting applications, video-chat applications, even mobile money-sending apps,” Daramola says.
The mobile phones that Africans use have typically been designed and built in California or South Korea, and often the apps that run on them don’t engage directly with African users — leaving a gap that Daramola is trying to exploit with Afroemojis.
And although his company is based in the U.S., he says Afroemojis is an African enterprise.
“It’s a business, and at the end of the day you do have to make a return on your investment,” he says. “But you know, you hear this about Africa, you hear the other about Africa — but actually capturing things like this and making it look this good, it’s just a step in the right direction for Africa as a whole.
“It’s a good technological step to show that we’re not just dependent on everything else created outside of Africa. But we can actually do it from inside,” he says.
As important as the image is the African-English slang Daramola’s emoticons use.
His hope is that Africans will prefer to use a character that says “Any better?”, rather than one that asks “Anything good for me?”
And while the 50 characters currently available are predominantly West African, he wants to expand the range of emojis to reflect different African cultures.
Daramola’s hope is that millions of people will use and share his emoticons. But that may take a while.
So far, he says, the app has had about 5,000 downloads on Android, and about 2,000 on iOS, which is far less widespread in Africa.
“We just launched,” he says, “so it’s to just watch it actually grow over time.”