[Update from Safaricom]
At the inception +8988, Twitter and Safaricom had an arrangement to use the service as the social media giant popularized its product in the country. However, Twitter Kenya was not able to support the service after the arrangement expired.
Safaricom says +8988 was used by a lot of people, meaning they can revive it if Twitter agrees to pay bulk SMS fees like competing products.
Kenya is one of the African states where social network Twitter has a notable presence, save for Nigeria and South Africa whose users have the edge over it. The service, which is insanely popular among businesses and people alike, has evolved tremendously. However, some of you might remember how easy it was to send tweets, reply to mentions, retweet updates (manual retweets were a thing back in the day) or even send direct messages (popularly referred to as DM, and purposely replicated on all private online interactions) via SMS (+8988).
The use of the SMS service was so widespread among folks who had no access to the internet because it just worked. In fact, you could sign up for a Twitter account via SMS and at the peak of this service, Safaricom was offering unlimited on-net SMS for KES 10 before cutting them to 200.
It has emerged that Safaricom and Twitter discontinued the service sometime in May this year. At that time, most of us did not notice Twitter via SMS (+8988) powered by Safaricom had been dropped possibly for a variety of reasons: many people have access to smart devices as of 2018 – you can even get one for as low as KES 3,500; secondly, telcos are expanding the turf of their internet coverage to more areas – Safaricom’s LTE services are theoretically available in all major towns and most of rural Kenya as Telkom Kenya and Airtel try to emulate the trend, albeit in a smaller scale; lastly, carriers are marketing data services aggressively, a process that is augmented by genuinely cheaper data plans. Collectively, these offerings have brought more Kenyans online.
Discontinuing the service implied that people could no longer receive alerts from their favourite accounts. We do not have actual numbers of the affected demographic, but our guess is that many Kenyans relied on the service for news alerts, sports scores (this was very important to me back in 2012) and public announcements. For the latter, administrators such as the popular Chief Kariuki in Nakuru, who has since expressed his frustrations with the development, are among the most affected because it was so easy to broadcast a message to members of his Location in a matter of seconds.
The Chief, who thanks to his tweets earned himself the nickname “tweeting chief” and even got verified, says that the service helped a lot in community policing. “Crime is on the rise and there is little response as residents cannot effectively mobilise others in times of distress,” says the tweeting chief while speaking to Sunday Nation. Chief Kariuki has in the past used the service to combat crime, dating back to 2015 when he tweeted about an ongoing theft at a resident’s house that saw the fast response from the public thwart the ongoing crime and a recent one where he sent a warning to petty thieves in his areas:
Iko wezi kwa mama gathoni . Kwake ni karibu na kona yakwenda murunyu. Tafafhali saidieni.
— ChiefFrancis Kariuki (@Chiefkariuki) June 23, 2015
Kuna watu wanaiba post kule Beef. Ukipatikana utashikwa
— ChiefFrancis Kariuki (@Chiefkariuki) September 27, 2018
These are just examples of how efficiently Chief Kariuki has been able to utilize Twitter to reach his community. The chief says that he now has no means to circulate emergency messages to his residents as rapidly as he did when the service was active. “I still receive distress calls but I only inform the police. Before the disconnection, I used to inform the police and circulate the message to the locals who responded swiftly. Since then, crime has gone up because there is no effective way of calling for fast response,” he said.
It has not been established why 8988 was dropped but we can make some informed guesses: the user base was shrinking, hence resources allocated to run the service did not meet Safaricom’s sustainability criteria or the telco wanted people to make a move an internet-powered alternative. We also have our doubts it will be making a comeback.