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More than social media: The WhatsApp outage affects small businesses around the world

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NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Ayman El Tarabishy, ​​a professor at George Washington University, about how the Facebook outage earlier this week brought work to a halt for businesses that rely on WhatsApp around the world.

Transcript

AUDI CORNISH, HOST:

When WhatsApp and other apps owned by Facebook went down earlier this week, tens of millions of people around the world struggled to communicate and many struggled to do their business. Lydia Mutune Osewe owns a plant shop in Nairobi, Kenya that runs entirely on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. And she says customers can’t reach her.

LYDIA MUTUNE OSEWE: You couldn’t place your orders. We couldn’t even make our deliveries as we rely on the information they sent to WhatsApp for most of our deliveries. For example, they need to send their PIN to their location on WhatsApp numbers, but we haven’t received all of this information.

CORNISH: In Tanzania, the government spokesman launched another social media app, Twitter, to encourage people to be patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

CORNISH: He assured people that government services would remain available through other channels – Twitter, email, YouTube – and that the outage would eventually end, which happened about six hours later. We talked about what happened to Ayman El Tarabishy. He is a professor at the George Washington School of Business and heads the International Council for Small Businesses.

Welcome to the program.

AYMAN EL TARABISHY: Thank you. Thanks very much. Nice to be here.

CORNISH: I’m not sure if people just really appreciate those parts of the world where WhatsApp or Instagram in particular are part of the way people actually do business at a local level. What did you hear from some of your contacts around the world when the outage happened? Do you have an example?

EL TARABISHY: Yes. Well, what I didn’t hear – let’s start with – because when it went down no one knew it went down. And we just didn’t know if it was the internet connection or the wifi. And that was one of the big problems. Nobody knew it was downstairs.

CORNISH: Can you tell me two little stories you’ve heard from business owners or people who really rely on these programs about what happened to them because of the outage?

EL TARABISHY: Yes. So I’m giving you an example here. One is from Panama. In Panama, they launched this campaign where healthcare providers – using WhatsApp – can come to your home to do COVID tests. So imagine, when it went down for the four or five hours or six hours, everyone using WhatsApp to make their reservations, to confirm the reservation for the people who were going to come – right? – The whole system has failed.

The other example, when it came to deliveries of orders and the like, where people say I’m coming. I go to this shipment first, then to this shipment and then to this shipment. When everything went wrong and you talk to other team members – right? – Everyone was basically confused where everything was.

CORNISH: Have you heard from anyone who said I lost a lot of money yesterday because of X or a lot of business?

EL TARABISHY: Yes. What I heard is that I didn’t make any money today because everything was down. I didn’t have my shop.

CORNISH: For a small context, for example, how popular is WhatsApp as a tool for doing business? And in which parts of the world do you see a central role?

EL TARABISHY: Absolutely. Therefore, my focus is on small and micro businesses. It is extremely important and very popular with small businesses, micro businesses, and communication users all over the world. Statistics show that it is very popular in India, Brazil, the United States and Russia, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Latin American countries. It is extremely popular all over the world to use one platform for communication – this is WhatsApp. In terms of Instagram and Facebook, that’s more e-commerce and small business and micro business.

CORNISH: What about micro-enterprises, ie different types of small vendors – what is the way they do business that is appropriate for this type of social media use? Because now everyone is somehow used to it. The pandemic got a lot of people into e-commerce. But what role did it play in the parts of the world you speak of?

EL TARABISHY: It’s extremely important. They are a utility that people use, like electricity, rent, and anything to do business. So these small businesses are using these platforms as a utility, right? So if you take away a utility that is essential to their business, they will stop doing business. It stops right there.

CORNISH: This is Ayman El Tarabishy, ​​professor at the George Washington School of Business. And we should note that Facebook is one of NPR’s financial backers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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