Today Orange announced a new initiative which aims to make it easier for African mobile subscribers to access Facebook on the go.

A first for the continent, Orange is using USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) technology, a low-bandwidth option which bypasses costly data prices in Africa, making it possible to get onto Facebook on pretty much any phone.

Facebook via USSD could play a significant role in increasing Facebook mobile usage in Africa. The social networking site has seen explosive growth throughout Africa over the past year, with numbers doubling in some countries, making it the most visited site in most African countries.

South Africa-based mobile network MXit has proven to be a tough competitor for Facebook, but providing users with a far more mobile experience on Facebook could help balance the figures out. Currently South African Facebook penetration stands shy of 10%, with 4.8 million users. In contrast, MXit still has double the number of South African users, with 10 million users.

The new Orange service is text-based, so users who don’t have a data plan can still access Facebook, without having to shell out for an expensive smartphone. Users are able to access all of Facebook’s major features – search for and invite friends, accept and deny friend requests, update their status and interact with their friends’ posts with comments and likes.

There are currently four payment options for Facebook via USSD. Users can pay either by timed sessions of 10 to 20 minutes, or they can pay per day, week or month.

Strong Beginnings

Orange launched the service at the end of last year, through Egyptian mobile operator Mobinil, and the service was instantly picked up by over 350,000 customers in just one month. The next stop on Orange’s Facebook-via-USSD road is the Ivory Coast, with more countries to come throughout the year.

USSD sends information over 2G networks, so for areas in Africa where 3G has yet to make a mark, Orange’s initiative will no doubt be a welcome change, and its expectations for the service are high, estimating that over one million customers will use the service in its first year.

“Social networks such as Facebook have completely changed how people stay in contact with their family and friends, and it’s important that our customers, regardless of the phone they have, are able to access and participate in these services,” said Xavier Perret, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Orange. “We feel that it is our role to help our customers enjoy a digitally rich, connected life, and services such as Facebook via USSD this make that possible for even more of our customers.”

With the vast majority of African mobile subscribers still using feature phones, and Nokia continuing to dominate the mobile phone market, this isn’t the only initiative that Orange has launched ensuring that its subscribers can access some of the world’s more popular sites.

Earlier this month, Orange launched an initiative dropping all data charges for its subscribers when accessing Wikipedia, proving that the network clearly has its finger on the pulse of what the region needs.