Monday, 15 July 2013

Econet Wireless@15, A Non-Corporate View.

By Takura Zhangazha.*

Zimbabwe’s largest mobile telephone company Econet Wireless celebrates it’s 15th anniversary this month. I must confess to not having remembered or noticed this same said anniversary were it not for the advertorials in all of the country’s major newspapers. Reading through the latter, there is evidence that the corporation is not only run by a determined leadership but that it intends to continue providing varying and diverse services that come with mobile telephony. And that cannot be faulted whether when discussing Econet Wireless or any other company in the same field. What is however unique about this particular entity is its history as a corporation that the then government did not favour nor support at infancy.

It was to take a Supreme/Constitutional court challenge on how the monopoly of the state in telecommunications infringed the right of the same company to receive and impart information (and subsequent legal battles) for it to be allowed to operate in the country.  Add to this the public expectation and anticipation that it was to be one of the first companies with the intention of bringing the mobile phone as a communication accessory to ordinary (not just elite) Zimbabwean citizens.

It is these two points that make Econet Wireless not only emblematic but an important gamechanger where and when it comes to reflections on Zimbabwe’s history of interacting with new telecommunications technologies. Admittedly these technologies were not as new in the Northern hemisphere, but the truth be told, it is Econet that brought them into the popular communication culture and practice of everyday Zimbabweans (anyone remember ‘Liberty Lines’?). The arrival of Econet Wireless, therefore, was an epochal shift in the manner in which Zimbabweans communicated.

It is little remembered that the expansion of the cellular phone services in our country came via a protracted legal battle against the backdrop of a government that sought more to inhibit private telecommunication players before it entered the market via its parastatal, the Postal and Telecommunications Corporation (PTC). The reasons given may have been many, and those privy to the court processes may know better, but the overall impression was that government was averse to technology it felt it couldn't control directly in relation to content or profit. It was to be the Zimbabwean Supreme Court (sitting as a constitutional court) that put the matter to rest in favour of Econet Wireless. 

What the dispute however showed was either a misunderstanding of global technological trends on the part of government or a direct approach of seeking a monopoly on an idea/issue which cannot function on that same basis. (Even the eventual attempts to license Telecel Zimbabwe before Econet were to be turned down by the Supreme Court.)

There is also an important component to the Econet Wireless' success story besides that of its infancy. This has been the impact of its spread and reach over the telecommunications market in Zimbabwe and the attendant societal change it has ushered in. While initially some may argue  that given the general intransigence of government toward it, the company initially entered the mobile telecommunications market on a tide of public sympathy. Its main ticket to success thus far has however been its ability to stay ahead of the pack technologically by offering newer telephone ancillary services in keeping with global trends. And this is key.

While initially mobile telephone accessories had been hugely expensive (like buying a phone sim card for $100 back in the 2000s, whichever of the three mobile companies one subscribed to) the roll out of greater connectivity on its part has led to more Zimbabweans being connected in one way of the other via mobile telephony. And the impact has been massive. 

Particularly where Econet Wireless was among the first and still leads in rolling out (third generation) telephony and as a result all mobile phone subscribers can now connect to the World Wide Web and social media applications such as whatsup. This has meant that Zimbabwean society has not only joined global information sharing trends but is also able to communicate at a cheaper cost than  before. And the latest product that the company has been offering, ahead of the pack and much to the chagrin of mainstream banks, has been Ecocash, the mobile phone money transfer system. 

But the sum total of it all has been the fact that for all our politics, Zimbabwe does not operate in isolation from the rest of the world. And telecommunications, inclusive of mobile telephony as well as satellite television are evidence of the fact that it was a mistake by government to either seek to monopolise or to reign in the industry as regards technology transfer, content and other ancillary services it offers.

While Econet Wireless is not the only player in the mobile telephone business in Zimbabwe, its background and history warrant some reflection. Not out of favour but more out of honesty. An honesty which resides in the fact that for all its pursuit of profit and functioning as a business corporation, Econet Wireless was eventually founded on the pretext of Section 20 of our then constitution, which read inter alia, ‘everyone has the right to receive and impart information without hindrance’. And therefore, one can only wish that company, a happy 15th anniversary.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (