Kenya’s “online generation” are doing more and more things on their computers, tablets and smartphones. But using technology for romance may be a step too far for many.
When 27-year-old Yasmeen moved from Kenya to Sweden, she found it hard to meet people owing to the vast cultural differences between the two countries. Whereas, in Kenya, dating was easy as men from within and without her friendship circle would constantly approach her and express interest, in Sweden, she found it impossible to breach the cultural divide. “Swedish guys are very shy,” she observes, “even the Swedish girls have to approach the guys”. So Yasmeen did what an estimated 50 million people around the world have already done. She joined the online dating app Tinder.
Like a vast majority of Kenyans, marriage remains one of the highest social priorities for Yasmeen, but the gap between “hi” and “I do” can be interminable, particularly in cities where traditional structures that signposted the path have fallen away. In Western countries, dating apps like Tinder attempt to create modern iterations of these signposts. In today’s social muddle, will Kenyans jump on the bandwagon?
Launched in 2012, Tinder has quickly outpaced rivals to establish itself as the most talked about, if not most used, dating site in the world. The concept is straightforward. Users create a profile, usually linked to their Facebook account, using some basic information on their preferences and their location. Their profile then joins the millions of others that users matching those preferences can browse. Tinder’s global success rests on its platform – a geolocated app optimised for smartphones. Users indicate their like or dislike of a profile by swiping right or left respectively, and the profile in question is either permanently removed from the person’s archives, or matched for conversation and ideally, a real life meeting.
In North America, Tinder has meshed with society’s approach to romance and the thirst for instant gratification. Dating is a major way people in Western societies meet their life partners, and for almost as long as there has been the internet at home, there have been sites specialising in facilitating it. In a world in which people want to take studio quality photographs without ever taking a class, it makes sense that they would try to find an approach to dating that eliminates the time lag between “is s/he interested?” and “yes, no, maybe?” But can such sites gain popularity in Kenya, where most of the population still do not have access to the internet?
Historically, the answer has been no. Online dating sites like e-Harmony or OkCupid, which enjoy enormous popularity in other parts of the world, barely register in Kenya, even though the basic versions are free to use. The main obstacle has been that while the cost of internet connectivity has been steadily declining, the cost of owning a personal computer has remained relatively high, keeping non-essential computer use out of reach for most.
Mobile connectivity is changing this. An estimated 80% of internet users in Africa connect through their mobile phones. The Communications Commission of Kenya counted 16.2 million internet users and 4.3 million smartphone owners in the country by the end of 2013. Similarly, an estimated 4 million Kenyans use Facebook, also mostly connecting through their phones. To achieve these numbers, Facebook was forced to simplify its mobile version in order to cope with slow internet speeds, a problem that Tinder doesn’t face given the simplicity of the app.
Given this, it makes sense that the app would find a small but active community in Kenya, particularly in Nairobi. Statistics from the app-maker show that Kenya is the 9th most active African country on Tinder, both in raw numbers and by the percentage of its population that uses it. These figures suggest operationally at least, dating apps can find markets in African communities. On the “app” part of “dating app”, Tinder is on solid ground.
IRL (in real life)
Yet the success of the “dating” part depends on factors beyond technology. Cultural and social issues shape romantic relationships, and conversations with tech-savvy Kenyans reveal that app developers have their work cut out for them.
In March 2015, the iHub, Kenya’s premiere tech-focused co-working space celebrated its fifth birthday. Thousands of people working in and around the country’s burgeoning technology industry gathered at the Nairobi Arboretum to break bread, dance and talk tech. The beers and the conversation flowed freely, and by the end of the night, a full-fledged concert was underway as groups gyrated under the glow of the full moon. This was the vanguard of Kenya’s technology revolution – the generation that is theoretically ready, willing and able to build and deploy applications and utilities to create opportunities and address the country’s problems.
It should have been the perfect place to catch up with Kenya’s online dating enthusiasts. However, when pressed on whether they would use technology, the majority of those randomly interviewed replied in the negative. Many people rejected the idea outright as a personal failure. “I don’t need to go online to meet a man. I meet them in person,” said a stylish reveller, her palpable distaste barely hidden behind a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses.
Those who had tried it said they were underwhelmed by the experience. “Online dating in Kenya is creepy,” 29-year-old Susan offered, “I only tried it for two weeks. It serves a purpose if all you want to do is hook up [for sex] but not for anything else”. Anthony agreed; “Online dating makes it easier to approach people, but you have to meet a genuine person. A lot of the people you meet online aren’t genuine.”
Users agreed that the limits of online dating in some ways reflected the issues that exist in the physical world. Across the board, there was dissatisfaction with the calibre of people available for dating, but everyone believed firmly that it was everyone else’s fault. “It’s so hard to meet guys in Kenya, especially when you’re established,” Susan elaborated. Max went further, repeating an oft-cited limitation of developing real-life relationships based on online personas: “Based on what’s on social media there’s no hope for our generation. Everyone has unrealistic expectations that they themselves cannot fulfill.”
Nor is the kind of honesty available online exactly the kind of honesty Kenyan users want. For many, online dating is a code for casual sex, not a path to love, marriage and babies. Even in its original markets, Tinder has a reputation as a hook-up app for people who are interested in casual sex to connect with like-minded people. Yasmeen found this to be the case when she first told friends in Sweden that she’d signed up. But while many of the tech enthusiasts interviewed had no reservations about casual sex, they didn’t see it as a step towards marriage – perhaps a significant distinction from their Western counterparts. Damaris, a Tinder and online dating enthusiast observed, “Guys just want sex. I want old school. Old school is the best.”
“Old school” is how the parents of many of those interviewed connected: through relatives or mutual acquaintances; at school or at work; or introduced through parents. Old school versus new school takes on many guises in Nairobi. It is Susan who openly dates and believes it is the best way of meeting a life partner, versus Nzilani, who insists on meeting someone kienyeji – traditionally. It is the difference between Kimuchosi, who met his fiancée on Facebook, and Campbell, who thinks dating shouldn’t be a priority until ready to marry and settle down. It is Isabelle, who discusses dating openly with her parents, versus Maxlove, who believes hers would be deeply disappointed if they found out that she dates regularly. For many young people in the city, their perspective on dating straddles the past and the present, and apps that cannot give full expression to these contradictions will struggle to find a foothold.
The inherent contradictions are not lost on Kenya’s online generation. In a modern world, there simply isn’t time to make the kind of connections that their parents made and dating – on or offline – offers an attractive alternative. Kimuchosi advises taking a middle line: “Use online dating – it works – but I won’t take a girlfriend home until I’m ready to marry her”. Yasmeen, who keeps her Tinder profile active even though she’s currently dating a partner she met through the app, agrees. “Be careful, but keep an open mind. You don’t have to be lonely in today’s world.”