Posts Tagged ‘innovation diffusion’

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.

Our two shillings worth on the Kenyan ICT revolution

The World Bank’s Wolfgang Fengler has recently written a blogpost titled “Learning from the Kenyan revolution” referencing the penetration and use of not only ICT devices but also mobile money services. He makes optimistic predictions for the futures, viz.,

What are the lessons of Kenya’s ICT revolution for the broader economy of Kenya and for other countries? First, this revolution is not just for the young tech-savvy programmers that huddle at iHub. ICT is no longer a niche sector of the economy. It has become mainstream and affects virtually every actor and every sector of the economy. It’s misleading to talk about a so-called “new economy” because it has in fact changed the way the old economy is operating. Over the next years, the biggest innovations will probably come from the incubation of technology in “traditional” sectors. The financial sector is already in the midst of this transformation, with mobile money as the most visible sign.

This is truly a revolution on many levels observable and prevalent across socio economic strata – those who may choose set a different bar – without contextual understanding of the local landscape – are welcome to miss the boat when its left the harbour.

From small market towns in rice growing districts (where we’re told 3-5 mobile broadband modems are sold each month) to urban metro malls piloting pay as you surf (by mobile money) wifi hotspots in cafes and restaurants, the internet landscape (the ICT or even mobile landscape even) is rapidly evolving so much so that different parts of  the country display a fragmented distribution on the market maturity curve.

The two urban metros of Nairobi and Mombasa have plateaued (wrt to cyber cafes as the key access point thus leading indicator given their role as gatekeepers to access) and are showing signs of decline even as the number of personal computing devices imported into the country show 100% growth year on year. Increasing policy driven digitization of government and educational services – from tax return pin numbers to examination registration or even booking bus tickets – mean that the smaller population centers are now steeply on the growth curve, with signs in certain provinces that this diffusion will only spread further outward.

Couple this with more and more affordable and ubiquitious smartphones and data enabled handsets, those who otherwise wouldn’t require either computers or the internet for their work, are now going online due to the pull of social networks like Facebook. For an extremely socially connected and communicative society, this fact alone is driving data sales for mobile operators as the Facebook generation goes online – Kenya has an 85% literacy rate and the median population is in their mid teens.

Is it changing the way people do business or is it a revolution quite unlike one that could have emerged from Silicon Valley or Bangalore? I do believe so – as the critical mass of mPesa users as well as dropping costs level the playing field, enterprise level solutions traditionally the purview of large corps like an Oracle or a SAP such as payroll management and real time inventory control, are migrating – cheaply and effectively – on to the mobile platform, able to reach the hitherto unconnected or unbanked on irregular income streams such as manual laborers or the tiniest village kiosk.

It is this shift where the mobile platfom innovation will truly revolutionize – it has yet to occur in a more “tech” oriented India, but it won’t be long before these cost effective and technologically relevant solutions to securely pay farm labour by phone without trucking cash into fields yet being able to manage wages for 5000 or more migrate to the Indian environment. The solutions make too much sense not to consider them, perhaps the next leapfrogging will be over the desktop/mainframe divide.

The caveat however is that we should not assume that people will go online the same way we do in our broadband nations with unlimited bandwidth and years of contextual knowledge not to mention the plethora of relevant content, nor should we assume that the observed ICT revolution would necessarily follow any previously mapped trajectory of other regions or technology clusters. The environment is in extreme flux yet it is this plasticity that also makes it an extremely inviting opportunity for innovation in services , with all the potential for positive change that yet-to-be crystallized environments imply.

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.