Archive for the ‘Cyber cafe series’ Category

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.

The role of the cyber cafe: Assisted entry ramp onto the information superhighway to use a cliche

Monica’s cyber in the small town of Maai Mahiu, a market for a primarily rural area, is now the only such facility available. There was another cyber on the other side of the main highway, she said, but it closed within its first year of operation.  Internet access in this locale is available only through 3G and its a poor signal with spotty data performance.  JamFram Cyber Cafe offers the town its only source of business support services – photocopy, lamination, binding, secretarial services as well as 6 desktop computers networked on a 3G router.  When we were there, the electricity was out across the town and she was happy to talk while waiting for the lights to come back. In the half hour we were there, only two customers walked in – one asking for a photocopy, the other to check on his documents given for typing.  The cyber business was slow though she’d noted that mobile requests were increasing – the local phone dealer sending new owners of data enabled phones down to her to help them set up an email account and a Facebook page as well as the settings to permit browsing.

So why would the townspeople call her when she took a slightly longer Christmas holiday earlier this year, making her cut short her intended holiday until the middle of January and return to open shop by the 3rd? Why were they concerned that she might have decided to shut shop like the other cyber which gave up after 5 or 6 months? We were left with the impression that the townspeople would support her business bureau’s continued existence than lose access to her range of services.
We found that the cyber cafe has a role to play in the local community beyond the simple service of walk in to browse the internet.

Broadly the roles can be clustered under these main categories:

The cyber as intermediary across the digital divide (ICT)


In people’s minds, ‘Internet’ was associated with the cyber cafe. We heard this over and over from cyber cafe staff that various telco dealers would send across customers facing challenges with the setup of their data enabled phone over to the cyber for help. Or after making the purchase of an internet enabled phone, people would come over to the cyber first – since you cannot set up an email account then make a Facebook page without a computer. Even someone like Jacqueline in Kagumo who was working at the local phone dealer and was saving up for her own laptop and browsed primarily through her phone had to visit the cyber first.

In Malindi, a significant proportion of Salmatech’s customers were the beachboys whom market forces (their international tourist clientele) were forcing onto the internet via email, Skype and Facebook. Necessity drove them to learn how to use the basics of the computer enough so that they could respond to inquiries, communicate and make bookings in advance of the high season – this was critical enough that they would often trade off topping up airtime minutes on their mobiles in order to have money for the cyber’s minutes of use. Here, the cyber was the go to place, even if some of them already owned laptops gifted by tourist friends, to learn and be informed about the hardware, the software and critically, the utility of the internet.

Most cybers offered customers the Kenyan Revenue Authority (KRA) online services for a fee – the facility to get PINs and submit VAT returns online being one of the first egovernment services rolled out nationally. Other such services offered were US Greencard lottery applications, visa application services, registrations for national examinations, even bus ticket bookings when offered online.
But the mediation was not simply between the customer and the internet. Cyber cafes whose operators had a technical background also tended to be full of spare parts and supplies, many offering maintenance and support for hardware in addition to basic services like virus removal, software updates and configuration.

We also found some cybers, particularly those with fixed unlimited access (such via WiMax or DSL), acting as micro ISPs – running cables out to their neighbours for a fixed monthly rate (usually much lower than what the service cost) in order to mitigate the risk of being unable to cover the cost since incomes were otherwise irregular and often unpredictable. But this behaviour, imho, has less to do with their role as an intermediary – though in fact that is what it could said to be – and more to do with coping mechanisms to help manage expenses on volatile cash flows.

The cyber as a training ground

Whether its formal classes offered in basics of computer use or simply the help received from a friendly generous cyber cafe staff or owner, the cyber is most often where learning and practice both online and on the computer takes place.

The cyber as a social place

Primarily seen in locations where there were many young college students, the cyber seems to have become the local hangout. Boy and girls were seen waiting outside for their turn at email or Facebook, chatting with friends, relaxing and mingling with no hurry to get anywhere or do anything in particular. One newish cyber in Kilifi even had an ice cream parlour with cozy tables and chairs in the front half of the spacious store, all decorated in bright colours and visuals.

