On the 15th of this month, Econet subscribers received the following SMS: “Dear Customer, Be advised of the planned Ecocash System upgrade from 9 pm on 16 November to 9 pm on 17 November. Service will be unavailable. Apologies for the inconvenience”. This was not in any way indicative of impending issues; actually most people were appreciative of the effort Econet had put in to communicate in good time.

The planned upgrade went ahead as scheduled and early morning on the 18th they broadcast the following SMS: “Please be advised that the Ecocash system upgrade has been completed successfully. All Ecocash services have been restored. Live Life the Ecocash Way”. However, things began to take a turn as it emerged that the Ecocash airtime service was down. In this article, I will narrate what happened along with insights or lessons worth drawing from this recent incident.

Ecocash Airtime Goes Down

I had not even noticed it myself when I heard that the Ecocash airtime service was down. I trying to purchase airtime using the service and sure enough, it was returning an error message citing the system is busy. Skirting pessimism I actually thought it was not a big deal (after all, such things happen, I thought to myself). In no time it became apparent something was terribly wrong because the option for airtime and bundles purchase had been removed from the Ecocash menu. This time around there was no communication from Econet as to what was happening and the public was literally left wondering and speculating.

The situation raged on and even the Ecocash platform, in general, was extremely unstable. I recall on Tuesday getting into town because I had hoped to purchase airtime at OK supermarket using Ecocash. When I got there I was disappointed to hear that making Ecocash payments was not possible because the system was down. Suffices to say that most people had no option but to use cash (that is hard to come by) because of that. Anyways, I will not spend more time dwelling on the narration of what happened. So what can businesses learn from this recent Ecocash incident?

Continual And Live Customer Engagement Is Important

Earlier I mentioned that before the planned upgrade Econet extensively communicated to their subscribers – that was a good thing. At least people were aware and could plan ahead but when things started going downhill they left the public speculating and wondering. That is not a good thing when operating a business; you must always keep your customers in the loop. Let me also highlight something here, Econet tends to communicate using somewhat impersonal methods e.g. an SMS or a social media post. Of course, social media is a common tool nowadays but I think Econet must do more in putting a live face or faces to the brand. They must at least do press conferences or media briefings because not doing so seems to be avoiding live public engagement. This is an element that is vital for businesses because you earn trust by providing a platform for the public to converse with you physically.

Huge Problems Start Small

There are unconfirmed reports that what happened was due to system malfunctions. I will not detail what those reports indicated but I will just summarize to put into context what I want to say. It is said that there has been a spike in customer queries where subscribers are, for instance, deregistered or their SIM cards are locked by the system due to malfunctions emanating from unrecognized transaction modes involving airtime purchases using Ecocash. Thus this culminated in a debate over whether to temporarily suspend the airtime service or to replace the whole Ecocash operating system with a new one (which is expensive). Well, like I said these are unconfirmed reports.

However, the bottom line still remains that there seem to be system issues that were left unattended until they got out of hand. I think this is possible because Econet has rolled out numerous services over time all of which rely on the Ecocash platform. Software is an intricate world and if small things are left unattended they can degenerate into serious challenges. Even now, despite the Ecocash being platform up again, the system is still mercurial. In business you must iron out issues when they are still small; be able to anticipate impending danger and avert it.

Is Competition the Answer?

In the past few days, it became clear that Econet enjoys an unhealthy dominance. When the Ecocash platform went down and or was riddled with challenges most people had to put up with that. Why? Simply because there was no alternative to really turn to. Well, there is One Money and Telecash but it seems they are not really stepping up to the challenge. For example, most of my contacts do not use One Money and most goods and service providers do not accept One Money payments. So as much as I appreciate that One Money exists and I am even registered on it, it is not yet mainstream enough to be a formidable alternative. The Ecocash platform downtime made it appear like the whole nation was brought to its knees simply because one service provider could not provide their service.

The other mobile network operators (MNOs) have to step up their efforts – it is increasingly evident that Ecocash enjoys an unhealthy dominance. It is a probable reason why they do not really prioritize some of the things I mentioned earlier (live public engagement, in particular). At the end of the day, they know they dominate the market so customers will just sulk and put up with whatever happens with their service. In business when a competitor is downtrodden, you must capitalize on that to grain traction; NetOne and Telecel must do better. In fact, we need more MNOs so that there is cutthroat competition to unlock more alternatives and wholesome value.