"It is very difficult to get in touch with me from Monday to Friday, because I will usually be in meetings," he explained. "I cannot even answer phone calls; my free time is very limited."
As a result of these time constraints, Mehari usually handles his personal errands long after working hours are over. Fortune met him on the evening of Monday, September 23, around the Wabi Shebelle Hotel, located onRas Abebe Aregay Street. He was attempting to withdraw money from his Commercial Bank of Ethiopia account, using an Automatic Teller Machine (ATM).
Mehari started using ATMs two years ago due to the convenience they offered. On that particular day, however, the ATM was not working properly and he could not make a withdrawal.
"I tried the ATM machines in different locations, but none of them were working. That is why I came here, but it says 'your request cannot be accepted'," Mehari angrily complained.
Mehari is among the legion of bank customers frustrated with ATM service in the country. Although ATM cards are gaining traction - with the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE), Dashen Bank (DB) and Awash International Bank (AIB) having 392,000, 270,000 and 30,000 cardholders, respectively - customers routinely complain about frequent problems during transactions.
Cash machines are relatively new to Ethiopia, but their number is growing quickly, with banks eager to ease access for their customers.
The CBE started out with eight machines, 11 years ago, and now has 300. There are also an additional 158 under deployment and 200 in the process of procurement, says Ephrem Mekuria, communication manager at the CBE.
However, despite the Bank's effort to improve access for its customers by increasing the number of machines, it is well-aware of the problems encountered by clients, Ephrem says. Network failure, due to service breakdown from the country's sole telecommunications service provider, ethio - telecom, and internal network problems, are the challenges faced by the CBE.
"Of course, our ATM services sometimes face interruption and most of the time this failure is attributed to ethio - telecom," agreed Estifanos Befekadu, who is head for Promotion Division at Dashen Bank.
The latter's ATM machine network has reached 130, since the introduction of the service in May 2006. Moreover it has bought 40 additional ATMs that are capable of receiving deposits.
"In spite of this failure from the service provider, we have achieved an eight percent service downtime for our ATM service; the international service downtime standard is 10pc," Estifanos claimed. "That is why last year 2.5 billion Br in transactions were handled through our ATMs only."
Estifanos attributes this success to the measures the Bank has taken to work around the challenges. For instance, the Bank provides phone support to clients who experience service interruption, so users can get direct assistance. In addition, there is a standby team equipped with a car that can be dispatched to any location where a customer faces an inconvenience, he explained.
The AIB, which started ATM services in July 2012 and currently operates 60 ATM machines under Premium Switch Solution with Nib and united banks, also struggles with service interruption to its ATM network.
"The problem is caused by three reasons - ethio telecom's network failure, internal system failure and inappropriate use by customers," stated
Yohannes Merga, vice president for Corporate Service at the Bank. "But, among these causes, a huge share is attributed to our telecommunications service provider."
To avoid temporary disruptions due to network failure, the AIB uses a wireless EV-DO Internet connection, instead of the broadband cable internet. At times, however, the issues appear to be due to technical problems in the machines. These may need manual intervention by the Bank's technicians, according to Yohannes, who also stated that the Bank has a standby team to deal with these issues.
While Mehari visits the ATM every three days, Seble Melaku, who works for an NGO located around Meskel Flower in Kirkos District, does not use cash machines frequently. On the day she talked to Fortune, near one of Dashen Bank's ATMs, on Sierra Leone Street in the same District, she had trouble accessing her money.
"I do not know why it is not working. I used it a month ago, so maybe I forgot my pin number," she said. "After trying another machine, I will report the problem to my bank."
Network problems notwithstanding, other banks contacted by Fortune agreed with Yohannes that some of the problems can be attributed to the cardholders' inappropriate use of ATMs and cards.
"Sometimes cardholders transfer their card to a third party, which is against our policy. There are also many people who insert their card upside down into the ATM's card slot," said Estifanos. "Others do not take their money out of the ATM as soon as it dispenses the cash. Some may not use their card for a very long period of time and, if they forget the password, the machine will capture their card."
While customers may have a share in the blame, the majority of the complaints are laid at the feet of ethio - telecom. The latter, on the other hand, blames the service breakdown on the illegal cutting of fibre optics and power interruption.
"We are buying generators to resolve the problem caused by power failure," said Abdurahim Ahmed, director of Corporate Communication at ethio - telecom. "We are working with regional states to prevent fibre optics damage, by enlisting them to guarantee the safety of the cables."
All banks contacted by Fortune claim that they are working with ethio telecom to resolve service interruptions, though they declined to disclose any details.
"We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with ethio - telecom, in order to sustain a reliable service," said Ephrem from CBE.
They also indicate that they are working on strengthening their internal system by procuring new servers and other inputs.
While banks and ethio - telecom both claim that they are working on resolving the problems, ATM users are still feeling the brunt of the consequences of unreliable services. On that day, Mehari went around Mexico taxi terminal with barely enough money to make it home.
"Today I have a bit of money," he said.
The following morning, he would have to try the machines again.