There is no question that cellular phone market penetration, at least here in Kenya, is one of the Africa’s great success stories.No longer merely a tool of in-demand businesspeople and status conscious users, cell phones are never far from the ears of food sellers, drivers, store cashiers and even rubbish scavengers popularly known in Kenya as chokoraa. In Uganda last year, I saw a five year old boy in a playground near Kawempe, bouncing enthusiastically on a trampoline while deep in conversation, cell phone to his ear. Handphones, because of their ubiquity, are not seen as a luxury any more and they are a necessity in today’s Africa. And that is a service provider’s dream.Anybody who understands marketing would love to be in the position of having to sell a service that is cool, that is utterly addictive, that virtually everyone thinks of as a necessity, and for which the demand increases every day, with no sign of slowing down.
The question is whether they can provide decent service to the ever-growing throng of cellular phone customers.A quick straw poll doesn’t yield much in the way of scientific data, but does demonstrate that a pattern is beginning to emerge. While telecom providers across Africa themselves insist that service overall has improved and continues to get better every day, the customers have a different impression. No matter which provider a handphone user subscribes to, “Network busy,Call failed“ is perceived to be the increasingly frequent result of attempted phone calls.Overloaded circuits, dead zones and sudden signal loss are more and more often the source of consumer complaints. This may be as much the result of consumer demand for higher standards as of the providers’ failures, but consumers are not apt to be patient. It is worth noting, however, that signal drop-off becomes more common at peak times due to overloaded circuits, providers see this as being a direct result of the low tariffs.
Nevertheless, one annoyance of which African customers are acutely aware can only be attributed to the providers especially the unsolicited commercial messages.The number one irritation mentioned by those asked about cell phone service in a recent survey was the proliferation of advertising and other spam being sent via SMS to customers. The consumer is bombarded with discounts on event tickets and myriad other “special offers” while other marketers suggested that their “announcements” are legitimate messages sent to people they believe will be happy to receive them. They say that they receive generally positive feedback, and that most people read them, some act upon them, and everyone can simply delete the message if it is off no immediate value to them. It seems that this is an area where consumers would have to make their views known directly to the advertiser if they truly object to such messages.
It is easy to understand the temptation to use cell phones as a means of direct access to a huge group of consumers. According to one industry expert I spoke to recently,there remains enormous growth potential in Africa and in countries like South Africa and Nigeria, this has created an obvious area for the carriers’ corporate social responsibility obligations. Any industry that develops as quickly as the telecommunications business will inevitably encounter some speed bumps on the way. As the providers compete to sign up subscribers, the development of the networks themselves sometimes falls behind, causing lapses in service quality.Without subscribers, there is insufficient revenue to expand the service and without high quality service, existing customers complain and it’s hard to sign up new ones.But with a product of such enormous market potential, these problems will sort themselves out and there is far too much money at stake for the carriers to fail to put their best efforts into meeting the demands of Africans.