Impact of mainstreaming and commodification of cyber cafe services

Around 2007, the urban cyber cafe industry began to display signs of maturing as the market saturated and the services specific to internet access underwent a process of commodification.  As it came to be perceived as no different a business than setting up a corner kiosk or hot dog stand, there was a shift in the profile of owner/operators. Many employed professionals such as doctors, teachers, accountants et al purchased going concerns as a means to increase their income streams, considering it no different from owning any other type of  shop which could be manned and run by employees during the day.  While computer literate, few in this new segment of owners were the computer savvy technical specialists or hobbyists who’d originally set up internet operations as a business nor were their employees for the most part.

Given this context, Mathew, who runs a thriving cyber cafe business spread over three towns a couple of hours north of Nairobi, articulated three reasons why many cybers were seen to have shuttered their business:

1. Gaining a reputation for unreliability – Inexperience and/or lack of knowledge on basics like virus management, maintenance or even not knowing how to make all the equipment work meant that systems were often down or not working properly quickly leading to customers avoiding the shop.

2. Quality and training of staff – There would be a difference in operations if the owner were to check in with the business and dealt with issues as they arose rather than showing up once a week for example. Finding qualified people to manage the cafe in the meantime, ensuring that at least one person with the requisite technical knowledge was at hand or on call was imperative to ensure the smooth running of the operations and gaining customer confidence regarding the quality of services offered.

3. Customer relationship management – Thus, building relationships with customers, ensuring loyalty and repeat returns over the long term was of importance to sustain the business.  Mathew himself had a sophisticated customer loyalty program in use across his three cafes – a smart card which could be purchased for differing amounts in advance and printed with the customer’s photograph. He had set up a system by which his staff could monitor and track minutes used by this user base across the three different locations. It ensured loyalty as well as provided an upfront cash payment that is one of the benefits of a prepaid business model.

Perhaps this was why the decline was being seen so obviously in urban locations accustomed to having a cyber at every corner. In Mombasa, one of our interviewees mentioned that it felt like there was one in every building.  The urban industry had matured to the point that a cyber was as ubiquitous as an MPesa dealer or Coca Cola kiosk with the subsequent assumption by many that it could be run as easily as any other business. This aspect does not diminish the impact of other market forces such as internet enable mobiles and affordable data plans and modems but does help explain why we kept hearing that business was growing whenever we stepped out of the city.

As technology diffuses outward from the urban metros, the cybers are seen in ever smaller market towns and highway crossroads, that is, the industry is still in its growth phase, though certainly not in its infancy. A short conversation with a small town mobile shop assistant informed us that they were selling an average of 5 broadband modems a month and she herself found it cheaper and more convenient to browse via her phone. Another young man employed by a national operator observed that education was a critical factor as well – not in terms of the basics, as the region he supported had a very high literacy rate, but in terms of locales where more young people were going off to college and university, being exposed to the potential of this new technology then bringing it back home for it to spread further.

What this seems to imply is that its the casual or social browser – the chatting on IM, the Facebooking, the occasional email – who seems to have cut down on their cyber visits, and this is often the largest segment of people going online. The hard core enthusiasts, the business users or anyone who has not yet invested in their own set up but prefers the “comp” to quote one young man, aren’t abandoning their trips.

What is happening however to the industry as a whole is a natural evolution. In the city, its the innovators who are thriving even as the basic shops decline – a case of may the fittest survive. None among the knowledgeable IT savvy owner operators ever even considered the mobile as a threat to their business, perceived or otherwise. The only constant response to the subject was that of the pricing plans mentioned earlier.

While the answer to the question of whether its mobiles that are pushing the cyber cafes out of business seems to increasingly be a No, our exploration of market forces acting on the industry is still throwing up factors that we had not taken into consideration when we began.

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