Nigeria is a fundamentally unreliable place…nobody expects you to arrive by 4PM, if that’s what was written in the invitation.

I once showed up for a Nigerian party at 4PM, the exact time that was written in the invitation. As I drove into the courtyard of the car, the half dressed wife of the host scurried off the veranda into the house, her hair half done.

Nobody expects you to arrive by 4PM, if that’s what was written in the invitation. At the very least come by 5, but 6 upwards is acceptable. The rest of the country is like that. Meeting times are vague indicators for around when the meeting would actually start. And most people will be understanding about the delays.

But why is that? What if you threw a party where the doors would be open only from 3:50 to 4:10? Most people, even if they tried, would not make it to the party. Things will happen that will get in the way.

Nigeria is a fundamentally unreliable place. The inconsistent state of infrastructure, the poor quality communication channels and the time it takes to fix random acts of nature means that it is difficult to predict with precision how things will be in the future.

You may leave the house on time, be almost at your destination and then have someone stop you and charge you a radio tax, delaying you by at least an hour (based on a true story).

Nigerians have accepted unreliability. It is the expected state of things. An airline can randomly move its flight times backwards or forward and people will accept this with barely a complaint.

Engineering around unreliability

In software, we have two major protocols – UDP and TCP/IP. The difference between the two is this, UDP is an unreliable protocol and TCP/IP is a reliable protocol. If you transmit information between two computers using UDP, it means you are aware that some of the data may be lost. This protocol works well for video transmission, for example. If you transmit information using TCP/IP, every piece of data sent will be verified that it has arrived or resent till it does. It is reliable, but slower and more expensive.

Everything in Nigeria works like it is UDP. It may or may not arrive. And every startup has to factor this in, because it plays a very major role in their operations.

Your internet provider will be unreliable. It will fluctuate on and off. Get several redundant backups from all different providers.

Your power will be unreliable. Use the mains, get an inverter, a small petrol generator, and a diesel generator. When one breaks down, switch to the other.

Staff grew up around unreliable behaviour. It’s normal for them to come late. It’s normal for them to have random events that require them not to come for work. Factor that into your expense and productivity.

If your startup depends on infrastructural things like roads, SMS or communication, then have redundant backups and cross-checks to make sure the things have arrived. The real opportunities will need to interact with the physical world. And they will be affected by the unreliability.

The Effect

It’s not just your processes that are unreliable. It’s also your customers and your market. A person is hesitant to purchase something online because they assume that there will be problems in delivery. A person is hesitant to order food online because they are not sure when the meal will arrive. A customer is hesitant to book a hotel room online because they are not sure the hotel will honour their reservation when they show up.

The messaging every startup puts out has to assuage this fear. It has to tell the customer that this is not an unreliable company. And the company actually has to be like that. A company like Jumia, for example, tells customers after 5 days that the item is out of stock. They increase the perception that online things are unreliable.

Furthermore, there is often a black hole in company-consumer communication. When a transaction between your company and a customer is in progress, every message you send to him tells him that his transaction is in progress. This makes him see your company as being a reliable company.

Providing reliability in an unreliable society is a huge competitive advantage for Nigerian tech startups. When you are reliable, people will say – “That thing works”. And they will be saying it to their friends.

This post was originally published on Mark’s Medium.

Mark Essien is the founder of Hotels. Follow him on Twitter here.

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