Uganda: E-Commerce Firms Count Losses Over Uganda Internet Shutdown On Polls Day

In an unprecedented move, the Uganda Communication Commission, the regulator of the telecommunication sector, ordered a countrywide shutdown of the Internet on the eve of the January 14 general election.

The order left companies that rely on Internet connectivity to do business counting losses.

The government is yet to announce when the shutdown will end, but companies are saying they are staring at spiraling negative effects following days of no operations.

"This puts our businesses in bad shape, and if the internet isn't turned on soon, some businesses will be in a really bad situation," says Rapa Thomson Ricky, the co-founder and director of taxi-hailing company Safe Boda.

According to Mr Ricky, Safe Boda grosses over a million mobile transactions with its network of 22,000 drivers in the Kampala Metropolitan Area, through which it earns a small fee.

"We are small companies, just waiting for when the Internet returns, and we can't be sure when that will be. Even if we are making Ush50 off each transaction, the cumulative effect of this gets big over the number of days we are not running and our riders are not able to earn," he said.

Online store Jumia is also counting losses after hundreds of orders including food deliveries as well as parcels of non-food items were either left in transit and not sent to the arbitrary internet shutdown, chief executive officer Ronnie Kawamara said.

Owners of other companies in the transport industry, hotels and restaurants, import and export, and telecoms also said they are yet to quantify the impact of UCC's order on the Internet shutdown, but warned that such actions have far-reaching economic and investment consequences as they make Uganda unattractive to investors.

Mr Ricky blames telecom operators for not sending out prior communication to their customers, a fault Sumin Namaganda, the spokesperson of Airtel Uganda admits, saying the order came too sudden and the company had no time to send out alerts of the impending shutdown.

Instead, the telco sent out messages after the deed was done, explaining that Airtel complied with a directive from UCC and "implemented a suspension of the operation of all internet Gateways and associated access points effective 19.00hours January 13, 2021 until otherwise directed."

Players say they expected the government to disable only social media platforms as was the case in 2016, but Mr Ricky says a total Internet shutdown "is not something we anticipated" and "none of us who operate e-commerce platforms was prepared for this."

In 2016 election, UCC ordered the shutdown of popular social media channels and mobile money based transfers and transactions for four days, citing national security concerns, a directive that cost the economy $2 million, studies by internet rights scholars have indicated.

The government shutdown the internet on January 13, on the eve of election day, in an effort to stop the public from using social media and other cyber communication channels to transmit results from polling stations.

The crackdown means 17.5 million Internet users in Uganda cannot use their gadgets to access services, while several e-commerce businesses such as Jumia and internet based payment systems are also disabled.

The Internet shutdown is an escalation of restrictions that the government, through UCC imposed on Tuesday, January 12, with the shutdown of popular social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

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