Zimbabwe’s failed WhatsApp ban just exposed the mobile operator’s struggle with innovation


…just removing WhatsApp bundles won’t work (subscribers would still use IM) so banning OTT services like WhatsApp might just be what these operators will consider.

If it is presented as an alternative from the operators, the Government, through the Ministry of Finance (which is receiving lower taxes from the operators) would gladly sign off on that. This would be a decision based on revenue and preserving an industry that has contributed significantly to state coffers.  Besides, we wouldn’t be the first country to do this.

That was something we published in September last year. We were rightfully slammed for mounting nothing more than a speculative argument with a sensational suggestion. Nobody in their right minds would want to ban WhatsApp.


We were wrong. It’s not the government that wants WhatsApp banned, it’s actually the mobile operators and the issue is less about reduced taxes and more about struggling with innovation.

At the e-Tech Africa 2016 Conference, the minister of ICT, Supa Mandiwanzira revealed how the government rejected a proposal presented by the country’s mobile operators to explore the possibility of banning or stifling Over the Top (OTT) services like WhatsApp, Skype and Viber.

This regulatory intervention was supposed to help the operators deal with the declining voice revenues in telecoms that have been accelerated by the same OTT services.

Mandiwanzira says the government turned down this suggestion and instead, encouraged the operators to view this as an opportunity to encourage young Zimbabweans to develop local solutions that can rival the Silicon Valley OTT services while generating revenue that can benefit the country. This is what led to the telecoms operators’ commitment to a fund that will support Zimbabwean app developers.

Innovation isn’t that easy

So far this revelation has led to a harsh criticism of local mobile operators and the public has chastised these rich telecoms companies for failing to innovate around technology, opting instead to lobby for the ban of services that have added so much value to the lives of  people.

Thanks to the Minister’s disclosure, the “villainous” nature of mobile operators has been exposed and their efforts to stop the inevitable, or as my colleague would call it, “standing in the way of technology’s natural progression”, have been made clear.

As a consumer, I agree with this line of thought. Rather than lobby for the ban of WhatsApp, Skype, or any other disruptive OTT service, telecoms operators should be figuring out the best way to make something out of the unfolding opportunities presented by mobile broadband services.

Aren’t there enough resources in the national telecoms operators’ war chests to figure out smart solutions that can, at least, stem the tide of communications disruption while maintaining the services that we all enjoy? After all, they did that with social media bundles, right? They should have an idea of what to do next.

The reality, though, is that these operators are responding to changes that they never anticipated, whose effects they can’t control. The request for the ban, or regulation is, as has been the case in countries like Morocco and most recently South Africa, a way to contain the damage. That hardly justifies it, but it puts the request into context.

Service re-engineering and the development of new revenue centres don’t happen that easily, especially within organisations that are not grounded in innovation. Our mobile operators are certainly not built to respond in that way, opting instead to adopt external solutions before adapting them to local conditions.

The innovation required certainly doesn’t happen when it’s prompted by sudden changes to the status quo. This same spirit of sudden disruption is an extension of all new age technologies and is, in some sense, analogous to what we are seeing with on-demand services like Airbnb and Uber that are upending service lines that have existed for generations.

There is no quick solution that can save that situation, and least of all from the providers of the traditionally sound, cash spinning business models.

Mobile network operators are unfortunately stuck in the middle of a similar industry metamorphosis storm which has been accelerated by the very same technologies that they have always wanted to deliver to subscribers.

Over the years, they have invested fortunes in expanding and improving the delivery of stable services like voice communication while also ploughing into the future through broadband services investments which are now, ironically, rendering their cash cows irrelevant.

It’s a dramatisation of the internet and technology’s two-faced nature. If you capture it and use it to provide a solution, it will accelerate your service’s growth and development and by riding that wave successfully you will be rewarded handsomely. However, the same wave that elevates you can just as easily wipe you out, making way for a new solution that makes you redundant.

Mobile operators had their golden years – opening us to voice communication and literally placing the key to the digital age in the palm of our hands. They have (at a very high cost to the consumers) brought communication and knowledge to people’s fingertips and are still redefining the possibilities of financial inclusion faster than would have been possible in our lifetimes.

In the process, they built up new industries and tore down others, upturning services that had enjoyed a firm place in people’s lives. It’s a script that the postman, phone shop worker, internet cafe owner and retail banker know too well. Now it’s the telecoms operators’ turn to be the star of the show.

It’s hard to say just how quickly mobile telecoms will be outpaced by OTT services. With the slow adoption of mobile broadband and regulators that aren’t as vigilant about the cost of data, even the least dynamic operator is guaranteed to survive for an extensive period as people still hold on to “outdated, low entry technology” like voice communication and SMS.

At the same time, you never know how the next lobby effort plays out. If the people with the final say at the time aren’t as forward minded or politically savvy, we just might get WhatsApp banned. For now, let’s just be glad that it’s just a passing debate on telecoms innovation and sensational suggestion.

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