Saturday, 15 March 2014

Econet, Telecel, Netone: The Three Fighting Brothers of Zimbabwe’s New Telecommunications Industrial Complex.

By Takura Zhangazha*

Zimbabwe has three mobile telephone companies, namely EconetWireless Zimbabwe , Telecel Zimbabwe and  NetOne.   These three companies, in the last two years have been the key actors in mobile telephony war in Zimbabwe.   It is a war primarily for primacy in the small but lucrative market for telephony.

The battles were initially about the sharing of onward transmission towers and inter-connectivity fees. In the last year, these battles  have become more about mobile cash transactions among themselves as  competitors, as well as with orthodox banks (also known as the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe).In these same said battles, the overseeing moderator has been the government, primarily through the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ)

There have also been uncorroborated whispers in the corridors of public opinion that the three brothers have been regularly arm twisted or borderline blackmailed by government, to provide revenue for key national processes such as the March 2013 constitutional referendum and the July 2013 general election. This being done, allegedly, in return for license renewal  or some guarantees of lack of further direct interference in any new products to be placed or already in the market. 

What this all points to already is a potential collusion between the state and our existing major telecommunications’ companies in order to protect vested interests, either by way of seeking inadequately budgeted for functions of the state or protecting the all important and lucrative telecommunications licenses. In the process, what gets created is a telecommunications industrial complex (TIC) in  a manner akin to the infamous Military Industrial Complex referred to by former American President Dwight Eisenhower, post the Second World War. The only difference with our Zimbabwean context is that we are not reliant on our military for new technological or war related inventions.

What has however occurred is that our mobile telephone companies have found themselves closely ensconced with the state in order to keep making their super profits. 

This is not to fault the global notion that companies or individuals should not be rewarded for either introducing new and progressive ideas to their given societies.  The three brothers are all within their legal right to do so. The only challenge is that they may be doing so in collusion with a potentially ‘mafia like’ state and solely in the ephemeral pursuit of super profits.

In the process, they take on the character of the system that permits them to operate.  They now know the ‘politics’ of their survival given the general lack of transparency of the Zimbabwean government where and when it comes to their linkages between private corporations and state institutions or functions.

This operational framework has been advantageous to them because our central government is not evidently following developments and new inventions in the field of information communication technologies. If it does, it conveniently ignores such knowledge in order to ensure its trump card is direct control in relation to licensing and borderline economic/profit blackmail of the existent companies. 

Where one looks at the character of the TIC in Zimbabwe,  one would be forgiven for thinking it is at the pinnacle of invention. The truth of the matter is that it is more to do with the importation of technology than inventing it.  While there is nothing wrong with importation of technology or innovation, the major issue in Zimbabwe has been its specific lack of context coupled with its mimicry of its usage in other countries. 

Moreover,  the ideological pretext of this importation of technology has been unbridled capitalism whose functional premise has been lets ‘make the hay while the sun shines’.  Needless to say, it is a sun that shines only on the commodification of existence, and not on the base and superstructure effect mobile telephony has had on Zimbabwean culture, political economy or even the future. 

It would not be far from the truth to argue that while our mobile telephone companies have had the end effect of increasing the right of all Zimbabweans to receive and impart information,  they have not necessarily created a proportionate amount of jobs let alone offshoot manufacturing industries. The greater percentage of support services to this sector are outsourced from other countries.  This would include not only technological knowledge production and innovation, but also things as basic as the printing of air time top up cards. 

Simultaneously, the sector has also sought to swallow already existent other sectors of the economy such as banking and retail services.  By dint of the same, TIC is now fast evolving into borderline monopolies in relation to not only dominating mobile banking, but also social service delivery, agriculture and mining. All by dint of their ability to provide the one service no one else can provide; mobile communication. 
So when the Harare City Council or the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority offer prepaid meters as mechanisms of payment for services, it not just about their privatization. It is also about the management of the transaction by a mobile telephone company affiliated or rent paying affiliate, every time we punch in numbers into a computer box.

Furthermore, apart from the beer brewing monopoly that is Delta Beverages, TIC has become integral to the survival of the mainstream print and broadcast media.  This has been through their ability to provide advertising revenue on a phenomenally regular basis to the extent that they cannot be criticized or rendered directly publicly accountable. Unless any media house that decides to do so is confident it can survive the harsh media political economy without TIC’s revenue.  (It probably also explains why this blog will not be re-published in any Zimbabwean mainstream media)

In the final analysis, what we have emerging is more default and non contextual progress on the ICTs front.  It’s a progress that was initially resisted by central government for reasons that can be assumed to be the state wanted to be the first to dip into the ‘kitty’ of ICTs by virtue of monopoly.  It appears to have come to pass that the state has come to a firm understanding that it does not have to fight for a monopoly. All it has to do is to make sure the three brothers, in making hay while the sun shines, pay their dues in regulatory cash and in ‘profit certainty’  kind. 

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (