Tomiwa Ibukunle is a 21-year old entrepreneur from Lagos, Nigeria. She started her clothing and accessories company two months ago. Her WhatsApp account is used to promote her products and receive orders from customers. She typically receives 20 orders per day. When WhatsApp experienced an outage globally for eight hours on October 5th, her orders plummeted. “I have just launched my brand and use WhatsApp for Business because I find it easy”, Ibukunle explains and “I was worried when I couldn’t access it. I had just posted the new items I received on my status and sent them to my customers. It’s where my customers are.”
While the outage caused inconvenience for many Facebook users in the US, Europe and elsewhere, it was felt much more severely in other parts of the world where the company and its platforms are absolutely dominant. WhatsApp is used extensively in Nigeria to communicate with family members and friends at home as well as for business purposes. The platform is used by more than 95 per cent of Nigeria’s 33,000,000 social media users. Although it can be convenient to have everyone on one platform, the outage shows Nigeria’s dependence on the app can lead to negative consequences.
WhatsApp is preferred over Instagram Marketplace and Facebook Marketplace when it comes to business. WhatsApp allows customers to search for information about products and services by creating virtual catalogues. Customers trust WhatsApp, which is why it’s so popular among entrepreneurs. “They see the items in real-time as we add them into our status,” says Orji Eke. Orji Eke, a fashion designer, says that there is also a sense of intimacy because we communicate in a private area.
BitSika founder and CEO Atsu Davoh aregues that one company controlling WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook is a time bomb for people who rely almost exclusively on these services. He says that “situations such as these are a strong case for decentralization if we want to look at an actual solution for tomorrow.”
Ayman El Tarabishy, professor at George Washington University, highlights the importance of WhatsApps for small business and microbusinesses: “They are a utility that people use, like electricity, rent and everything to do business. So these small businesses use these platforms as a utility. Therefore, if you take away a utility that’s indispensable for their business, they don’t do any more business. It stops right in there.”
WhatsApp is popular because it has so many users, but there are other options. Alternatives to WhatsApp for Nigerians include Telegram and Signal. These apps offer privacy features not available on WhatsApp, and they have an open-source API. SoftTalk Messenger and other homegrown apps are also available. SoftTalk Messenger offers international calling via the app and also has a shopping option.
This outage has demonstrated that businesses must use customer communication strategy that doesn’t depend on a single centralized app. We tend to forget that centralized systems, however sophisticated they are, have still a single point of failure. If a centralized platform goes down, then everything goes down with it. Facebook will certainly learn from the problem and this kind of outage will proably not happen in the near future.
However, for businesses it’s not only about technology: Attractive options should be available that are comparable to what businesss are used too. Investors should fund local apps, as well as those that are still being developed. This will ensure that there are other options available and communication is possible next time.