The cyber as a business bureau

The majority of cybers tend to offer at minimum printing services along with scanning and photocopying depending on their choice of equipment. Most however offer lamination, binding, a variety of typing and basic typesetting services as well. Photo printing, passport photos and mPesa or airtime sales can also be added to increase sources of income but the basic concept of support services tend to default to the local cyber. This role perhaps explains why Monica’s clients were concerned enough to encourage her return to work even if browsing the internet may not have always been their choice of service.

Typesetting or typing services have expanded to include helping students with their research online in some cases, and in places where the internet was not a popular enough service, this facility offered the opportunity to develop a regular clientele of small businesses, local government offices and students to sustain the business.

Estimating price in unexplored and untapped markets

In addition to estimating the size and value of the Kenyan cyber cafe industry for our client, Village Telco of Cape Town, South Africa, we were tasked with finding out what would people pay for their product, the Mesh Potato. This challenge was the equivalent of walking up to someone and asking:

How much would you pay for this thing you’ve never heard of and you’re not sure what it does?

We discovered it was through the long rambling conversations we were having with our selected cyber cafe owner operators that we were able to get to this point of being able ask such a question. The conversations allowed us a peek into the way they thought about investing in new technology, and in many ways, reflected back to us the basics of the “BoP” consumer mindset that had already been identified previously.  For example:

Maximizing ROI (return on investment)

When asked what he’d pay for a Mesh Potato, our friend Moses responded with a question, “It depends,  how much money will it make for me?”

That is, as a business owner, his evaluation of the product’s price was intrinsically linked to its ability to generate an income stream. Maximizing the return on the investment is his primary criteria – whether it will save him money or a significant amount of time, and how soon will that possible are all the factors that go into the decision to purchase. His question also implicitly holds the corollary premise of Minimizing Risk.

So rarely was the price seen in isolation but instead it was considered in context of a variety of other factors.  For business owners, their primary value driver was “Is this a source of increased income for me?”

Another factor was that of the need to question assumptions underlying traditional models for assessing pricing – from wikipedia’s entry on the underlying assumptions used in Van Westendorp’s model:

The assumption underlying the Price Sensitivity Meter (PSM) is that respondents are capable of envisioning a pricing landscape and that price is an intrinsic measure of value or utility. Participants in a PSM exercise are asked to identify price points at which they can infer a particular value to the product or service under study. PSM claims to capture the extent to which a product has an inherent value denoted by price.

What if price is not the intrinsic measure of value or utility but long term revenue generation potential is?

Until we are able to gather enough insights over the course of a number of such studies and come up with frameworks customized for a very different operating environment, it will only be through the willingness to question all our assumptions and adjusting our approach that we will be able to make reasonably accurate assessments for these untapped markets.

Exploring the market forces acting on the cyber cafe industry in Kenya

This post continues on the challenges of estimating size and value of an untapped market in the developing world – in our current case, it is the cyber cafe industry in Kenya.  A critical aspect of this exercise will include assessing the impact of a variety of market forces acting on the industry in the present day as well as exploring the impact of trends on the near future.
Its only too easy to say that mobile phones will threaten the future of this industry as this June 2011 article does, but how valid is this assertion, really? Complicating the situation is the extremely rapid pace of change – for example the number of internet users in Kenya more than doubled in less than a year, from the end of 2009 to the third quarter of 2010, most via their mobile phones.
Yet, the results of a recent survey found on this Afrinnovator post by Mark Kaigwa in May 2011, contradict the dramatic headline of the June 2011 article:


via Afrinnovator

Kaigwa says: To unpack that a little further, the emerging trend is that the first experience of the internet has become mobile. This still doesn’t rule out the cyber cafe as the mobile experience on feature phones still cannot replace the “full-qwerty-keyboard-got-my-flashdisk-upload-that-document-and-email” use of cyber cafes but as far as social networking and general browsing, the mobile is the device of choice.

