I have discussed the concept of the fast following before and you can go through the article to understand it better. For the benefit of those who are new to the concept, I will just briefly highlight what it is so that you get a foundation for what we are about to discuss herein. Fast following is an approach used by startups in starting and developing a business idea or model by copying an already established one. The aspect of ‘fast’ in fast following entails having to swiftly copy and implement the idea or model. The most notable local example of an innovation that was borne out of the fast following is Ecocash – it fast followed M-Pesa from Kenya. Before I get into why fast follower apps are struggling locally let me just discuss a bit on the fast following culture in Zimbabwe.
Fast Following Culture In Zimbabwe
Locally when it comes to fast following, Econet has been and still is the most active in that regard. Some of their noteworthy fast follower innovations are Ecocash, Vaya, and the most recent Sasai. Scattered across other business sectors we have also seen different innovations borne out of the fast following. We have seen other fast follower innovations being tried e.g. dating apps. For the most part, the fast following remains the express preserve of Econet but why does it appear like the fast follower innovations are struggling locally? Let me point out that Ecocash is an exception. Ecocash has been a resounding success when we look at the truest essence of the fast following concept. This is what we are now getting into by noting possible reasons why they are struggling.
High Data Costs
The current operating environment is mercurial; characterised by financial hurdles for both businesses and customers. Looking at apps they require data for one to gain access and be able to use an app. Data is extremely expensive for the vast majority of Zimbabweans. Come to think of it, most people struggle to even get data for their communication platforms such as WhatsApp. What more general data so they can access apps? So the high cost of data is one issue stemming from the operating environment.
Internet Connectivity Hurdles
Locally, one other major aspect is on internet connectivity; already we have just talked about data costs for those would do have internet connectivity. How about those who do not have internet connectivity? Sadly, in Zimbabwe, the rural population is over 69% and internet connectivity amongst them is meagre. One of the key factors that drive the success of an app is early adoption and subsequently, widespread adoption. The fact that the greater portion of the population has no internet connectivity stifles all that.
Still, on the internet connectivity front, we can look at power shortages. For app adoption, power shortages introduce two big problems namely, erratic internet connectivity and erratic use of mobile smartphones. So ultimately you have 3 issues working in consonance i.e. erratic networks, erratic smartphone usage and the high cost of data. This makes it extremely difficult for fast followed apps to work locally. For instance, an innovation like Vaya requires reliable and uninterrupted internet connectivity because the operational protocol of the platform is all tied into online components.
Considering that the country is in the midst of an ailing economy something critically important comes to mind. It is another element stifling the performance and growth of fast follower apps – it is timing. I believe some of the local fast follower apps were or have been introduced at the wrong time. The apps are great and all but the timing just has not been the best. Already I have highlighted issues like data costs and power shortages, for instance. They are prevalent nowadays because of a hyperinflationary environment that we are in. Thus introducing apps into such an environment will be met with complacency. Not because the apps are bad per se but simply because the timing is wrong.
Are You Solving A Problem?
I might have mentioned this last but it could arguably be the biggest one. In general, most apps fail to take off because there is no need for them in the market. It is one thing for an app to be well-built, sleek and elaborate – that does not guarantee that it will take off. I will give an example of the recently introduced Sasai. According to Cassava Smartech (a subsidiary of Econet Global) who developed it, they are looking to contend with WhatsApp.
Did you know that here in Zimbabwe in 2017 about 50% of all internet data used in that year was attributed to WhatsApp alone? Even in Africa as a whole, the most used instant messaging app is WhatsApp. So a question comes to mind, are you solving a problem by introducing Sasai? Same goes for Vaya, as great as it might but are you solving a problem. If there is a real and genuine need in the market, early and widespread adoption of a fast follower innovation must be rapid. At times the mistake can be to think there is a real need in the market yet you are seeking to address a perceived problem.
The fast follower apps already locally operational should serve as learning curves for both the fast followers and also other people looking to employ fast following shortly. Remember; do not assume that just because the first mover (i.e. the one you will be copying from) succeeded then it should be automatic for you. Let me also mention that another reason why the fast follower approach has not been that successful locally is because of a lack of adequate government support. Consider China, they have done well because the government has banned the first movers (e.g. Facebook). This makes it easier for the fast follower apps to be adopted.