The unceasing foray of mobile applications into the business terrain in Nigeria is giving owners of some small scale business a tough time, writes TOFARATI IGE
Within five minutes, Adejoke Badru hissed more than 15 times. Her business has been experiencing a lull for some time. It was past 3pm and she hadn’t even made sales of N3,000 on that day. Badru sells recharge vouchers and SIM modules close to a local government headquarters in the Iyana-Ipaja area of Lagos.
Two years ago, Badru recalled that she would have made sales of about N15,000 or N20,000 by that time of the day. She was particularly worried because as a single mother, she singlehandedly pay the school fees of her only son. The boy resumed school a few weeks ago, but for the first time, she defaulted on the payment of the school fee.
She told our correspondent that she usually paid her child’s school fees within the first week of resumption. As a result of her track record, the school gave her a consideration by not sending her son home.
“But apparently, their patience seemed to becoming overstretched. The school recently sent me a memo ‘advising’ me to pay the tuition within a week of receiving the letter or my child may not have the privilege of attending classes again until I pay.
“Back in the day whenever I needed extra money for any project, all I had to do was stay in the shop beyond 8pm. That always worked like magic, because the area also has a vibrant night life,” she stated.
She added that she had stayed in her shop later than 8pm on many occasions with the hope that she would make more sales but was only able to sell N800 worth of recharge vouchers.
“The rate at which people buy recharge cards has dropped. I used to think I was the only one experiencing this until my friends from other parts of Lagos complained about the same problem. To worsen matters, the number of people that come to my shop has reduced drastically.
“I asked a male customer, who used to buy at least N2,000 worth of recharge cards from me daily, why he no longer patronises me. He told me that he now recharges his mobile through his bank. That was when I discovered that many things they can always do in my shop can be done online. Many of them just do it on their phones or computers these days,” she said.
Badru explained that the profit on the business isn’t much as she makes N10 on N200 voucher and less depending on the value of the voucher.
The advent of mobile apps for recharge vouchers, cabs, food and household items, among others, has continued to deplete the sales people like Badru make from their small scale business ideas.
Gale of frustration
Like Badru, a retired immigration officer identified only as Mrs. Akinusimi, is also into recharge cards business. The woman sat in front of her shop staring into the sky. Her concentration was so deep that she didn’t know when our correspondent walked into her shop.
The “good evening ma” salutation from THE ECONOMIC TIMES was what seemingly jolted her into consciousness.
She stated, “I was deep in thought; I did not even notice when you walked into the shop. There is no electricity supply and that’s why I decided to sit outside to enjoy some fresh air. I’m even happy to see you because this place has been boring all day.”
Akinusimi didn’t mince words when she said the downturn in her business was giving her concern.
“I have been selling recharge vouchers for about 10 years and I can tell you that the situation has never been this bad. It’s as if someone commanded people to stop buying airtime. I accused some of my customers of patronising other people, and some of them said they usually top-up their phones online whenever they run out of airtime,” she explained.
She stressed that she was considering quitting the business for other profitable ventures.
It is not only those regarded as petty sellers of recharge cards that are complaining. The big-time sellers do too.
Mrs. Raji is a major dealer in recharge cards who started selling cards since 2007. She also had lots of customers.
“Before this time, I used to sell N40, 000 worth of cards per day. Even when other sellers added N10 or N20 to the amount they sold each card, I always sold it at a fixed price. That was one of the reasons I had many customers, but some of my competitors even thought I used juju,” she said giving the background of her boom era.
“I realised a long time ago that in recharge card business, the best way to make good profit is to sell lots of cards, because the amount you make on each card is pitifully small; as low as N5.”
Raji, however, said her business strategies seemed not to be working again as her customers keep reducing daily. “These days, I find it difficult to sell N10, 000 worth of cards in two days,” she said. She wasn’t unaware of the impact of mobile recharge on the business but felt there could be a way to keep afloat.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises contribute a lot to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
A national MSMEs survey conducted by the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency and the NBS also showed that there was an increase in the number of SMEs by over 100 per cent between 2010 and 2013.
SMEDAN said its survey showed that MSMEs recorded an increase of 17.2 million in 2010 to 37 million in 2013. The survey is the most recent report on SMEs, implying that there could have been an increase in four years since it was conducted.