And previously in May 2010,  Oluniyi Ajao asked from Accra, Ghana “Are mobile phones pushing cyber cafes out of business?“, where he ends confidently with:

It is clear that mobile phones, are pushing cyber cafes out, the same way public phone booths and “communication centres” have become endangered species. What waits to be seen is how long the few cyber cafes that remain would last. Would they close shop or evolve their business model? Time would tell.

but just a few months before in Sept 2009, Wayan Vota wrote  Cybercafes: Still a vibrant and viable business model with some thoughtful reasons supporting his argument:

Growing, not shrinking, need for public access
Miguel’s point I most disagree with is the suggestion that there is a decreasing need for cybercafes in Africa because of 4P Computing:

Outside of tourists locations, they seem to be drying up everywhere to some degree as more and more of us travel with laptops or at the very least, wifi/highspeed data enabled phones that can do simple browsing anywhere we go.

While he and I may travel with netbooks and iPhones, the majority of Africans do not have such electronica, nor are they buying the expensive data plans that allow for mobile web access. They closely monitor their communication expenses, budgeting for Internet access out of meager daily wages.

Yet more and more business and government services, and professional social capital is moving online. Stores like Rachels’ Bargain Corner and Kenya’s eGovernment initiatives require full-screen Internet access. And with Facebook driving ICT use in Africa, the next professional networks will be virtual, not in person.

So as high-speed Internet and cool new gadgets increase usage by elites, there will be even more need for average Africans to get online, economically, through public access cyber cafes offering Internet access in multiple formats.

More than decline, this is the time to invest in African cybercafes!

So, the question remains unanswered, will the industry shrink or grow in Kenya? (Sept 18th, 2011)

Like any industry, cyber cafes are not all the same. Location matters as does size, speed and the variety of services on offer.  This background work  helps us to frame the broad questions we need to uncover answers to, so as to find the patterns that will help us evaluate the influence and impact of these market forces.

What does that mean? In this specific case, where if we are faced with conflicting information, then one of the key issues to find out will be the cost and ease of access to substitutes i.e. internet enabled mobile phones, cost of data and the patterns of usage behaviour, prevalent in the locale serviced by that cafe.

We’ll also need to dig up the CCK’s research results and then evaluate whether these substitutes are having a greater impact on the highly visible urban locations or is this threat a longer term trend and one that will affect a cybercafe regardless of whether its rural or urban.  And finally, we’ll have to actually get out there and take a closer look  in order to understand what is really happening.

In conclusion: Lessons from The Village Telco project in Kenya

We’ve finally reached the point in our work for Village Telco where there’s been enough time for some reflection after the intense weeks of travel and observations across Kenya.  I can cluster our learning into three broad areas: our approach, methodology and team work; Kenya’s people and the informal economy; and finally, the role of the mobile phone and the internet across the country.

Facebook
Top of mind, what I would really like to do is take a deeper look at all the factors Why a social networking site like Facebook has become so popular – is it like Mxit, a far more affordable and convenient way to stay in touch with extended social networks or are there reasons beyond the obvious?  Given the variance in socio economic backgrounds and education among all those who were active on this platform, I wonder whether there are learnings of value for the larger goals of what ICT can do to enable social and economic development. Instinctively I feel its not Facebook per se that is the critical factor, like a Mxit in South Africa or an Orkut in Brazil, it simply happened to be there. However, given my approach to increasing understanding of a particular demographic or validating a hypothesis, my first principle is to question my own instinct and subsequent assumptions.

Mobile Phones and the Internet
Our assumptions and inferences from the surplus of information and data available on mobile phone use in Kenya, for both online use as well as regular use, were seriously jolted. You could say we had the veil torn from our eyes.  A future post that has been percolating is one that turns my entire thinking about the Mobile and the BoP upside down, from the point of view of “the mobile as a platform for social and economic development” for the individual.

A big realization was that it was technically impossible for people to go online  – if it wasn’t just  the initial peek at Google or Yahoo or what have you – from their mobile device without visiting a cyber cafe (or using a computer) first. If you are a first time internet user and plan to use the mobile as your primary device to check your email and update your status in Facebook, you are unable – at this moment in time – to create your email account, and subsequently your Facebook page, without the use of the personal computer.

