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More than social media: The WhatsApp outage affected small businesses worldwide

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When WhatsApp and other apps owned by Facebook went down earlier this week, tens of millions of people worldwide struggled to communicate and many to run their businesses. Lydia Mutune Osewe owns a plant shop in Nairobi, Kenya, and it's entirely on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. And she says clients couldn't reach them.

LYDIA MUTUNE OSEWE: They couldn't place their orders. We couldn't even do our deliveries because most of our deliveries, we rely on the information they sent to WhatsApp. For example, they have to drop their pin to their location on WhatsApp numbers, but we were not getting all this information.

CORNISH: In Tanzania, the spokesperson for the government took to another social media app, Twitter, to urge people to be patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF 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 come to an end, which it did about six hours later. We spoke about what happened with Ayman El Tarabishy. He's a professor at George Washington School of Business and heads the International Council for Small Businesses.

Welcome to the program.

AYMAN EL TARABISHY: Thank you. Thank you. Nice to be here.

CORNISH: I'm not sure people totally appreciate just the parts of the world where WhatsApp in particular or Instagram are a part of the way people actually do business on a local level. When the outage happened, what did you hear from some of your contacts around the world? Do you have an example?

EL TARABISHY: Yes. Well, what I didn't hear - let's start with that - because when it went down, nobody knew it was down. And we just didn't know if it was the internet connection or the Wi-Fi. And that was one of the big problems. Nobody knew it was down.

CORNISH: Can you give me two small stories that you've heard from business owners or people who really rely on these programs of what happened to them because of the outage?

EL TARABISHY: Yes. So I'll give you an example here. One comes from Panama. In Panama, and they have rolled out this campaign where health providers can - using WhatsApp - can come to your house to do COVID testing. So imagine when it went down for the four or five hours or six hours it was down, everybody that was using WhatsApp to make their reservations, to confirm the reservation for people to come - right? - the whole system went down.

The other example, when it came to deliveries of orders and stuff like that, where people are saying, I'm coming. I'm going to this delivery first, then this delivery and this delivery. When everything went down and you're talking to a different team members across - right? - everybody was confused as where everything was, basically.

CORNISH: Did you hear from anyone who said, I lost a lot of money yesterday because X, or a lot of business?

EL TARABISHY: Yeah. What I heard is, well, I didn't make any money today because everything was down. I didn't have my store.

CORNISH: Just for a little bit of context, just how popular is WhatsApp, for example, as a tool for conducting business? And which parts of the world do you see it having kind of a central role?

EL TARABISHY: Absolutely. So my area of focus is on small business and microbusinesses. It is extremely important and very popular with small businesses, microbusinesses and actually users of it in communication across the world. Statistics show it's very popular in India, Brazil, the United States and Russia, Mexico, Germany, Italy, you know, Latin American countries. It's extremely popular across the world for a platform to communicate - that's WhatsApp. In terms of Instagram and Facebook, that's more of ecommerce and business for small businesses and microbusinesses.

CORNISH: What is it about microbusinesses, meaning various kind of small vendors - what is it about the way they do business that lends itself to this kind of use of social media? Because now everyone's sort of used to the idea of this. The pandemic put a lot of people into ecommerce. But for the parts of the world you're talking about, what role did it play?

EL TARABISHY: It is extremely important. They are a utility that people use, like electricity, like, you know, rent and everything to do business. So these small businesses use these platforms as a utility, right? So therefore, if you take away a utility that's indispensable for their business, they don't do any more business. It stops right in there.

CORNISH: That's Ayman El Tarabishy, a professor at George Washington School of Business. And we should note that Facebook is one of NPR's financial supporters.

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