In most African countries, Facebook is king in the social networking arena and in many countries it is the number one or number two most visited site.

However, South Africa is an interesting exception. Its indigenous mobile social networking platform, MXit has more than twice the number of users as Facebook. With about 10 million or more active unique users, the network easily trumps Facebook’s 3.9 million users in South Africa.

Founded in 2003 by Namibian born software developer Herman Heunis, MXit grew from humble beginnings as a mobile phone IM client to a full-scale mobile social network with about 23-24 million users in sub-Saharan Africa. As far back as 2009, a study indicated that South African teenagers preferred MXit to Facebook and Google. In 2007, South Africa based media company, Naspers acquired a 30% stake in the company for an undisclosed sum.

Why has MXit been so successful in South Africa?

One factor that likely played to the social network’s advantage was its first mover advantage. At the time of its conception in 2003, Facebook had not yet launched, so this likely gave it an edge. In addition, its early focus on IM chat endeared it to young South Africans as it offered them an affordable means of sending messages instead of using relatively more expensive SMS options.

MXit’s spokesperson Juan du Toit highlighted this advantage during his interview with South African tech site, Memeburn. “I think users just immediately saw a cost benefit to using MXit. People saw that this is an easy application to get on a low-end phone… it made sense for them to use MXit compared to something more complex like Facebook or Twitter,” he said.

Another likely enhancing feature is its use of a currency feature on its platform. MXit has its own internal currency “Moola” which gives users access to premium features such as app skins, wallpapers, special chat rooms and other virtual goods which enhance the overall experience.

In the future, the mobile social network is looking to integrate some of the features that made Kenyan mobile payment platform M-Pesa a success, with the MXit platform. Already, it recently partnered with wiWallet, a mobile phone payments platform, to bring mobile payment services to its user base. The hope is that the integration will help users purchase more costly items such as airtime, electricity and music among others. With such mobile payment dreams in a region like Africa where the mobile phone market provides tremendous opportunity, the sky appears to be the limit for the mobile social network.

In an interview with iWeek, Heunis commented on MXit’s full scale entry into the mobile payments space saying “If I look at M-Pesa in Kenya, which has set a benchmark in terms of success criteria, I’m confident we have a good chance of achieving the same success.”

For more perspective on MXit, its history and its mission in the African social networking space, watch the interview with MXit’s C.E.O. below.