OTT (Old-Timers Trembling?)

The most recent uproar in Kenya has something to do with Uber taxis. The “old style” cabbies have been up in arms protesting this new enemy, some have even threatened violence. Apparently, they are losing customers to the new kid on the block. One guy on Twitter asked us (customers) to feel a little sorry for the poor cabbies who purchased cars on loans and now have to contend with this threat.  He told us “I wish some of you had a cab with a loan on it and were the ones being disrupted by Uber, then you see how the shoe fits”. Well, nobody bought into these sentiments. Analogies were drawn based on this. Should horse and carriage owners have been spared the onslaught that automobiles brought? Should we ban soya production so that dairy milk farmers are protected?

I for one could not feel sorry for the old cabbies in Kenya. The typical Kenyan cabby has this habit of answering your call, promising you that he will be at your location in the next 5 minutes. Then, 55 minutes later, when you make the 7th call, he swears (again) that he is just entering your street. I have been waiting for a solution to this maddening service quality and it has been a long time coming – yes, mean as it sounds, I am going to sit back and relax now. If such a guy has a car loan, then he has been comfortably paying installments despite his crappy service. Now that something threatens him, I am supposed to feel sorry for him, how convenient! Nothing beats the sweetness of a new alternative.

Taxis aside, this whole question of disruption reminded me of the OTT problem that a lot of CSPs are facing or will soon be facing. I am an employee in a CSP and I truly feel sorry for operators in this part of the world (Africa) who plod on without seeing the threat ahead. However, I hasten to add, my commiserations do not, by any means, deter me from using OTT products. I am in fact a very happy OTT customer. Perhaps CSPs will just have to figure out differentiated service offerings to enable them to take advantage of OTT services. I would not mind a data bundle that I can just use for my OTT yearnings and which is subjected to some creative billing model. I suppose we shall just have to wait and see if CSPs play this game… or will they attempt to block it?

Adapt or perish is the mantra to bear in mind.  Disruption is mostly a good thing for the consumer. What if we had not disrupted the old steam engines? What if we had protected the rail service and shuttered the world against the commercial aviation age?  Supposing PCs were not allowed to support word processing in order to protect typewriter manufacturers?  Theoretically, the incumbent, in all the above cases would have done very well commercially and the consumers would have been stuck with products and services that were really not the best of that time. However, we all know that nothing can stop the onward march of the inventions that the human mind is capable of.

This brings to mind a town in Kenya named Narok. It was built in the path of water and so every year, the town is assaulted by serious flash floods. Everybody knows what the problem is but in our characteristic head-in-sand pose, we keep ignoring the annual perilous rite. The town is simply in the way of something so powerful that no wall can save it; no barrier can stand against the fury of water, no amount of ignoring will lessen the deluge. The photograph above exemplifies what happens to this town – even the latrines collapse into the soft wet soil.

Innovation and competition are like those flood waters – nothing can be sheltered against such a force. I suspect Narok town will one day just have to be relocated or it will remain stunted, a shell of a town with no productivity to speak off. Certainly if it rains, even in years to come, the waters will rush by, in their determined path and anything on the way will be swept downstream.  And that is how it is with innovation too – it is human nature to innovate and to seek better, easier ways to meet our needs. To block that is simply an exercise in futility.

My view is that operators are just going to have to think smarter. I have no smart solutions myself. What I do know is that I am going to sit back and see all you smart folks figure out how to fix this. My simplistic analysis is that the final solution will be along the lines of OTT providers and telcos realizing that they are on the same side – they both seek to provide what customers need – and if they can shake hands, they can all make some money. If not, somebody will have to be edged out a little… or a lot. Bets are welcome.

The image of a collapsed latrine block was shared by the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance using a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. The Sustainable Sanitation Alliance works toward creating sanitation solutions for everybody, and hence reducing the 2 million deaths that sanitation-related diseases cause every year.

Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu is a consultant who specializes in revenue assurance. He is currently contracted as Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom's operation in Tanzania, having previously served in the same role at Vodacom Mozambique.

Before his work with Vodacom, Joseph was an internal audit manager for Airtel, with responsibility that covered their 17 countries in Africa. Whilst at Airtel, Joseph led reviews of the Revenue Assurance, Customer Service and Sales & Marketing functions.

Prior to his stint at Airtel, Joseph was an RA manager at Safaricom in Kenya. He holds an MSc Degree in Information Systems.