Kenyan mobile phone service providers: Why they differ greatly in subscriber numbers

Some of the players in Kenyan mobile phone sector include Safaricom – the company with the most number of subscribers. The other operators are Airtel Kenya, Orange Kenya (Telkom Kenya) and Yu (which has now been sold).

There are several factors that contribute to the difference in subscriber numbers among Kenya’s mobile phone service providers. These include:

1. When the company was established

Some of the companies that began operating in Kenya before the other companies providing similar services entered the market seem to have an upper hand when it comes to subscriber numbers.

Most people who opted to own a mobile phone years back only had to choose between Safaricom or Kencell (which later became Zain > Airtel).

The pioneers set a firm foundation and have retained lots of loyal customers since.

2. Network coverage

Network coverage also comes in to set the difference.

Most subscribers would opt for an operator with slightly expensive tariffs provided they have a wider network coverage, since subscribers are always on the move and therefore a wide network coverage is a must in order for an operator to retain them.

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Or what happens is, most Kenyans have more than one line (SIM card), making it easier to overcome the challenge of network coverage whenever they travel someplace else.

3. Tariff charges

Most subscribers would be easily drawn towards an operator with the ‘most’ affordable tariff rates.

But as evidenced by the millions of Kenyans who chose to be Safaricom’s customers, cheap does not mean more subscribers.

Smart subscribers will always go for affordable but quality services.  Tariff rates goes hand in hand with other factors such as the ones mentioned above.

4. Friends and family preferences

Friends and family preferences also easily influence new users.

For instance, a teen fresh from high school or primary school may for his or her birthday ask for a feature phone, a smartphone or a tablet computer.

The gift in most instances will be brought home complete – A new device, a new SIM card and airtime voucher.

If most people in the family have a Safaricom line, the teenager, fresh from high school, is also likely to get a new Safaricom line.

5. Time for termination of services

Some operators will render a subscriber’s SIM card obsolete after a given period of inactivity, e.g. three or four months after the last recharge.

High school students who are not allowed to carry phones to schools usually prefer the operator with the longest period before their SIM card is rendered inactive.

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I truly believe that this point reflects some of the problems Airtel Kenya is experiencing in its fight against Safaricom’s dominance.

They are fighting the company many Kenyans chose – and still choose – (though having different lines from the different operators is a common thing – and some Safaricom customers’ loyalty is only made stronger because of their usage of M-PESA mobile money transfer service) instead of putting more energy in fighting the negative perception people have of them from when it was called KenCell.

6. Other subscribers love a customer care team ready for their questions  any time

And I do mean anytime.

Even in the middle of the night.

They’ll easily fall for an operator with an efficient customer care service.

Though some have learnt to bear with operators whose customer care lines are ever busy. You know who I am talking about here!

7. Other services that may attract subscribers

Further bringing in differences between the telecom operators in Kenya are services like mobile money transfer services such as Safaricom’s M-Pesa, Zain’s Zap (now Airtel Money), Yu Cash and Orange Money.

Subscribers will go for an operator with time saving features enabling them to pay electricity bills from the comfort of their couch instead of sweating in long queues in a Kenya Power and Lighting Company hall waiting for their turn to pay the bills.

Other subscribers also fall for the adverts they see on dailies may be with claims of fast and cheap internet, some just follow the crowd – they go where most Kenyan phone owners dash to.

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Others, especially subscribers who own online businesses selling digital products like ebooks, music (MP3, Kenyan music) will go for operators that makes it easy for them to expand their choice of how they receive money for their services.

Like Safaricom’s Lipa na M-PESA partnership with Kopo Kopo, helping Kenyan business owners to make it easy for their customers and clients to pay for products and services using M-PESA, without the need of having to handle a lot of cash or deal with counterfeit money.

Are you with Safaricom, Airtel, Yu or Orange (Telkom Kenya)? What pushed you to your now-favorite service provider? Do share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

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