Let me say at the outset I am not in Safaricom’s mobile phone universe. It’s a huge one, I know, compared to the much smaller telco whose platform I use and which can never really go “mano a mano” with the behemoth.
Anyway, to get the lay of the land, I happened to have followed the massive customer fury the previous weekend when a three-hour M-Pesa outage occurred.
A neighbour of mine who has a good habit of taking his family for a Saturday evening roast chicken outing, at some fairly nice joint overlooking Lukenya Hills, narrated to me the embarrassment he got when it came to pay for the family’s entertainment bill.
He wanted to pay with M-Pesa, but the network was off. I was already hearing of countless numbers of other Kenyans who couldn’t do their transactions: money transfers, paying the petrol or supermarket bills, and so on.
Forget when matatus occasionally paralyse transport; the M-Pesa shutdown that weekend caused more serious disruption in people’s lives. Financially speaking.
And Saturday evening happened to be peak hour for those transactions. It tells you of Safaricom’s awesome hold in this country.
M-Pesa is a very powerful platform alright. Its published April-to-June money transfer flow of Sh1 trillion gives you an idea of its omnipotence.
Safaricom’s market share of the mobile phone call market, and the data and mobile money transfer and payments platforms, is collectively over 70 percent.
Weaker competitors scream about “market dominance” and want the telco giant somehow checked.
The Communications Authority (CA), the telecommunications regulator, looks helpless under Safaricom’s commanding grip.
It craves to have the company under its control. Only, unfortunately, it is always being outsmarted. It resorts to hefty multimillion-shilling fines instead.
Serious attempts have been made to check Safaricom’s power. However, the CA doesn’t seem to know how to do it.
It has toyed on-and-off with the radical idea of breaking up the entity into competing bits, which would separately pose a less formidable challenge, presumably, to Safaricom’s competitors.
One proposed strategy is to delink the phone service from M-Pesa. These kinds of regulator-driven break-ups happen like when the once-almighty US phone company called AT&T was forced to splinter into different regional phone companies.
But Kenya’s situation is different. It doesn’t mean the competitors will offer the same (by and large) reliable service. Kenyan customers value their convenience over the finer detail of market monopoly and competition law.
I’ll give one big thing to Safaricom. They innovate. Hence M-Pesa. It’s a valuable thing for a telecom company to do.
They also invest heavily in mobile phone infrastructure, starting with those masts you see everywhere. The competitors don’t put as much premium there.
All they want is market share, decreed by the regulator. Yet innovation makes all the difference in a rapidly changing multimedia world.
The competition, including my own puny service provider, does not invest in technology and customer reach the way Safaricom does.
M-Pesa is a trailblazer in this country, no doubt. Competitors would best be served if they invested in new technologies and superior money transfer systems, other than always crying about Safaricom’s lead.
Let’s be upfront. Systems break down. Even your car or washing machine does the same. I have an account with a blue-chip bank, and now and again I can’t access my money.
Systems failure, I am told by the bank teller. The same thing happens with Kenya Power, which can cut you off from electricity for hours and days, actually longer periods than users of M-Pesa ever endure.
At the same time, the ATM is sometimes down, and the internet app I can use is often not working either.
My point is this: M-Pesa is a good thing, great even, though like any technology it fails sometimes. Getting ballistic about a temporary outage doesn’t help.
Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru, who oversees ICT, has ordered CA and the Central Bank to immediately investigate the M-Pesa outage so as to assess what the regulators call “redundancies”.
Safaricom had explained that it experienced "data degradation" that led to loss of service, whatever that means technically.
The government’s intervention displays its keenness to get a handle on the money transfer business, which fuels the country’s economy.
A big step was taken at “interoperability”, meaning a Safaricom-connected guy can “sambaza” me through my different network with no fuss.
Mucheru, in his ire over Safaricom’s muscle, went further by telling mobile phone customers to diversify to other networks and not be beholden solely to Safaricom’s M-Pesa. Tough luck. If Safaricom is not abusing its dominance, let it be.