Recharge cards bottlenecks
Many people had inadvertently peeled off a number or more on paper vouchers while scratching the silver coating protecting the recharge numbers. Though there are help lines to call based on the network provider to rectify the mistake, many cannot endure the cumbersome process and as a result, lose the cards especially when the value is deemed inconsequential.
Sometime in April, this writer bought a recharge voucher of N1,000. While trying to peel off the silver outer layer, some numbers got scratched away too. Luckily, our correspondent was still in the shop where he bought the card.
After explaining what happened to the female vendor, she said, “You should have told me to scratch the card for you. There’s a special technique we use when peeling it. Personally, there is nothing I can do. But you can call the customer care of the network. They should be able to rectify the situation.”
Upon calling the helpline as advised, the polite call agent, who answered the call, directed our correspondent to call out the serial numbers. After doing that, the voice requested the remaining visible numbers and despite obeying the order, the response was, “I’m sorry. You would have to visit any of our service centres to get this issue sorted out.”
The above scenario, among several other time-wasting reasons, are traceable to why tech-conscious people no longer find buying airtime vouchers attractive.
Also, a part three History and Diplomatic Studies student of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, Olanrewaju Hamzat, said printed vouchers were going out of circulation because the world had gone digital.
Describing as stress free buying cards online, Hamzat added that he had to walk miles to look for credit vouchers on campus.
Hamzat said, “With the advent of electronic top-up, things have been made a lot easier for me. Now, I can recharge my phone at anytime, even 3am without any stress. Almost all my friends recharge their phones electronically too except when they’re broke and they don’t have money in their bank accounts. Even then, they would just borrow credit from the network provider and pay up when they have the funds. Life has really been made easier.”
Justification from the telcos
Responding to a question on whether Airtel is making more sales now that subscribers have the option of recharging their phones electronically, the firm’s Chief Commercial Officer, Ahmad Mokhles, told THE ECONOMIC TIMES that electronic recharge was about customers’ convenience and not necessarily about shoring up revenues and ‘making money.’
He said, “With electronic recharge, the customer can recharge his or her line at any location, any time of the day. It is also important to note that direct recharge through customers’ bank accounts is a variant of electronic recharge, and it supports the Federal Government’s cashless policy as it eliminates the need for the exchange of cash for recharge card.”
On whether the banks offering the service make any profits, Mokhles said the banks did not buy airtime from Airtel. “We have distributors and channel partners who engage the banks. Expectedly, we offer discounts to our channel partners and distributors. So, the channel partners and distributors, as middle men, are in the best position to address your question of what the banks get paid for the service they offer,” he added
On the feedback the firm has been getting from retailers of recharge vouchers, the CCO described it as great.
He stated, “The recharge voucher vendors (retailers) have embraced electronic recharge, which they sell through specified SIM cards, POS terminals and mobile apps. A typical retailer that sells airtime in combination with biscuits, drinks and other items is now transiting to become a ‘digital retailer.’ By digital retailer, I mean customers can do a number of things at his retail point. For instance, they can do other bill payments such as prepaid and postpaid power payment, pay TV subscription, Lotto, betting, etc at same retail point. And the good news is that electronic recharge is the foundation block for this transition.”
Meanwhile, efforts made to get the comments of MTN and Glo were abortive. Their spokespersons didn’t reply to the emails and text messages sent a week after receiving them despite repeated calls to remind them of the enquiries.
Same punches for cab operators
The time was 4am. There were about 10 different cars – some painted in yellow and others unpainted — parked in front of a popular nightclub on Victoria Island, Lagos. Most of the drivers slept on the car bonnets, while others discussed among themselves.
A young man and a lady, who appeared to be in their 20s, approached one of the drivers. After a few minutes, the duo went into the club. About 15 minutes later, an ash Toyota Corolla parked close to the gate of the club. Shortly after, the lovebirds came out from the club and entered the vehicle which sped off immediately.
Our correspondent, who was heading for Iyana Ipaja, later walked up to the cab driver who the duo spoke with earlier. “I can manage N7,000,” the driver said.
After intense haggling, he reduced the price to N4,000. The cab driver, identified as Baba Dami, said as the journey progressed, “You’re my first customer since last night. I should have been on my fifth trip for the night if things are alright, but now, I am struggling to get just one customer.