The second was that very few of these new internet users were cognizant of the way mobile operators structure the cost of browsing and data bundles. Safaricom, the country’s largest operator, had at least 3 different prices that I’d seen on their billboards and posters – Ksh 4 per minute if you simply went online, Ksh 2 per minute if you sent an sms for data conversion and finally, purchasing a data bundle or browsing package (unlimited by the day or bundle) which brought the cost down further. Thus many reverted back to browsing at cyber cafes where at least one knew what one’s cost would be or could estimate it in advance. Consumer education will be more critical for the uptake of the mobile internet since it is currently not to the benefit of either the operators or the cyber cafes to inform users about their cheaper options.

Kenya is different
We sensed this, we discussed it with Steve Song and we also heard it from others with years of experience of doing business in Sub Sahara. Kenya, as a representative sample of Sub Sahara or even East Africa, is a very different kettle of fish, all in a good way. It wasn’t just luck that most of the cyber cafe owners we met around the country were enterprising, articulate and opportunistic. Neither was it chance that very rarely was I unable to communicate – at least the basics – in English, no matter where we went.

Internet costs, mobile data and voice costs are significantly lower than in most countries and this factor, taken together with the maturity of the urban cyber cafe market and penetration of computing devices – laptops and desktops – meant that this was a very sophisticated market regionally. One cannot generalize our findings for other countries, in fact one would hesitate to do so. Rather, as we discussed with Steve, we’ll take Kenya as a leading indicator of shifts to come in the near future for the rest of the region. For example, VoIP as a service has atrophied into two or three neighbourhoods ever since international calling rates have stabilized at around Ksh 3 a minute (USD 3 cents or thereabouts) on the other hand, wifi is slowly demonstrating its future ubiquity.

However, some other factors would also play a part in this – literacy is at 85% here; what kind of difference does that make when it comes to uptake and popularity of text based communication mechanisms such Facebook, email and of course, the SMS.  Education makes a difference, since most of the time, even when passing by some of the technically most impoverished parts of the country, I kept feeling that it was in far better shape relative to similar locales in India. This is all good and bodes well for the future of the nation and the region – if I had to launch a wholly new product for the Sub Saharan market, I’d select Kenya for an environment with the lowest barriers to the adoption of innovation. The BoP market is sophisticated and mature while still demonstrating the core values and buyer behaviour seen everywhere else I’ve been.

In conclusion
We now have an innate sense of the Kenyan landscape when it comes to ICT: the technology, the internet and the phone. A gut feel for the where and how and why the diffusion is taking place, outward from the urban metro that is Nairobi and an instinct for the pulse of the country’s progress. The critical role of the cyber cafe was made apparent by the focus of this project and our philosophy and methodology in approaching this problem to be solved – answering Steve’s questions – has been validated and refined. For example, we found that the figure for our estimate for proportional penetration of internet between two regions differed from the Kenya ICT Board’s Access Gap Analysis data only by 0.2

We learnt that no two projects will ever be alike and the only certainty is uncertainty. There are no prepackaged ready made solutions or processes for the challenges we’ll face in our chosen line of work, however we’re on the right path for discovering the ways and means to use the tools available at our disposal in order to best address them.

Today, we’re confident enough to put it in writing that if you’re seeking answers to the unknown, in untapped or overlooked markets and when none of the regular methods and frameworks for addressing your marketing, strategy or design needs seem to work – give us a call or drop us a line. I believe we can help you.

Estimating price in unexplored and untapped markets

Mesh Potato by Village Telco, Mombasa, Kenya 12 Oct 2011

In addition to estimating the size and value of the Kenyan cyber cafe industry for our client, Village Telco of Cape Town, South Africa, we were tasked with finding out what would people pay for their product, the Mesh Potato. This challenge was the equivalent of walking up to someone and asking:

How much would you pay for this thing you’ve never heard of and you’re not sure what it does?

