By Viscount Francis K’Owuor,
November 4th, 2017,
The word boycott comes from the name of Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832–97), an Irish land agent so treated in 1880, in an attempt instigated by the Irish Land League to get rents reduced. The boycott was a British Army veteran who worked as a landlord’s agent, a man whose job was to collect rents from tenant farmers on an estate in northwest Ireland. At the time, landlords, many of whom were British, were exploiting Irish tenant farmers. And as part of a protest, the farmers on the estate where Boycott worked demanded a reduction in their rents. Boycott refused their demands and evicted some tenants. The Irish Land League advocated that people in the area not attack Boycott, but rather use a new tactic: refuse to do business with him at all.
The National Super Alliance through a lobby called the National Resistance Movement has called for consumer boycotts as one of the strategies of removing Jubilee out of power. One of the companies targeted is Safaricom. Before such a boycott is objectively analyzed, it is good to understand the background from where we are coming.
The first line I bought for my Sagem mobile phone was Kencell. I got it at the first ever mobile phone promotion in Kisumu at Kshs 3,500. Sim card alone was 2,500, so it is like they gave me the phone almost for free. This was around the year 2001. Talktime was charged at 15 shillings per minute ( not a full minute) which was all deducted in the first second. Services were terminated if you didn’t buy talk time for a period of sixty days.
Kencell and Safaricom were the two leading mobile phone companies then. Unfortunately, things started working badly for the former. Its problems began with network coverage. While Safaricom penetrated remote parts of Kenya, Kencell concentrated its coverage around urban areas. That made Safaricom the better option for the rural people.
Secondly, while Safaricom broke down its airtime units from Kshs 500 to 250 to 100, for a long time the smallest Kencell airtime was Kshs 300. It effectively became viewed as the mobile phone company of the rich, because the majority of Kenyans could not cope with that kind of pricing.
Thirdly, mobile phone interconnection fee was very high. You fretted before calling a Safaricom number if yours was Kencell and vice versa. So the bandwagon effect took over. To avoid high calling charges, Kencell subscribers moved to Safaricom where there were more subscribers because of the factors I’ve highlighted above.
Fourth, Safaricom beat Kencell in innovation, customer care, and branding. Management and shareholding issues saw Kencell change its name to Celtel, Zain and now Airtel. Even here on Facebook if someone keeps changing his account name you will lose track of him, or be suspicious. Your brand is your net worth.
Safaricom is abusive, very abusive, especially in theft and overcharging, but its products are so sweet, like a femme fatale. Apart from Mpesa, many companies and small businesses have linked their services to Safaricom through pay bill, till numbers, financial management platforms, etc. All these combine to create what Malcolm Gladwell calls ‘Stickiness Factor’. According to Gladwell, the Stickiness factor involves how effective an idea or product stays in the mind of the potential viewer or consumer. We take for granted many of things that we see or experience throughout the day, but subconsciously they have a large effect on us. Someone somewhere engineered external stimuli in order to impact us.
In view of the above, it is very unlikely that the consumer boycott of Safaricom products called by NASA will succeed. Especially, in a case where the segment of the population called to boycott are known not to exhibit any social or economic solidarity. Moreover, mass boycotts need a high level of discipline which NASA supporters are known to lack. In fact, this is not the first consumer pressure politically instigated against Safaricom. There are others in the recent past which failed too.
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