Partners In Progress: Ime Archibong, Facebook's Vice President Of Product Partnerships
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Business is not just about the numbers, and no one made it clearer than Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he revealed the company’s new mission statement earlier this year. His initial plan -to make the world more open and connected- needed an upgrade as it struggled to provide a much-needed sense of purpose to about two billion people already actively using the platform. The new mission statement -announced at Facebook’s first Community Summit last June- is to bring the world closer together, meaning to empower people to create and join meaningful communities online, forging deeper friendships and civic ties both online and offline. “The traditional sources of community as from where people get their meaning, identity and support have slowly started to erode, over the last three or four decades,” says Ime Archibong, Facebook’s Vice President of Product Partnerships, during his recent visit to Dubai.
“We thought that our technology could help reverse that trend, and bring people closer together. The hypothesis here is that there are about 100 million people that we see across Facebook right now, who we believe have found a meaningful community on Facebook. They have found a group that they feel connected to and that gives them purpose. We believe that there is no reason why that number should not be one billion people over the next couple of years. Now, the question is how can we connect more people to these meaningful groups and these meaningful experiences. The strong hypothesis that we have is that each one of these communities is underpinned by a leader or a group of leaders, who have emerged and said: ‘We are taking it upon ourselves to actually make sure that this community stays vibrant, meaningful, and safe for the people using it.’ We are now empowering community leaders.”
Archibong’s visit to the Middle East proves that Facebook’s new goals are not just part of an empty statement of ideas relegated to paper, but an action plan being implemented with a detailed step by step approach. Prior to our interview, he had met with Sumayyah Sayed, a Dubai resident who created a Facebook group to launch the nonprofit Ramadan Sharing Fridge initiative. It grew into a city-wide phenomenon, inspiring Dubai residents to regularly fill more than 170 fridges for those in need during this year’s Ramadan. Sayed’s Facebook group now has nearly 24,000 members. Archibong also met (and went on a run around Dubai Marina) with Manal Rostom, the founder of Surviving Hijab, a women-only Facebook group created to empower and support veiled Muslim women, counting nearly 460,000 members to date. Both Sayed and Rostom, Archibong explains, are “emerging and unexpected leaders” that the Facebook team wants to discover and support. “I’m trying to understand how we can empower people like Manal, so that she can continue to build this supportive community for half a million people or more,” he adds. “They are local people trying to solve problems within their local communities. For Facebook, these are the exact types of entrepreneurs, of builders, that we want to support and figure out how we can continue to produce innovative infrastructures for them to take their communities to the next level.”
Launched in 2010, Facebook Groups have now become the tool of the social media platform’s further expansion. However, prior to announcing the new mission statement, Zuckerberg published a 6,000-word letter stating that the Facebook community should be supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive. “We are trying to understand what type of leadership training we can give them [the emerging leaders], how they are scaling their leadership, how they are attracting and training other admins, and to hear their pain points,” Archibong explains. “For years, we have spent time with developers and startups to understand what Facebook can build from a more tech perspective to help them grow and monetize their applications, for example. In the same way, we now want to hear from these folks [non-tech builders] about their pain points. For example, when they say that they don’t understand 500,000 people that are in their group, what their demographic breakdown is, where geographically they all are from, or what their gender breakdown is. If they knew that, they could serve the group better. So, for example, we launched Insights for Groups, and people saw value in that. Also, some leaders can have a queue of 80,000 people who want to join the group, and they [the admins] need to go through them one by one. So, we launched Filtering. For example, Manal’s group is women-only, and if we give her an option to filter out all men in one click, that will save hours of her time. Also, they all have stories of trying to figure out how to keep their community safe. We launched a bunch of tools to let the admins identify the bad actors fairly quickly and pull them out of the group fairly quickly. So, I’m spending a lot of time with them to hear what else is broken.”
In parallel, Facebook continues to build the capacity of coders, programmers and engineers, including those in emerging markets. At this year’s F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, two MENA-based startups -InstaDeep, a Tunis-headquartered Artificial Intelligence startup, and Mind Rockets Inc, an Amman-based tech startup assisting the hearing impaired with voice recording, book reading, and viewing online videos- were chosen by Zuckerberg to attend the F8 2017 VIP roundtable. The Facebook MENA team has already hosted F8 Meetups in five regional cities -Dubai, Amman, Casablanca, Beirut, Cairo- where participants watched live streams of the sessions in San Francisco. Furthermore, at this year’s F8, the company announced Developer Circles, a community-driven program that is free to join and open to any developer willing to connect, learn, and collaborate with other local developers.
