Many enterprises, big and small, failed to do business this past Monday when one of the biggest telecommunication and mobile money company’s systems failed. They account for a major portion of transactions in payments as well as communications, and their struggle for the majority of that day crippled other businesses in turn in a classic domino effect.
Dealers in fresh produce and fresh food were especially hard hit, and most had to throw away food that customers wanted and could not pay for as they had money in their mobile money accounts, and no way to move it to bank accounts.
Neither could they call friends and family to send them money to the bank accounts as calling and short messaging services were also down.
Only those who were on WhatsApp and were default users of the mobile money app, which was working, got round the situation. They were but a minority, and likely urban or peri-urban dwellers.
In rural Zimbabwe, there was literally no movement of mobile money.
Technology is a wonderful thing for business, provided it is working. These preconditions are often (conveniently) forgotten when pushing the narrative of ICT disrupting everything.
Indeed, promoters of such large technology companies must be aware of their responsibility and aim for near perfect uptime, but we must note that they too lost revenue from voice calls and transaction costs that day as alternatives were used where possible.
The outcry was huge because many businesses depend on mobile money working for them to process payments — either way — paying or receiving. It is easy to point fingers as them as having failed, but, like the mid-January incident of the internet shutdown, this is another case of things business owners must deal with that are beyond their control. Small business owners walked away from that experience with useful lessons.
Firstly, always have options. Do not build your entire business model on things that you do not have control over. Always have options. In reality there are two other mobile money services available. Use them. There are also physical card and online transfer options.
Granted, these have less users but on the day selling something was better than selling nothing!
Secondly, think on your feet and ask questions. When the mobile money service went down, it was really only the short and long codes that would not work. The related internet supported application was working well.
In a connected world it would have made sense to ask others if they had found a fix, then use it. The internet was up, thank heavens; so a simple tweet or Facebook post would have yielded a response that would allow for the crowdsourcing of quick solutions.
In this case, even if customers did not have the application, shops that have wifi would have quickly made wifi available and informed them to download the app — and for those without, made devices available that customers could put their SIM cards in and pay. Minor time inconvenience yes, but both seller and buyer would emerge happy. The same amount of time was spent whining online, anyway!
Third, it is important to have solid relationships. Great businesses keep databases of repeat customers for enterprises that do daily/weekly deliveries and this can be converted to security for short term credit.
The same would have worked in securing product for on-selling from suppliers, that was the day to ask for short term credit to enable consistency to loyal customers.
Making excuses is not enough the true entrepreneur is an innovator who takes risks! Fourth, rather than record complete losses, the downtime was an opportunity to give — either selling at a discount for credit to big off-takers — for example a fast food company could have rung a bank to say we will offer your staff lunch and half the price (hopefully recovering your cost price) and you can pay us later; or donated to a nearby school, orphanage, church then record that as part of corporate social responsibility.
Finally, this week highlighted once again what we consistently write on in this column, that it is not enough to have a quality product, and the best type of branding, the bottom line of business is profit, therefore there must of necessity be an economic model that supports that.
The high density area business models are instructive, often the owners will be unlearned folk, with barely any business training.
The product or service will not be branded or packaged fancy but they will have a consistent stream of customers and close sales because they will have gotten it right on the business model.
Many of them there understand the power of pricing, particularly per unit, and how volumes and consistency matter.
The real entrepreneur by definition takes risks constantly, and is a problem solver.
In Zimbabwe, there will always be problems to solve — power, payments, connectivity, currency are always topical issues.
One cannot expect everything to be perfect for them to do well, in fact bona fide entrepreneurs tolerate ambiguity and are fuelled by working around difficulties. Perhaps the simple answer lies if re-defining oneself, as per the submissions of Dr Lucia Mandengenda — that those that are energized by problems and inclined to solve them and make profit are the entrepreneurs and innovators.
Those that simply want to make some money, take care of their families and not really grow beyond a certain level are the small business owners.
A certain level of innovation will be required by either party though they may differ at scale. Be deliberate about adopting an innovation mind-set, as it can yield new products and services that will give you increased revenue.
Business growth will then follow as innovation also improves productivity and efficiency.
As we are in the last month of the first quarter, anticipating no further major announcements, business owners will have to reflect on how they can make their enterprises run better and grow. Review products, processes and people. Let go of non-functional products, or refine them. Relook processes and cut out the unnecessary.
Revisit the people, and see whether you need all of them on board all of them time. Spare nothing, for innovation need not happen at a grand scale to impact the business. The best way to do this is always with the present team, co-creation always gets the best ideas out and buy in from the get go.
Make innovation the company focus in this quarter and you may just re-energize your team and your business.