We discovered it was through the long rambling conversations we were having with our selected cyber cafe owner operators that we were able to get to this point of being able ask such a question. The conversations allowed us a peek into the way they thought about investing in new technology, and in many ways, reflected back to us the basics of the “BoP” consumer mindset that had already been identified previously.  For example:

Maximizing ROI (return on investment)

When asked what he’d pay for a Mesh Potato, our friend Moses responded with a question, “It depends,  how much money will it make for me?”

That is, as a business owner, his evaluation of the product’s price was intrinsically linked to its ability to generate an income stream. Maximizing the return on the investment is his primary criteria – whether it will save him money or a significant amount of time, and how soon will that possible are all the factors that go into the decision to purchase. His question also implicitly holds the corollary premise of Minimizing Risk.

So rarely was the price seen in isolation but instead it was considered in context of a variety of other factors.  For business owners, their primary value driver was “Is this a source of increased income for me?”

Another factor was that of the need to question assumptions underlying traditional models for assessing pricing – from wikipedia’s entry on the underlying assumptions used in Van Westendorp’s model:

The assumption underlying the Price Sensitivity Meter (PSM) is that respondents are capable of envisioning a pricing landscape and that price is an intrinsic measure of value or utility. Participants in a PSM exercise are asked to identify price points at which they can infer a particular value to the product or service under study. PSM claims to capture the extent to which a product has an inherent value denoted by price.

What if price is not the intrinsic measure of value or utility but long term revenue generation potential is?

Until we are able to gather enough insights over the course of a number of such studies and come up with frameworks customized for a very different operating environment, it will only be through the willingness to question all our assumptions and adjusting our approach that we will be able to make reasonably accurate assessments for these untapped markets.

At the inflection point of high growth to mature plateau

Focus Cyber - the largest one in town, Wote, Kenya 1st Nov 2011

The only other cybers we’d seen this packed till now had been those in Nakuru – a veritable boom town for the industry- since in the past 5 years, the numbers had grown from 10 cybers to the current 77 not including the ones in the process of opening.  Focus Cyber in Wote, in an entirely different province on the other side of the country was the largest among the 5 or 6 cafes in this town among a mostly rural area thats more economically challenged than the other places we’ve seen.

Alex the manager mused upon the future of his business –  it actually struck him during the course of our conversation that the boom had begun suddenly in late 2009, gone on for a while and he felt that it had begun to taper out earlier this year around April or May. In fact, he conjectured, would next year be as good as this one and was the boom period over the business?

This observation inspired us to take a closer look at Wote’s ‘cyber boom’ aka the growth phase on the industry growth curve – here, it was less to do with increasing numbers of cybers the way it was in Nakuru. The push towards increasing use in internet – Alex’s cyber had been the first in town, opening its doors back in 2007 – had been impelled the increasing digitization of Kenya’s institutions – both government offices as well as educational institutions.  A recent spike in business seen by cybers in Wote (we’d also visited another location in town) was in September, just before the national examinations.  Now that examination registration for high school students could only be done online (just like KRA pins and VAT submissions) even teachers were coming into town from remote rural locations to register their students. The town itself had seen parents, students and teachers – the educational system as a whole – go online for a variety of reasons such as exam prep, registration and research, during this period.

Now though there was  directive from on high that all schools were to obtain their own computers and this factor was what made Alex ponder the future of his cyber traffic.  In a very different way from the urban digital plateau and decline seen by the industry in Nairobi, Wote was reaching a saturation point in that anyone who wanted to go online was already going online and there were enough cybers to support the existing business.

Single computer outpost off tarmac on the way to Wote, 1st Nov 2011

In way this could be said to be an inflection point for internet awareness in this region – Elizabeth from the other cyber cafe felt strongly that mobiles were not at all having an impact on their business. Her rationale was that customers found going online with the phone too expensive, approximately 4 Ksh a minute versus the 1 Ksh a minute that was standard in Wote. Only those who came in to town from remote locations were using the phone to browse – they’d stop by the town’s cyber to set up all their browsing needs.

