What is an Internet café for anyway?

Internet cafes are springing up all over Arusha. From Sakina to the clock tower to Njiro to the new shops by Shoprite. Internet cafes as far as the eye can see. Businessmen and women are jumping onto the internet café bandwagon left right and centre. Since I arrived in Arusha in January the number of cafes must have doubled or more! Despite the high start up costs, and the ongoing costs of maintaining a fast connection people are seeing internet cafes as a good way to make money. I wonder to myself – how long can it last? Can all these small dusty offices really be bringing in enough customers to cover the costs and return a tidy profit to the owners? Can this growth really continue? Are there too many cafes in Arusha? Will some be forced out of business when the novelty wears off? Only time will tell. What I do know is that competition is starting to bring down prices – in January the price was TSh 1000 an hour everywhere you looked. The growth in choice has clearly forced some operators to slash their prices to as low as TSh 500 an hour. This must indicate some cafes had begun to lose customers to rivals who have opened in slightly more convenient locations. In order to regain an edge they cut prices. This trend cannot continue forever and remain profitable. So where now for the internet cafes of Arusha?

The same old same old

At present, internet cafes in Arusha are offering the bare minimum of services. By this I mean:

  • Connection to the internet and world wide web
  • Basic assistance with setting up email accounts and using the web
  • Basic office applications such as word processing

In addition most cafes offer printing, at a somewhat inflated price – TSh500 per page! A few cafes also have photocopiers, and scanners. Some double up as telecommunications centres, with phones and fax machines. On the whole there isn’t much to choose between cafes, besides quality of machine, speed of connection and quality of assistance given. Ok there is one café in town that specialises in curtained off rooms for “total privacy”, but I won’t go into that here.

The services provided make internet cafes something of a blank sheet – they will do for you what you want of them, but you need to bring your own ideas with you. Since internet cafes provide the majority of Tanzanians with their first and only connection to the net this means most customers turn up without much idea of what they can do. They aren’t bringing many ideas. So many Tanzanians aren’t getting much further than email, reading the news, possibly instant messaging, and perhaps visiting web sites that require curtained off rooms.

So much more is possible. Internet cafes need to provide those new ideas.

Why bother?

Good question. If this is all that people want then why go to the trouble of offering them more? I’ll tell you why. Internet cafes are Tanzania’s only way of bridging the so-called information divide. Without internet cafes how would the average person access these new opportunities? Five years ago who had an email address? If the internet café owners had only catered to existing knowledge there would be no connections in a place like Arusha. If that isn’t enough of an argument for you then try this. To survive in an expanding market, internet cafes are going to have to find new ways to draw customers away from the competition. That means new services.

What new services?

What do you want to achieve? Regular customers coming back day in day out. What services might do this? How about storage of data? Your customers are currently running from café to café with floppy disks. They don’t have to come to you. Give them their own space on your computers, more than they can store on a floppy, and they will love you for it! Why? Floppies are unreliable and inconvenient. They will keep coming back because their important data is on your machines.

What about email? Set up your own email service. Give your customers a distinct email address. They will love not being @yahoo or @hotmail. But they will have to come to your café to check their mail. Business services could also bring customers back day after day. If you offer something that saves your customers money then they may even advance book
regular time in the café.  Business services might include custom templates for Excel that help businesses do their own accounts and highlight opportunities for that business.

These are just a few ideas of what you can offer to take your café further. If you are an internet café owner think hard about what it is you offer and if you can afford to just offer the same as everyone else. If you are a user demand more! Learn more about the internet and what is available and you will see many ideas for new services. You may have to invest money in a server to offer some of them, but you will be distinguishing yourself from the competition. In doing so you’ll be doing yourself and your country a favour.

Originally published in Arusha Times 290

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