To date, there have been eight Developer Circles in the MENA region- Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, Cairo, Gaza, Amman, Beirut, and Baghdad. Keeping the Middle East firmly on its radar, Archibong says, is part of Facebook’s mission to identify other ecosystems around the world that “have the same DNA as Silicon Valley.” He adds: “What I mean by that is that they all have the right ingredients and elements that have made Silicon Valley successful in terms of breakthrough innovation. The entrepreneurs and companies there have that idea of being able to build something new, to maybe fail, and then start building something new again. The capital and resources there enable people with great ideas to bring them to fruition. “Over the last few years, I have probably spent more time outside Silicon Valley than being there, really just trying to understand these communities a bit better. I’ve spent quite some time in the Middle East as well, whether it’s in Egypt, Jordan, or Dubai, trying to understand and really connect with those communities. One of the things that I consistently find, including here over the last 48 hours, is the talent, creativity and curiosity of people to come together and build something that is a challenge for them, or to seize an opportunity and build breakthrough products or services. In this region, there is nothing that is unique and different and that stands out vis-à-vis other ecosystems around the world, but I would say that everyone’s approach to what the problem is and what opportunities they are trying to seize for their communities is fairly specific. We at Facebook meet people who are building tech-enabled businesses, people who are building apps, or whatever it might be, and often times the real value we can add to them is not necessarily how they can build a more compelling product to serve their local market, because they know it best, but how to apply that idea to the globe, and that is where we can add unique value to some of them.”
Last February, Facebook launched the Bots for Messenger Challenge in 64 cities across the wider Middle East and Africa to recognize and reward developers who could create the most innovative new bots on Messenger. Developers were asked to build new bots focused on three categories- gaming and entertainment, productivity and utility, and social good. Top 60 finalists were selected to be paired with a Facebook mentor and given three weeks to iterate on the best versions of their bots for the final judging. Facebook selected three winners from the region who won a prize of US$20,000 and three months of Facebook mentorship, while three regional runner-up teams won $10,000 and three months of Facebook mentorship.
Messenger Challenge meet ups are now being held regularly across the MENA region, from Casablanca to Baghdad. To add to that, more established regional companies have already recognized the role bots can play in growing their businesses. Mercedes-Benz Cars Middle East is the first automotive brand globally to go live with Facebook’s Messenger Chatbot service, which allows their users to book test drives, explore the latest model range and more, just by chatting. Another example is Mashreq bank’s e-banking Messenger bot -an Artificial Intelligence agent or chatbot- which enables customers to display Mashreq products and perform cardless cash transactions, low-ticket local transfers and inquire about balance and recent transactions on an account. Lastly, the MENA’s largest transportation and logistics company Aramex hopes that their recently launched Messenger bot will largely reduce SMS and phone call costs, while improving the company’s customer experience.
However, Facebook is not forgetting smaller businesses either. “One of the patterns that we have seen emerging is that more and more businesses are becoming tech-enabled,” Archibong says. “There is no one industry right now that is not thinking about the way digital and tech are impacting and influencing their business. So, as we have been witnessing that shift over the past decade or more, we have tried to figure out the ways that we can make sure that we are not just servicing people who are building web pages or apps, but someone who is starting a food delivery service or a food truck around the corner, truly all those SMEs. How we can help them have leverage with not just Facebook, but the whole concept of social infrastructure, including Whatsapp, Messenger, Instagram, and one day it will be Oculus, and all these other tools that we are building to connect people with other people, to now connect businesses to people.”
One example of Facebook’s support to young businesses comes from Egypt. Elves, founded by Karim Elsahy and Abeer Elsisi, a husband-and-wife entrepreneurial duo, allows people to ask human agents for mainly travel-related requests. It has become a featured app on Messenger. The support from the Facebook team means that Elves’ engineers now have access to Facebook’s new features and code which results in, for example, a plus sign leading to the Elves app every time MENA users open up Messenger. The 18-month-old Egyptian startup is now generating about $80,000 in monthly revenue.
Facebook is regularly revealing a growing host of tools and services to keep up with the demand from its users, and especially from coders, programmers and engineers, as well as community leaders- the two groups are often referred to as tech and non-tech builders. Persistently carving new avenues to better serve entrepreneurs globally, Archibong says, is a way of ensuring that Facebook’s past and current success will have a matching future. “The reason why we started all of this very intentionally a couple of years ago was two-fold,” he explains.
“One, when we were a smaller company, we realized how the likes of Microsoft in Silicon Valley helped us out along our journey, and really gave us some guidance. We wanted to make sure that we could do that for the communities that were coming up after us. Two, there is a symbiotic relationship between big and small tech companies. We wanted to make sure that over time, small tech companies continue to see us as allies on their journey. And vice versa- there are many things we can learn from them, such as how we stay at the forefront of what is happening in tech, or make sure that we are not losing track of trends.”