This has been a tumultuous week in Zimbabwe, to say the least.
Let me focus on the internet shutdown that occurred from around 11:30 am on Tuesday 15 January and lasted for around 30 hours or so. So, what could we possibly learn from that internet blackout?
Turns out quite a few things.
1. The Majority of Zimbabweans Mostly Access the Internet via Social Media
The total internet blackout lasted for about 30 hours.
But as I write this post, 24 hours after the internet came back on, most Zimbabweans are still unable to access social media. This is because the networks have blocked access to these platforms as revealed in the following message sent by Econet, the country’s biggest telecoms network, to its subscribers.
“Dear valued customer, Please be advised that the internet is back online under a directive that the Facebook, YouTube, Whats App, Twitter will remain closed until further notice. Any inconvenience is sincerely regretted,”
The few people who have been able to access social media since then have been using VPN’s. As a result, it has been awfully quiet in the social media streets.
Zim Twitter is almost lifeless and Facebook isn’t vibrant. WhatsApp seems to be hardest hit. I’m a member of around 400 WhatsApp business groups across three numbers and the impact of the restriction is very significant.
On a normal day, these groups are buzzing with people adverting their goods/services but currently, they are very quiet as people are offline.
Most people access social media via ‘bundles’. These bundles give access only to particular social media websites and block the rest of the internet. Now because of the block, these people are left with no internet access.
In light of this lesson, what are the implications for business?
How can this information help you as a business person?
Since the majority of customers only have access to social media, you should capitalise on these channels to reach them for promotional reasons.
For instance Its vitally important that you have a vibrant Facebook page for your business. This makes it easy for your customers to contact you as they will be browsing Facebook.
Relying on your website to communicate with your customers is not effective in Zimbabwe because your customers do not have the data to access your site.
This, of course, is assuming that your website itself is effective and your customers are aware of its presence.
This is probably a long shot given that the majority of websites in Zimbabwe are not effective. You can read my article on how you can make your website effective so that it adds value to your business.
Another important take away is that having a WhatsApp business account that you use to communicate with your customers will be immensely beneficial.
I explain the advantages of this in detail in my article titled ‘Seven Ways to use WhatsApp to Grow Your Business‘.
2. Hashtags Can Help Your Content Get Viral
I have written an in-depth article on how you can use hashtags to promote your business on social media so I will not go into great detail here.
In short, a hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#) and is used within a post, comment or message to identify a keyword or topic of interest and facilitate a search for it.
Whenever you add a hashtag to your post, it is immediately indexed by the social network and searchable by other users. In the case of the Zimbabwe internet shutdown, the following hashtags are trending.
What does this mean?
It means that anyone who searches on the internet for these hashtags will be able to see all the tweets and posts that have this hashtag in them. In other words, just having the hashtag massively increases the number of people who can see that tweet or post (called the reach).
Without the hashtag, the tweet/post is only visible to the followers of the person tweeting or posting. This will mean that the tweet has a very small reach.
So how can this knowledge benefit your business?
Hashtags, if used tactfully, can help your brand get more exposure. Your business posts should have relevant hashtags whenever your posts so that you can maximise your reach.
These hashtags can be for popular events like holidays that are related to your niche.
For example, if you can post tweets that include the above-mentioned hashtags then, by all means, do so.
This will mean that anyone who searches for the hashtags has a chance of seeing your tweets and can probably seek to learn more about your business. Eventually, they can be your customer.
You can read my full article on all the creative ways of using hashtags here.
3. The Average Zimbabwean Seems to be Lagging Behind Technology
I have written an article arguing that Zimbabwean entrepreneurs are 10 Years Behind Technology.
It seems that the same holds true for the general person as well. Before the internet shutdown, a lot of people evidently had not heard of VPN’s or the messaging app Telegram.
Given that social media access right now is only via VPN’s, it is possible that many people are not sure how to use them. A lot of people have been downloading Telegram because its harder to block.
However, Telegram does not have bundles like WhatsApp and Facebook. As a result, a lot of people will end up with an app that they will not be able to use.
For someone like me with an avid interest in online entrepreneurship, this poses quite a challenge. I mean if someone has difficulties using a VPN how can you start explaining concepts like blockchain, search engine optimisation etc?
Even trying to encourage Zimbabweans to look for work online as freelancers becomes a challenge under such circumstances.
I feel to counter this, basic digital marketing should be a mandatory subject in high schools or colleges. This digital literacy will create fertile ground for the growth and flourishing of online entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe.
VPNs have inherent security risks
Related to the above, a lot of the people who are using VPNs are not fully aware of the security risks they pose. For example, when you use a VPN, your internet traffic goes through a third party server and they can snoop on your data.
If you perform a banking transaction via a VPN, your credentials can be stolen and this is no minor threat. I would not be surprised to hear of such a theft occurring in the coming days.
4. Where Possible, Find Offline Ways to Communicate with Clients
During the shutdown, it was impossible to communicate with clients via online means. This obviously negatively affected a lot of businesses and the amount of income lost should be astronomical.
Going forward, it is wise to look for alternative ways to communicate with clients if such a blackout is to happen again. Where possible, you may get your customer’s contact details and communicate with them via bulk SMS or even calling.
5. Internet Addiction is Real
During the time the internet was down I didn’t know what to do with myself. When we got online I found out I wasn’t the only one who was in that predicament.
A lot of people reported being restless and irritable because they had no internet. This just goes on to show how an integral part of our lives the internet has become. Indeed, for many, the internet is no longer a luxury but a very basic necessity.
It makes one wonder how we survived in the pre-smartphone days.
The Zimbabwe internet shutdown is a very unfortunate event that I hope will not be repeated in my lifetime. However, the shutdown did uncover some trends and lessons that can be useful for business owners.
So what do you think of the issues I raise in this article. Do you think these lessons have any use for your business? Are there other vital lessons that I may have left out?
Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any question on digital marketing and online entrepreneurship you can make use of my Ask Me Anything page.