In Nigeria, Facebook's Outage Revealed a Dangerous Dominance

Tomiwa Ibukunle is a 21-year old entrepreneur from Lagos, Nigeria. She started her clothing and accessories company two months ago. Her WhatsApp account is used to promote her products and receive orders from customers. She typically receives 20 orders per day. Her business was hit hard by the downtime of WhatsApp on October 5. It was also down for eight hours across other Facebook platforms. "I have just launched my brand and use WhatsApp for Business because I find it easy. Ibukunle explains that I was worried when I couldn’t access it. I had just posted the new items I received on my status and sent them to my customers. "I finished the day with five orders and wondered where I would start if WhatsApp was down. That is where all my customers live.
While the outage caused inconvenience for many Facebook users in the US, Europe and elsewhere, it was felt much more severely in other parts of the world where the company and its platforms are absolutely dominant. WhatsApp is used extensively for business and communication in Nigeria. The platform is used by more than 95 percent of Nigeria's 33 million social media users. Although it can be convenient to have everyone on one platform, the outage shows Nigeria's dependence on the app can lead to disaster. It is time for us all to consider other options.

There was panic in Nigeria when WhatsApp crashed. Rumours circulated that it would not be reopened. "I sent a message for my daughter and it failed to deliver. "I thought it was a network problem until my nephew informed me that it wasn't," Nkechinyere Peters, who resides in Umuahia says. "That's when I started to worry because WhatsApp is our main means of communication. What if she was concerned about something and wanted to contact me? Peters also heard that WhatsApp would be completely deleted. She said that I believed it. Everyone around me did." Many believed that instant messaging apps wouldn't be coming back, which caused them to worry. They were unsure of what to do and how to communicate if this was true.

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Others with distant families shared the same fear. Chiamaka Eze, a Nigerian who lives in Benin, says that her grandma is sick and old. "As her favorite grandchild she sometimes video calls me when her parents or staff aren’t there to help her choose her drugs. I was unable to help her during the outage and panicked that she would take the wrong drugs since she was at home alone.

These outages not only disrupt communication but also expose people to danger, since many vital services are delivered through the platform. WhatsApp has a 24 hour hotline run by Mentally Aware Nigeria that can be reached for emergency or counseling. BORGEN magazine reported last year that MANI has been contacted by over 10,000 people since 2016.

WhatsApp is preferred over Instagram Marketplace and Facebook Marketplace when it comes to business. WhatsApp allows customers to search for information about products and services by creating virtual catalogues. Customers trust WhatsApp, which has made it a popular platform for entrepreneurs. "They see the items in real-time as we add them into our status," says Orji Eke. Orji Eke, a fashion designer, says that there is also a sense of intimacy because we communicate in a private area. WhatsApp for Business has its advantages, but it can also be detrimental to entrepreneurs who depend on it.

BitSika founder and CEO Atsu Davoh says one company is controlling WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. This could be a time bomb for people who rely almost exclusively on these services. He says that "situations such as these are a strong case for decentralization if we want to look at an actual solution for tomorrow."

"During the outage I couldn't help but to help her and I panicked that she would take the wrong drugs since she was at home alone." Chiamaka Eze

WhatsApp is popular because it has so many users, but there are many other options. Alternatives to WhatsApp for Nigerians include Telegram and Signal. These apps offer privacy features not available on WhatsApp, and they have an open-source API. SoftTalk Messenger and other homegrown apps are also available. SoftTalk Messenger offers international calling via the app and also has a shopping option.

This outage has demonstrated that Nigerians must move to other apps. However, attractive options should be available that are comparable to what Nigerians are used too. Investors should fund local apps, as well as those that are still being developed. This will ensure that there are other options available and communication is possible when this happens again.

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