A lot has been said about Safaricom. A lot of it negative. From the onslaught it is facing from its vocal competitors, to the not so nice perception that many Kenyans seem to have of it, it seems only fair that someone should step up and say something on its behalf. Safaricom has been accused of many things, namely: unfair market practices, unfairly using its position as a dominant player in the industry, charging prohibitive rates for cross network calls, charging excessively for data and internet access, a congested and unclear network, ridiculously poor customer service, unreasonable delays in paying suppliers and partners, stealing ideas etc etc.
However, on the other hand, let’s look at what Safaricom has done for itself and for this country, and what it continues to do. Have we forgotten that Safaricom entered this industry as an underdog? Those were the days when the King of the Mobile phone sector was Kencell, and what shortsightedness, arrogance and haughtiness this king displayed. Kencell made it clear from the beginning that they were not here for the ‘small man’. I still remember a press conference where they stated that their main focus was high end and corporate customers. Correct me if I’m wrong, but at that time their lowest denomination of scratch card was 300 bob or something like that. They had a dominant presence, their brand was well recognized, they were evidently and apparently the leaders. Then came in Safaricom, who no one thought much of. They made it clear that their focus was the common man, you and me. They made it easier and cheaper for Kenyans to acquire a sim card. They gave deals on cheaper handsets. They were the first to produce a scratch card for one hundred bob. I once remember some people remarking that Safaricom was the poor man’s network, and if you had dough, you would be on Kencell. Safaricom lowered their scratch card denominations even further, to 50 bob, 20 bob, and finally to 5 shillings. They invested heavily in this country, spending billions on infrastructure and technology. I was in rural Tharaka-Nithi sometime this year, standing on a hill overlooking a vast and hilly expanse, and the only thing higher than me was a massive Safaricom booster, out there seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They created thousands of jobs, directly through their own staff, and through retailers, suppliers, agents, distributors and partners. They kept a policy of re-investing their profits right here at home. At this time their main competitor Kencell, was busy having itself sold off to Celtel.
Safaricom was not finished. They went ahead to roll out M-Pesa, which put Kenya on global map as a leader in mobile phone innovation, earning us recognition and admiration. The overwhelmingly positive effect that M-Pesa had on Kenyans cannot be exaggerated, and the enormous amounts of money conveniently sent and received through M-Pesa everyday to every corner of this country has had an effect that would require a whole other article to be written. Safaricom was the first to roll out 3G, and they paid a hefty license fee, millions of dollars, to the GoK for that. They are currently planning to roll out 4G, which will make us among the priviledged few countries in the WHOLE world to experience this service. What was Kencell, sorry, Celtel up to at this time? They were hiring, and then firing their staff en masse, and then they got themselves sold to Zain. Safaricom also came up with the Okoa Jahazi service, where people could actually borrow airtime. Before this they had been the first to come up with Sambaza, to share airtime from one phone to another. Recently they launched M-Kesho in partnership with Equity, which looks set to bank millions of unbanked Kenyans, and give them access to micro-finance, through their cell phones.
I could go on and on with the good good about Safaricom. But let me state that Safaricom still has a lot to improve on, and they should not become arrogant or complacent. And I salute the efforts of the current competitors, Zain, Yu and Orange, for helping to bring down calling and sms rates so drastically, and for making the market exciting.
But we should give Safaricom their due credit and gratitude. And when they make record profits, it is ridiculous for us to criticize them. What is the aim of a business, I ask? They should make even larger profits; it’s about time we had a company in Africa with billion dollar profits.
So let’s see how the mobile wars play out. My money is on Safaricom.