“A boy and girl came to me a few minutes ago, and when I told them the price of where they were going, they didn’t even bother to haggle. The girl just told her friend that they should call Uber. A car came to pick them shortly after the call.”
It is a fact that transport-finding apps such as Uber and Taxify are fast gaining ground in the country. After installing the apps on one’s mobile, one can call for a cab by simply logging in. The charges are reasonable as it is calculated based on the trip duration. The cars have been tested and certified okay. The service also used to be safe because their drivers were believed to have been screened to determine their fitness.
The gain of Uber is the taxi drivers’ pain. Many of the conventional taxi drivers are old and not technological savvy. Many of them feel the advent of those apps-driven services has disrupted their business.
A taxi driver at Ogba Taxi Park, who gave his name as Baba Ayo, told SUNDAY PUNCH that drivers were really feeling the brunt of hard times. He noted that with ‘those things’ commuters passengers used on their phone, many people no longer patronised taxi parks anymore.
“Even the prices charged by ‘those phone things’ are not realistic. I just pity the people who are rushing to them. A time is coming that they would increase their fares. And by that time, people wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, because they would have killed the competition. They just want to destroy the taxi business, which many of us are using to take care of our families,” Baba Ayo added.
Also, a younger cab driver, identified as Tunde, who works in same unit with Baba Ayo, noted that the effects of technology on anything should be viewed in both positive and negative ways.
He added, “On the negative side, it has seriously affected our business with about 40 per cent drop in passenger traffic. There is nobody among us (cab drivers) that would say he’s not feeling the pain.
“On the other hand, this should push us, cab drivers, to develop ourselves. One must always move with the times because things are forever changing. If you don’t know and don’t ask what your mates are doing to succeed; you will continue to move around in circles without achieving anything. As for me, I have already registered my vehicle with one of those apps so that I don’t lose out totally. I will be getting passengers from the park, coupled with the ones I’d get through the app. I only pray that it will increase my income.”
For fashion enthusiast and IT consultant, Abiola Metilelu, prefers Uber and Taxify to the regular cabs.
Metilelu stated, “I usually take Taxify cabs. I have patronised them more than 10 times and I am satisfied with their services. They are very fast and cost effective. They are better than normal cabs. They have working air conditioners and are more comfortable. Most of the drivers are also literate. I have never had to worry for my safety while in their cabs. It is a very wonderful innovation and to continue using it.”
Many passengers enjoy the new cab innovations especially as they only need to book a cab on their mobiles from anywhere even in the comfort of their rooms.
Mobile apps taking over
Another sector that has been affected negatively by the sweeping gale of online shopping is the food market. Because people must eat every day, it’s almost guaranteed that any restaurateur, who sells decent food, will make ample profit.
Lydia Etuk was one of the people that had made a killing in the food industry. Her restaurant, located in the Egbeda area of Lagos, catered to the culinary needs of hundreds of people on a daily basis. But she has noticed that the numbers are dropping.
She said there was a big firm close to where she operated and the employees always patronised her. “For a while, I haven’t been seeing them as often as I used to. I wasn’t even keen on reading any meaning to why it is so. Some days ago, I came across one of my loyal customers in the company. He was the one who told me that many of his colleagues now order their breakfast and lunch on the Internet,” Etuk said.
According to her, the man told her that instead of his colleagues walking or driving through three streets to get to my shop, they simply place their orders online, and an online food vendor supplies them promptly.
She further told our correspondent that the online food vendor’s location was even farther than her shop but because the workers could order their food without leaving their work stations, they found it more convenient.
But she was not ready to be chased out of business as she was planning to buy a bus for food delivery in order to compete favourably.
Michael Babalola is a socially-active person. Well known in his school, neighbourhood and everywhere he went. He organised a party earlier in July and even though some of his friends teased him that nobody would attend the party because there wasn’t much time and awareness, over 200 people graced the event.
The surprising and interesting thing was that he didn’t have to pay for any advertisement or print invitation cards. He didn’t go on radio either or appear on TV.
Babalola told THE ECONOMIC TIMES that with his laptop, phone and internet connection, he was able to create awareness for the party. He took to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to constantly talk about the event and get people curious about it.