Neither cyber cafe had observed any increase in ownership of personal computers or other devices. The computer and the internet seemed to have found its place in the community, allowing cyber cafes to continue their roles as intermediaries across the digital divide as well as business bureaus and office support services.

The role of the cyber cafe

The only place in town, Maai Mahiu, 24th October 2011

Monica’s cyber in the small town of Maai Mahiu, a market for a primarily rural area, is now the only such facility available. There was another cyber on the other side of the main highway, she said, but it closed within its first year of operation.  Internet access in this locale is available only through 3G and its a poor signal with spotty data performance.  JamFram Cyber Cafe offers the town its only source of business support services – photocopy, lamination, binding, secretarial services as well as 6 desktop computers networked on a 3G router.  When we were there, the electricity was out across the town and she was happy to talk while waiting for the lights to come back. In the half hour we were there, only two customers walked in – one asking for a photocopy, the other to check on his documents given for typing.  The cyber business was slow though she’d noted that mobile requests were increasing – the local phone dealer sending new owners of data enabled phones down to her to help them set up an email account and a Facebook page as well as the settings to permit browsing.

So why would the townspeople call her when she took a slightly longer Christmas holiday earlier this year, making her cut short her intended holiday until the middle of January and return to open shop by the 3rd? Why were they concerned that she might have decided to shut shop like the other cyber which gave up after 5 or 6 months? We were left with the impression that the townspeople would support her business bureau’s continued existence than lose access to her range of services.

We found that the cyber cafe has a role to play in the local community beyond the simple service of walk in to browse the internet. Broadly the roles can be clustered under these main categories:

The cyber as intermediary across the digital divide (ICT)

In people’s minds, ‘Internet’ was associated with the cyber cafe. We heard this over and over from cyber cafe staff that various telco dealers would send across customers facing challenges with the setup of their data enabled phone over to the cyber for help. Or after making the purchase of an internet enabled phone, people would come over to the cyber first – since you cannot set up an email account then make a Facebook page without a computer. Even someone like Jacqueline in Kagumo who was working at the local phone dealer and was saving up for her own laptop and browsed primarily through her phone had to visit the cyber first.

In Malindi, a significant proportion of Salmatech’s customers were the beachboys whom market forces (their international tourist clientele) were forcing onto the internet via email, Skype and Facebook. Necessity drove them to learn how to use the basics of the computer enough so that they could respond to inquiries, communicate and make bookings in advance of the high season – this was critical enough that they would often trade off topping up airtime minutes on their mobiles in order to have money for the cyber’s minutes of use. Here, the cyber was the go to place, even if some of them already owned laptops gifted by tourist friends, to learn and be informed about the hardware, the software and critically, the utility of the internet.

Most cybers offered customers the Kenyan Revenue Authority (KRA) online services for a fee – the facility to get PINs and submit VAT returns online being one of the first egovernment services rolled out nationally. Other such services offered were US Greencard lottery applications, visa application services, registrations for national examinations, even bus ticket bookings when offered online.

But the mediation was not simply between the customer and the internet. Cyber cafes whose operators had a technical background also tended to be full of spare parts and supplies, many offering maintenance and support for hardware in addition to basic services like virus removal, software updates and configuration.

We also found some cybers, particularly those with fixed unlimited access (such via WiMax or DSL), acting as micro ISPs – running cables out to their neighbours for a fixed monthly rate (usually much lower than what the service cost) in order to mitigate the risk of being unable to cover the cost since incomes were otherwise irregular and often unpredictable. But this behaviour, imho, has less to do with their role as an intermediary – though in fact that is what it could said to be – and more to do with coping mechanisms to help manage expenses on volatile cash flows.

The cyber as a training ground

Whether its formal classes offered in basics of computer use or simply the help received from a friendly generous cyber cafe staff or owner, the cyber is most often where learning and practice both online and on the computer takes place.

The cyber as a social place

Primarily seen in locations where there were many young college students, the cyber seems to have become the local hangout. Boy and girls were seen waiting outside for their turn at email or Facebook, chatting with friends, relaxing and mingling with no hurry to get anywhere or do anything in particular. One newish cyber in Kilifi even had an ice cream parlour with cozy tables and chairs in the front half of the spacious store, all decorated in bright colours and visuals.

The cyber as a business bureau

The majority of cybers tend to offer at minimum printing services along with scanning and photocopying depending on their choice of equipment. Most however offer lamination, binding, a variety of typing and basic typesetting services as well. Photo printing, passport photos and mPesa or airtime sales can also be added to increase sources of income but the basic concept of support services tend to default to the local cyber. This role perhaps explains why Monica’s clients were concerned enough to encourage her return to work even if browsing the internet may not have always been their choice of service.

Typesetting or typing services have expanded to include helping students with their research online in some cases, and in places where the internet was not a popular enough service, this facility offered the opportunity to develop a regular clientele of small businesses, local government offices and students to sustain the business.

Patterns of behaviour: trade offs made in time and money

This insight emerged from a conversation we had yesterday with Jane Mbithe, who manages EasySurf cyber  at the Yaya Centre. Reflecting on patterns of behaviour among her high net worth customers who often already possessed the latest laptops and broadband modems, she said it boiled down to the elements of time and money with respect to certain tasks at hand.

The broadband modem is fine for regular browsing (within reason, as I’m discovering, having recently ‘spent’ 35 MB just to find one news article in a regular Google search – majority of websites are far too big and heavy for no discernible reason) but when the time came to download a large document received in email or some other such data heavy activity, the trade off made between cost of 15 minutes at the Ksh 3/min high speed cyber’s facilities to complete this task versus taking far longer (consuming both available data and thus, airtime) using the slower modem or other connection was a no brainer.

I found it fascinating to note this pattern of using the more expensive source that was faster for certain activities being reflected in online activities as I’ve seen this ‘cost/benefit analysis’ manifested around the developing world in kitchens where the choice of cooking fuel is based on the intended task as well. (more expensive LPG to quickly fry an egg versus cheaper charcoal to cook beans slowly). The underlying factor is the motivation to maximize the return on investment in a prepaid source of [what may be required] – whether its electricity in The Philippines or South Africa (where rural stores stock LPG powered refrigerators) or the ubiquitous airtime minutes available on every mobile phone.

In this context, the high speed cyber cafe, though expensive, is analogous to the more expensive but faster LPG versus the slower, cheaper broadband modem (charcoal equivalent).

This observation implies that the purchasing patterns and decision making behaviours already identified have influence regardless of the level of technology or advanced ‘modern’ nature of the purchase, and thus, purchasing power.

Leveraging ignorance vs enabling knowledge

If someone were to purchase a mobile broadband modem but was unaware of data bundles, how quickly would 500 shillings worth of airtime disappear into cyberspace? I’ve been there – not knowing what ‘converting to data’ meant – and going through euros worth of airtime while surfing in Helsinki until the shop assistant gave me a printout of texts to send after uploading in order to enable the unlimited monthly deal for just e 20.

Customers who’d done the same in their ignorance came back to the cyber to surf and I had to bite my tongue not to ask the owner why he hadn’t informed them about data bundles? Why should he lose his captive audience and his regular income stream? Whose responsibility was it to educate new customers of broadband modems about the best way to access the internet or to help set up their phones for browsing?

Was it any surprise that cyber operators were beginning to charge customers for helping them open an email account or set up their Facebook page, since this initialization still required a computer and could not be done through the mobile phone. One such enterprising individual charges 300 shillings to help you browse using your phone if its not genuine.  Even the IDEOS – which apparently sold like hotcakes in Nakuru when it was first launched quickly gained a reputation for gobbling airtime and battery power with its always on services coupled with the lack of awareness among owners on the difference between voice and data airtime rates.

So while awareness of the internet and the knowledge it is able to bring to your fingertips is increasing exponentially  particularly where educational facilities are sprouting and the student population grows, the so called mobile phone internet revolution is stumbling around in ignorance while the cyber cafe industry enjoys the boom.

In the meantime, I wonder if this might have anything to do with the fact that as operators see their data sales increase, their ARPUs are still dropping?