He said, “Sometimes, I added jokes to the updates and people would repost them, thus reaching much more people. I also enlisted the support of my friends who reposted and shared my posts.’’
Much as Babalola was thrilled by the use of technology as a replacement for handbills etc in creating publicity, a printer, Mr. Taiwo Durotimi, is not excited by online advertisements.
“These days, people just design attractive flyers. They no longer bother to print. They put it on Facebook and everybody instantly knows about it. I love social media and gained many things from it, but I don’t like the effect it is having on my business,” he said.
Durotimi pointed at two closed stores adjacent to his operated by his colleagues. He added that they no longer bother to open the shops daily since business was dull. “The people that mostly patronise us are churches and the quantities they print have reduced,” he stated.
All that glitters is not gold
Though the convenience associated with online apps is indescribable, it is not devoid of demerits.
There have been cases of customers not getting exactly what they ordered. A pained client took to her Instagram page recently to show her followers the picture of the dress that she ordered and what was eventually delivered to her. By no stretch of the imagination, did they look alike.
In the area of cab operation, there were reported cases where apps-driven drivers raped, insulted and stole from their passengers. But notwithstanding the few negative incidents, the popularity of such initiatives is getting robust by the day.
Besides, there are concerns that those who don’t engage in physical chores may become idle thereby leading to obesity.
A recent statistics found out that two out of every three Americans is obese. Obesity is also said to lead to 100 preventable deaths every year in the US. Some people believe that the same situation may manifest soon in Nigeria.
This is because the ‘fast food’ age, ignited by mobile apps for nearly everything, is rendering many people inactive. With a push of some phone buttons, everything is executed on-the-go.
What the experts say
An economist, Mr. Kunle Ezun, believed that technology had more good to offer. He said the nation was moving in tandem with technology and everybody should realise it.
Ezun stressed that the innovations were positively impacting on business initiatives and the larger economy.
He added, “One cannot also deny that these developments are taking away the jobs of small scale business owners and young entrepreneurs. For example, people selling recharge cards have been affected. People who also serve as agents for the payment of certain utility bills have also been sidelined, as one can now do those things online.
“However, our focus, in the long run, should be on the positive impact it would have on the economy. For example, a lot of people don’t need to move around with cash to do businesses anymore and this has made a lot of people to feel more secure and safer. You can also transact business on any day of the week and at any time you please.”
He also advised small scale business owners to be sync with the technology having discovered that it was affecting their business.
Ezun noted, “Apply as much of that technology as you can to your job to make yourself more relevant. I know of one or two persons that have moved away from just recharging phones physically. A lot of banks have even offered SMEs the choice of becoming vendors for the banks, and that is actually moving their business a step further. I don’t think this will lead to higher unemployment figures; it’s only lazy people that wouldn’t have anything to do.
“Technology comes with a lot of opportunities; as a business person, you should position yourself in a way that you can tap as much benefits as possible. By thinking outside the box, one can get better business ideas and higher income with the deployment of technology. I believe technology would actually empower people to do more.”
Another economist, Mr. Johnson Chukwu, was also of the opinion that technology was creating more jobs.
“Advancement in technology is serving as both enabler and disrupter in the business world generally, not just for small and medium-scale enterprises, ’’ he added.
Saying information technology was disrupting the business of people, who sell airtime, he added that it was also creating new business opportunities for others.
Chukwu stated that there were new business ideas springing up daily because of technology, which, at the same time, equally reducing the cost of doing business.
He added, “For example, if before, you needed to move from Ikeja to Lagos Island to buy some things; now, you can place orders for the goods (and have them delivered) right from your phone without having to move an inch. That would obviously reduce the cost of doing business, because that transportation money can be spent on another aspect of the business.”
He further urged entrepreneurs to innovative constantly, saying shunning technology could destroy their business, hence the need for them to be dynamic and proactive.
Speaking on the notion that most SMEs don’t have the wherewithal to invest in new business models, Chukwu said, “The taxi aggregator system, Uber, was just an idea in the mind of one man. He got people to invest in the business, and look at where he is now. Most big companies today started with concepts and ideas on how to cater to human needs. Once you can meet people’s needs, it means you are creating value, and that would attract the income you would need to take it further.”
Chukwu argued that it was not always that people must spend lots of money before starting a business, adding that there were ample business ideas that could be started and sustained via mobiles